February 3, 2011
Kyle Blanks had a horrible 2010 season. There isn't any other way of describing the result of his year with the Padres, as he hit .157/.283/.324 and struck out in 38 percent of his plate appearances. There are, however, reasons for why that was the result he ended up with, and those may turn out to be far more important than the campaign itself.
We'll get into that explanation in a short bit, but in the meantime, let's look into the background of Blanks, and why he was able to set us up for disappointment in the first place. He began his professional career as an 18-year-old in the Arizona Rookie League, and moved up a level through the organization each year, tearing up the minors along the way. In 2008, despite playing his home games in San Antonio—which is something like a crash course for positional prospects before they can enter the soul-crushing environs of hitter-hating Petco Park—Blanks hit .325/.404/.514 as a 21-year-old at Double-A. The 6-foot-6, 285-pound outfielder followed that up with a season he split between Triple-A Portland the majors, where he hit .283/.393/.485 and .250/.355/.514 respectively.
It would be a miracle if Blanks ever hit .325 in the majors between his home park and his propensity to whiff, but that half-season line from his time with the Friars in 2009 is more than enough offense out of a left fielder or a first baseman before you even account for his dreadful park. Expecting that production wouldn't be out of line either: Blanks was a three-star prospect heading into the 2009 season, ranked fourth in the system by Kevin Goldstein, and was considered the Padres' second-best talent under age 25 heading into 2010, only behind Mat Latos, who, you may have heard, is pretty good at the baseball. Also, for all of the bandwidth and ink used to describe how much of a pitcher's paradise it is, Petco isn't the worst park in the majors for right-handed hitters, so Blanks isn't at as much of a disadvantage as, say, teammates Will Venable (a lefty) or Chase Headley (a switch-hitter).
Blanks struck out 32 percent of the time in 2009, but as you can see above, it didn't hurt his performance other than lowering his batting average, thanks to his combination of power and patience. His strikeouts were much more of a problem in 2010, and also much uglier—he was routinely behind on pitches, whiffing on a higher percentage of pitches, and also put a lower rate of balls into play. He also saw a bump in his groundout rate from 5.2 percent to 12.5 percent, and didn't have the same thump behind his flyballs either, with a higher rate of flyball outs and fewer homers per flyball.
We're dealing with two small samples here, but his 2009 performance is in line with his previous professional experience. His 2010 figures are more of a problem, as they are worse than even his 10th percentile PECOTA forecast from last year, and worthy of outlier status. To support the idea that this was a onetime occurrence and not related to his ability, we have to look no further than Blanks' Tommy John surgery in 2010.
As stated, Blanks had trouble keeping up with pitches, and took some ugly swings. He looked nothing like the hitter who had hit well in the minors and made a splash in his major league debut just a few months prior. His elbow may have been the cause; take a look at these images from the Bloomberg Pro Tool, and you will see why:
On inside pitches in 2009, Blanks was a beast who slugged .623 with six homers. His contact skills weren't great, but when bat met ball, it was time for the pitcher to hang his head on the mound.
Blanks had more trouble with inside pitches in 2010, but not much more—he was still hitting for power, as his .310 Isolated Power on pitches in this zone suggests, and the sample is small enough that a few more hits would have bumped his average up considerably.
When pitchers threw the ball down the middle to Blanks in his rookie season, they paid for it. Blanks has too much power and, despite his high strikeout rates, has a solid swing for making contact—strikeouts are due mostly to his inability to lay off pitches, not holes in his swing.
That last point is what makes his .189/.189/.378 line on pitches down the middle in 2010 confusing—even when a pitcher grooved a ball down the middle, Blanks couldn't do much with it.
The outer third of the plate is where Blanks' weakness lies, even when healthy—throw the ball outside, and he won't show nearly as much power, or an ability to make consistent contact.
The poor image before this was in 2009, with a working elbow, and 2010 is the sad state above.
Have you ever swung a baseball bat? A whole lot goes into a swing, as there is movement in various parts of the body that make the whole thing come together and give a hitter a chance to make contact. Not only are wrists, shoulders, and the lower half of the body involved, but elbows need to extend. A swing down the middle is what we would think of as a perfect swing, the kind you would use on a practice tee. Think about how much further elbows have to extend when a player is swinging at a pitch on the outer third of the plate, or out of the zone—if the elbow of said player was on its way to requiring Tommy John surgery, the act of extending said elbow would become difficult, and possibly even painful.
Blanks may have looked slow on pitches last year because he was slow, courtesy of a busted (or busting) elbow. He wasn't missing aggressively on pitches out of the zone like Vladimir Guerrero has been known to do, and he wasn't swinging hard and fast through the middle of the strike zone like we have all seen Manny Ramirez do when his timing is just a bit off. The swings were slow, and they were terrible, and more than likely due to his elbow. That makes his injury responsible, at least in part, for his poor showing at the plate.
Don't think this means Blanks gets a free pass for his 2010 stats, as he is always going to strike out enough to damage his batting average. Another glance at the image of his production on pitches on the outer third of the plate from 2009 will remind you of that. The key thing to remember is that Blanks didn't have his development stalled—think of it more as interrupted. Had he remained healthy, he may not have been as great as he was the year prior, but PECOTA and scouts all thought he was capable of causing some damage at the plate. He won't be able to prove that is still true for a few months, and, given the inconsistencies in how hitters return from TJ, may not be his old self right away either. When he does return, keep an eye on his swing—with any luck, the one that should strike fear into pitchers anytime they leave something in his wheelhouse will have returned.