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Charlie Blackmon has found a Coors Field cheat code

In just half a season of work, Charlie Blackmon has broken a record, and not an unimpressive one either.

Chicago Cubs v Colorado Rockies - Game One Photo by Matthew Stockman/Getty Images

As I’m sure you’re sick of hearing by now, the new paradigm of baseball dictates that batters need to put the ball in the air. There are exceptions to every rule of course; you don’t want a player like Dee Gordon swinging for the fences, but even for him line drives are preferable to just putting the ball in play on the ground. For the most part, the overall elevate-the-ball approach to the hitting is well founded. This season the MLB average wOBA is .395 on fly balls, .671 on line drives, and just .219 on ground balls.

Even if you can turn a ground ball into a hit, the overwhelming odds are that it will be a single. Of all the ground-ball hits in 2017, 92.4 percent have been singles, 7.2 percent have been doubles, and just 0.4 percent — 27 total — have been triples. That’s 27 total triples out of 6,671 total ground-ball hits. The odds of an taking an extra base on a ground ball are very low, which is why we are knee deep in the fly-ball revolution.

This is not a dissertation on the merits of this new approach; those are pretty well settled. Today we’re going to take a look at a random anomaly. Those 27 ground ball triples? Only one player has more than one — Charlie Blackmon. But it’s not as if he has two or three, closely edging out everyone else. Charlie Blackmon has... you know what, this deserves a new paragraph, its own paragraph.

Charlie Blackmon has FIVE ground ball triples this season.

That is insane. Remember, no one else has more than one. To take it a step further, in the last 16 years (since the FanGraphs splits tool only goes back to 2002) not one other player has collected more than four ground-ball triples in a single season. We’re only halfway through THIS season! Here’s that leaderboard:

Ground Ball Triples Leaderboard (2002-present)

Season Name Team G PA Triples wOBA (on GBs)
Season Name Team G PA Triples wOBA (on GBs)
2017 Charlie Blackmon Rockies 62 112 5 .350
2006 Kenny Lofton Dodgers 107 188 4 .253
2006 Carl Crawford Devil Rays 131 265 4 .301
2007 Curtis Granderson Tigers 101 161 4 .255
2002 Carl Crawford Devil Rays 51 115 3 .277
2002 Keith Lockhart Braves 70 100 3 .190
2003 Rafael Furcal Braves 141 284 3 .250
2004 Corey Patterson Cubs 109 175 3 .264
2004 Juan Pierre Marlins 149 331 3 .279
2004 Jimmy Rollins Phillies 127 246 3 .267
2005 Juan Pierre Marlins 148 303 3 .203
2005 Ichiro Suzuki Mariners 148 328 3 .256
2005 Jose Reyes Mets 138 282 3 .255
2006 Dave Roberts Padres 116 232 3 .226
2006 James Loney Dodgers 30 45 3 .230
2007 Juan Pierre Dodgers 142 312 3 .212
2007 Jimmy Rollins Phillies 126 227 3 .238
2007 Coco Crisp Red Sox 116 199 3 .248
2007 Kelly Johnson Braves 101 173 3 .257
2008 Jose Reyes Mets 134 261 3 .273
2009 Everth Cabrera Padres 85 170 3 .245
2010 Rafael Furcal Dodgers 78 148 3 .237
2011 Erick Aybar Angels 117 218 3 .222
2012 Nori Aoki Brewers 120 252 3 .273
2013 Carlos Gomez Brewers 97 154 3 .294
2016 Cesar Hernandez Phillies 131 225 3 .243
Data via FanGraphs

Lot’s of predictable names on that list. Kenny Lofton, Carl Crawford, Juan Pierre — these guys are known for their speed. While Charlie Blackmon is fast, he’s not typically thought of in that class of runner. Thanks to Statcast’s new sprint speed leaderboard, we know that Blackmon’s 28.0 feet per second sprint speed is just slightly below the 2017 center field average of 28.3.

Graphic via Baseball Savant

This triples stat seems pretty random, right? Blackmon’s fast, but is he even in the top 20 major leaguers who you’d peg to have the most single-season ground ball triples of the last 16 years? Doubtful. Before we go to the gifs, let’s dive in to the particulars of each hit to see exactly what we’re working with.

Charlie Blackmon’s 2017 Ground Ball Triples

Date Pitcher Park Pitch Type Pitch Speed (mph) Exit Velocity (mph) Launch Angle xBA xwOBA
Date Pitcher Park Pitch Type Pitch Speed (mph) Exit Velocity (mph) Launch Angle xBA xwOBA
2017-04-08 Clayton Kershaw Coors Field FF 93.9 94.3 -12.1° .195 .183
2017-04-22 Matt Moore Coors Field FF 90.6 98.4 0.2° .447 .417
2017-05-06 Patrick Corbin Coors Field SL 80.5 94.3 -12.1° .195 .183
2017-05-12 Clayton Kershaw Coors Field CU 75.5 100.0 4.1° .563 .527
2017-05-30 Casey Lawrence Coors Field FF 90.5 97.6 -6.7° .296 .276
Data via Baseball Savant

Four things immediately stand out:

  1. All five triples were hit at Coors Field, which makes sense. It’s easy to think of Coors as strictly an altitude-aided launching pad, but the reason it’s so hitter friendly is that altitude in combination with a large outfield that enables extra-base hits. The Coors Field outfield has the second largest square footage (behind Kauffman Stadium) of any park in baseball.
  2. Every ball was hit at least 94 miles per hour. It stands to reason that in order to leg out a ground ball triple it probably needs at least get close to the wall, which requires that the ball be hit hard.
  3. Two of the triples have an identical exit velocity and launch angle. Completely random, but still interesting, especially since they were against different pitch types.
  4. Two of the triples came against Clayton Kershaw! I know he hasn’t been himself all year, but come on, he’s still Clayton freaking Kershaw.

