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What happened to Charlie Blackmon?

After a borderline MVP season in 2017, 2018 has seen him struggling to be average.

MLB: Colorado Rockies at Atlanta Braves Adam Hagy-USA TODAY Sports

Anyone who is as stats-obsessed as myself, or the people who read this site, are likely already familiar with FanGraphs’ new Season Stat Grid. I’m sure over time there will be plenty to write about from there, but we’re likely, since it is new, to skim an article idea right off the top. When searching for year-to-year changes in WAR, one name stands out as having the worst drop from 2017 to 2018: Charlie Blackmon.

After year-to-year changes of nearly two wins each year from 2015 to 2017, he has dropped a total 5.6 wins this year, down from 6.5 to a paltry 0.9 this season. What gives? In one regard, he’s just regressing back to the player he was pre-MVP levels:

  • 2011-2015: .298/.348/.467 (106 wRC+), .169 ISO, 5.5% BB%, 15.7% K%
  • 2018: .276/.344/.476 (105 wRC+), .201 ISO, 8.5% BB%, 19.9% K%

In other regards he’s still the same as his peak years—high walk, high strikeout, high power—but the end offensive result has been the same, about a touch better than league average.

Some of it just comes down to how hard he’s hitting the ball, which is a bit worse than last season:

But when you look at expected batted ball numbers, it’s possible that he was already regressing in 2017:

  • 2016: wOBA - xwOBA (0.394 - 0.357): 0.037
  • 2017: wOBA - xwOBA (0.415 - 0.376): 0.039
  • 2018: wOBA - xwOBA (0.353 - 0.354): -0.001

By expected wOBA it starts looking more like this isn’t some crashing decline but a return to “normal” batted ball, and it’s very possible he’s actually more a true-talent 2016 player than back to pre-2016, especially when you consider the already-boosted power and walk numbers.

Which leads me to how one would interpret his future moving forward. In one way, it’s a disappointment; with the Rockies just a game and a half out of first place, a much better Blackmon probably puts them in first place. On the other hand, this probably doesn’t mean he’s in for a huge collapse. His plate discipline numbers, as well, look remarkably similar over time:

Yet there’s some discrepancy in projection systems:

  • ZiPS: .298/.362/.520, 120 wRC+, .222 ISO
  • Steamer: .286/.353/.487, 109 wRC+, .201 ISO

Considering the launch angle is about the same, and the hard-hit rate is down but deceptively so, I probably lean more towards ZiPS, or at least I would split the difference here.

The other missing piece as to why his decline was so rapid is defensive WAR-related, and that’s a bit harder to parse. He went from +1.4 FanGraphs Defensive Runs to -10.2, and we know the samples are too small to make an inference conclusively. FRAA saw about an 18-run drop, for what that’s worth, and DRS saw him drop from -5 to -27 (!). It’s better to think of defensive runs as “positioning runs,” I suppose, so it’s likely some combination of poor positioning and a genuine decline in ability.

We can’t really predict defense at this time, but offensively speaking, it’s very likely we see Blackmon rebound in the coming month and year to a more “normal” 2016-ish level of offensive performance, but the defense may still be a liability in the long-term. While MVP as a label was probably something like a flash in the pan, his ability to be a productive major league player is not. There’s work to be done, but there’s still an important role for him to play in an important season for the Rox.