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Prospect Retro: Hank Blalock

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Prospect Retro: Hank Blalock

Hank Blalock has been one of the more enigmatic players of the last decade. After excellent freshman (.300/.350/.522 at age 22) and sophomore (.276/.355/.500) seasons in '03 and '04, he entered a stagnant phase, got injured and missed most of 2007 and 2008 with thoracic outlet syndrome and a hamstring injury, (though he hit well both seasons when on the field), then lost command of the strike zone (and his job) in 2009. This year he found himself in Triple-A (hitting .349/.405/.505 for Durham), but couldn't get the bat going in Tampa and was released earlier this month. Seven years ago, this is not exactly where anyone thought this guy would be at age 29.

Hank Blalock was drafted in the third round by the Texas Rangers in 1999, out of high school in San Diego. Pre-draft scouting opinion focused on a strong bat, but there were questions about his glove at third base, and he had a Cal State Fulleton scholarship. He ended up signing with the Rangers, then went to rookie ball and hit .361/.428/.560 in 51 games, with a 23/23 BB/K in 191 at-bats, winning the Gulf Coast League batting title. I was impressed enough to put him in my 2000 book, unusual since I didn't write about many rookie ball guys in the old STATS books due to space limitations. Not only that, I gave him a Grade B+, writing that he might develop into a George Brett-class hitter. "Yes, I know what I'm saying," I wrote, "but I have a great feeling about this one."  A month after the book came out in the spring of 2000, I talked with a major league GM who told me that Blalock's makeup was exceptional, and that he was the steal of the draft, although the GM thought the Brett comp was overdone.

Blalock went to Savannah in the Sally League in 2000, hitting .299/.373/.428. He hit just 10 homers, but knocked 32 doubles, and showed exceptional plate discipline, with a 62/53 BB/K ratio. He also stole 31 bases in 39 attempts, and led the league in fielding percentage at third base. I gave him another Grade B+, and wrote that while he might not turn into George Brett, "I would be very surprised if Blalock doesn't turn into an excellent player."

Blalock began 2001 with Charlotte in the Florida State League, hitting .380/.437/.557 for an OPS+ of 43 percent. Promoted to Double-A Tulsa at mid-season, he remained hot with a .327/.413/.544 mark. He combined for 37 doubles, 18 homers, 65 walks, and 69 strikeouts in 509 at-bats. He continued to draw good reviews for his defense and work ethic. I gave him a Grade A in the 2002 book, writing "if he isn't a Grade A prospect, I don't know who is." I rated him as the best prospect in baseball, without hesitation.

He began 2002 in the majors but struggled, then was sent down to Triple-A Oklahoma, hitting .307/.363/.457 in 95 games. His final major league season numbers were .211/.306/.327 mark in 49 games, moving past rookie eligibility with 147 at-bats. But he was just 21, and no one was really worried about his struggles. His first full season in '03 resulted in the .300/.350/.522 mark, and given a normal growth curve, stardom looked assured.

Of course, it didn't turn out that way.

What happened here? There is steroid speculation, of course, given the sharp dropoff in his performance in '05 and '06, although he hit just fine in '07 and '08. From what I saw when he was with Texas, he seemed to be swinging from the heels much more than when he was in the minors. When I saw him in Double-A and Triple-A, he hit the ball to all fields and didn't strike out excessively, posting excellent BB/K/AB ratios in his minor league career. But in the majors his BB/K deteriorated. Rangers fans who got to see him play every day during the decade might have better insights, but the impression I got was of a player who had changed his approach and was selling out to hit for more power. He certainly looked that way in 2009, hitting 25 homers in 123 games but with a horrid 26/108 BB/K, much worse than anything expected when he was a prospect.

Blalock is a free agent now, but there is still a chance he could rebuild his career. He certainly didn't turn into George Brett, but it made sense to me at the time, and I don't regret rating him as highly as I did.