Colorado Rockies outfielder Charlie Blackmon is off to an outstanding start in 2014, hitting .369/.412/.602 with five homers and seven steals in his first 29 games. Blackmon's 1.9 fWAR ranks him third in all of baseball, behind just Mike Trout (2.5) of the Angels and teammate Troy Tulowitzki (2.3).
A reader asked for a review of Blackmon's career to this point, so here goes.
Charlie Blackmon was drafted by the Rockies in the second round in 2008 out of Georgia Tech, following a .396/.469/.564 college season. He was already a senior but was inexperienced for his age, having pitched in junior college and missing his junior year with injury. He was excellent in the Northwest League, hitting .338/.396/.466 for Tri-City and earning good reviews for his defense and speed. I rated him as a Grade C+ prospect entering 2009, writing that we needed to see him at higher levels but "he looks intriguing right now."
Blackmon continued playing well with Modesto in the High-A California League in '09, hitting .307/.370/.433. He hit just seven homers but knocked 34 doubles and stole 30 bases. There were some complaints about his strike zone judgment and a swing that didn't translate his strength into home run power, plus he was already 23 years old, but his athleticism stood out. I still had him as a Grade C+ entering '10, writing that Blackmon "needs to make progress with his plate discipline if he wnats to get beyond being rated a future fourth outfielder, but I think he has a chance to do just that."
The good news in 2010 was improved power: he slugged .484 for Double-A Tulsa, but a serious hamstring injury limited him to just 86 games. He hit 11 homers and stole 19 bases, and he did make progress with his approach. I wrote "I think he can be a very good fourth outfielder and there's some chance he could get beyond that," still ranking him a Grade C+ going into 2011.
More injuries struck in '11, this time a broken foot. He hit .333/.393/.572 in 58 games for Triple-A Colorado Springs and .255/.277/.296 in 28 games for the big league team. He had a hard time transitioning his pop into the big leagues, but it was just 98 at-bats. I still had him as a Grade C+ entering '12, profiling him as "a perfect fourth outfielder and platoon partner."
Blackmon hit .285/.325/.407 in 113 at-bats for the Rockies in '12, then .309/.336/.467 in 258 plate appearances in '13. And as noted he's ripping it this year.
So, what to make of the hot start? As the old reports show, Blackmon has always had good tools and a mixture of speed and power potential, but badly-timed injuries were an issue and he had problems with plate discipline. This year he has a 7/8 BB/K ratio in 116 at-bats, quite remarkable given that he drew just seven walks in more than twice that many plate appearances last year.
Is the improved patience a cause of his hot start, or is it an side-effect because he's hot and pitchers are pitching him more cautiously? We should note that his strikeout rate is way down: he whiffed 19% of the time last year but only 6.9% this year. He's not just drawing more walks: he's making contact a lot more often, and it's not like he was a huge strikeout guy to begin with. Based on the limited sample sizes, I suspect that there's some real improvement going on here, not solely good luck. Blackmon is also 27 years old, a common spot on the age curve for a peak season.
Now here's the big caveat: Blackmon is doing most of his damage in his home park, with a 1.531 OPS at home and .697 on the road.
What we have here is a guy with solid tools, who is at his chronological physical peak, is healthy (for a change), who has likely made some genuine improvements in his approach, and who is in a very friendly home park. Coors Field is exaggerating matters. That said, while we should not expect Blackmon to play like Mike Trout all year, I think he's a fine player and should continue to play well (even if not this well) as long as he avoids further injury.