The information in the above table tells us a lot, but excludes the most important characteristic of these ground ball triples: which part of the field they were hit to. Luckily, Baseball Savant has some play diagrams that we can look at to compare each play.

Diagrams via Baseball Savant.

Oh, I see. Charlie Blackmon is some kind of wizard.

The initial plan for this article was to talk about how it was a crazy anomaly, and then rank each triple by how inexplicable it was, as some triples are surely more flukey than others. Then I looked at each of them and — as you can see above — Blackmon hit the ball in almost the exact same place each time. Ranking them seems silly now, but we can still take a closer look at each to see what’s allowed Blackmon to claim the ground-ball triple throne.

Triple #1 vs. Clayton Kershaw (4/8)

Gif via MLB.com

Kershaw threw a 94 mph four-seam fastball in the middle, upper-third of the zone, and Blackmon returned serve at 94 miles per hour himself. The ball snuck by a courtesy wave from Adrián González and bounced into the side wall in right field, deadening its momentum and forcing Yasiel Puig to run all the way to the foul pole. By the time Puig got over there, enough time had passed that his cannon arm could have no real impact on the play.

Triple #2 vs. Matt Moore (4/22)

Gif via MLB.com

Another four-seam fastball, this one down in the zone but over the middle of the plate. Brandon Belt’s effort was admirable but the grounder got by nonetheless, resting in the right field corner again. When the camera cuts to an empty corner, Giants right fielder Gorkys Hernández was there, but blocked by the stands. We can’t see how smoothly Hernández fields the ball, but as he’s picking it up, Blackmon nearly trips rounding second base. It doesn’t matter, too much time has passed and it’s another easy triple without so much as a throw to third.

Triple #3 vs. Patrick Corbin (5/6)

Gif via MLB.com

Corbin hung a middle-middle slider here, and Blackmon missed it. I mean, he didn’t literally miss it, but this is a pitch that could have been deposited deep into the outfield seats. If you had told Corbin before the pitch was thrown that it would be over the heart of the plate but Blackmon would drive it into the ground at a negative 12 degree launch angle, I’m almost positive he’d be fine with that. Blackmon pulled the ball just enough to keep it fair and into that same right field corner, once again without a play at third.

Triple #4 vs. Clayton Kershaw (5/12)

Before we get to the second triple against Kershaw I want you to see the pitch that immediately proceeded it, a 94 mile per hour fastball that Blackmon was all over.

Gif via MLB.tv

On the very next pitch that ended in another ground-ball triple, Kershaw went to his curveball. There was a nearly 20 mile per hour difference in pitch speed and it wasn’t even a strike, Blackmon had to go down and get it below the zone.

Gif via MLB.tv

It was an impressive hitting display by Blackmon that was almost thwarted by a diving Chase Utley at first base. Yasiel Puig seemed to have a better beat on the ball this time than he did with the first triple. That, combined with his rocket arm is why we finally see something even remotely resembling a close to a play at third. It’s entirely plausible that without Utley slowing the ball down a bit, it reaches Puig much sooner and forces Blackmon to stop at second. But alas, it does not, and the right field corner strikes again.

Triple #5 vs. Casey Lawrence (5/30)

Gif via MLB.com

While this ball was hit to the same basic spot as the previous four, Ben Gamel was forced to alter his route, suggesting that it changed trajectory after hitting some portion of the side wall. Who knows what could’ve happened if Nelson Cruz had still been in the game (he left in the second inning with calf tightness). This article might already be over, having celebrated Blackmon’s league leading four ground-ball triples. Ben Gamel in right field could very well have saved this from becoming an inside-the-park home run, as according to Statcast, his sprint speed is a full 3 miles per hour faster than Cruz.

***

Blackmon’s five ground-ball triples are remarkably similar. All came in Coors Field, all were hit right down the first base line, and all required the right fielder to travel a great distance. While infield shifts usually play to a hitter’s pull side — which is where most ground balls are hit — outfields tend to shift based on a hitter’s fly ball tendencies. Blackmon’s fly balls are generally lifted the opposite way, so the right field starting positions we observed on these triples seemed to be shaded a little bit towards center.

Heat map via Baseball Savant

We’re talking about five batted balls here, so there’s nothing predictive to take away from this crazy outlier of a stat. Blackmon just so happens to have hit a ton of ground-ball triples this season, more than anyone else this year or even the past 16 seasons. Should opposing first basemen start hugging the line now? Of course not. It’s safe to assume that teams are already positioned optimally for the majority of Blackmon’s grounders.

Any number of fleet of foot players could rack up triples by continually hitting the ball down the first base line in Coors Field, but Charlie Blackmon has actually done it. It’s entirely plausible that he doesn’t hit another ground-ball triple all season, but that doesn’t matter. The record is already his.


H/T to BtBS co-managing editor Ryan Romano (@triple_r_) for his research assistance with this article.

All stats current through June 30, 2017.

Chris Anders is a featured writer at Beyond the Box Score. You can find him on Twitter @MrChrisAnders.