It is still early in the season, as just over a month's worth of games have been played. Yet, even at this point it is interesting to have a look at the WAR leaderboards to see the most productive players. We expect to see the regular cast of characters at the top: Trout, Cabrera, McCutchen, Tulowitzki, Gomez; the elite players in the game. Well, here is a partial repasting of the fWAR leaderboard (through Monday's games):
For the most part we see the expected names. But there are also players, like Charlie Blackmon who we would not expect to be atop this leaderboard. For most, the emergence of Charlie Blackmon has been a real surprise. In 2013, Blackmon played in 82 games with the Rockies ending up the year with 0.8 fWAR. His .309/.336/.467 and 109 wRC+ indicated that he was a productive, slightly above average player. But not really someone we would expect to be hanging around the top of the WAR leaderboards a month into the season. Well after 32 games, he is.
Blackmon has been tremendous at the plate, hitting .359/.398/.590, good for a wRC+ of 159. In 2013, he hit 6 HRs, drove in 22 runs and stole 7 bases. He has already matched all of those marks this year. His offensive production to date represents a significant leap forward. Here is a table with his ranking in a few critical statistical categories:
He is in the top 20 in the baseball in all of these important offensive statistics. This seems like a player we should know about. So this brings us to a pretty straightforward question, with a not so straightforward answer: how can we explain Blackmon's breakout performance? To attempt do so we can look into a few areas of his performance to see if anything jumps out. This can be a pretty good exercise for evaluating any player.
Batting Average on Balls in Play (BABIP)
Sometimes when a player has an unusual spike in his batting statistics it can be a result of a period of high batting average on balls in play. It is generally expected that players will have around a .300 BABIP, with some variation depending on batted ball profile. So when we see that Blackmon has .350 BABIP so far in 2014 we can surmise that he has had a few more balls land for hits than would be expected. However, it should be noted that Blackmon has shown a tendency to have a higher than typical BABIP (career: .335). Albeit this is after only 574 at-bats, which is well below the number at which BABIP tends to stabilize and be reasonably representative of a player's underlying talent. So some regression toward league average (i.e., .300) is likely.
Having a higher than typical BABIP is usually attributed to luck, but this is not always the case. Making good contact, for example hitting line drives will lead to a higher BABIP. So, is this the case for Blackmon? Not really. His line drive rate (LD%) is 21.3, which is only slightly above league average (20%) and not enough to sustain a .350 BABIP. Thus, his batted ball profile seems to suggest he has been a bit lucky.
An area that Blackmon appears to have made an improvement from last season is in his plate discipline. In 2013, he struck out seven times as many times as he walked (49 Ks, 7 BBs). On a rate basis he struck out 19% of the time and walked only 2.7% of the time. This season he has been much better. He has walked almost as many times as he has struck out (10 Ks, 7 BBs). His walk rate is up to 5.4% and he is only striking out 7.7% of the time. That drop in K% is huge, maybe too huge to be real.
The change in these plate discipline statistics does not appear to just be a result of facing weaker pitching. He has decreased the rate at which he swings at pitches outside of the strikezone (O-Swing%) from 37.8% in 2013 to 32.7% in 2014. He has also decreased his swinging strike rate (SwStr%) from 8.7% in 2013 to 4.4% in 2014. As a result he is making more contact (up to 90.8% from 83.4% last season). His improved plate discipline may be supporting the performance we have seen so far this season.
Charlie Blackmon plays for the Rockies and therefore Home-Road splits need to be considered. Coors Field is known for being hitter friendly. Blackmon has enjoyed the advantage. In 80 games at home he has posted a .404 wOBA and 129 wRC+, while in his 93 games on the road he has a .288 wOBA and 79 wRC+. This trend is especially true for this year. In 15 games at home he has a .524 wOBA and 211 wRC+, while in 17 games on the road he has a .313 wOBA and 95 wRC+. All 6 of his HR this season have come at home. His ridiculous 28.6% HR/FB rate at home (16.2% overall) will certainly regress. While Blackmon cannot be faulted for performing well in Coors Field, it needs to be considered when evaluating him. The uptick in road statistics is promising but it looks like Blackmon's home park has helped his breakout.
By defensive runs saved (DRS) and ultimate zone rating (UZR) Blackmon has been an above average defender this year, which was not true in the past. It is much too early to put too much stock into these metrics but it is something to consider going forward. Presently he is getting the majority of his innings in CF, but also spending some time at the corner outfield spots. If he is even an average center fielder he will be an above average corner-guy, so this could really help his value.
Taking all these elements together it remains difficult to know exactly what to make of Blackmon's performance so far this season. He has a higher than typical BABIP, but not much higher than his typical rate, which still has a lot of regressing to do. His plate discipline numbers are much better, and he will continue to enjoy the advantage of playing in Coors Field as long as he is a member of the Rockies. His current numbers are likely not sustainable, but an entire collapse is also unlikely. It is very difficult to identify the cause of a player's breakout, as so much data is needed to narrow in on (reasonably) accurate predictions. As Blackmon gets more and more plate appearances, and innings in the outfield we will be better able to identify his true ability.
. . .
Chris Teeter is a Featured Writer at Beyond the Box Score. You can follow him on Twitter at @c_mcgeets.