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September 13, 2006
All through his brief minor league career Hank Blalock looked like he was going to turn into an incredible third baseman, and the start to his major league career at age 22 did nothing to disabuse analysts and fans from that notion. The holes in his game arose after that point, and as of today, nothing seems to have patched them up.
Blalock was drafted by the Texas Rangers in the third round of the 1999 amateur draft out of Rancho Bernardo High School (San Diego). Baseball America had ranked Blalock second-team high school All-America after hitting .515 with 12 homers in the short high school season. He continued his torrid pace for the Gulf Coast Rangers, slugging .361/.435/.560 in his first taste of professional baseball. He walked in 11.6 percent of all plate appearances, struck out in only 10.6 percent, and showed pop with a .199 Isolated Power (ISO), although his .400 batting average on balls in play most likely inflated the numbers somewhat.
Blalock started the 2000 season in full-season A-ball in the Sally League, and performed very well for a 19-year-old. Although his numbers dropped somewhat from his pro debut, they were still strong, especially considering his age relative to his league. He put together a .299/.373/.428 line, with his walk rate only declining by about a percentage point. The curious thing to note is that Blalock's home run power seemed to be missing. Granted, he was a young player still developing, but it's worth taking note that Blalock was only hitting a home run every 52 at-bats in 2000.
The following season might have been Blalock's most productive season as a professional. Splitting time between High-A Charlotte and Double-A Tulsa, Blalock destroyed pretty much every baseball he came into contact with:
Team AB AVG /OBP /SLG SecA ISO 2B+3B BB% K% Charlotte (A+) 237 .380/.443/.557 .300 30% 20 9.7% 11.6% Tulsa (AA) 272 .327/.413/.544 .360 37% 22 12.4% 12.1%
After a half-season in High-A, Blalock was promoted to Double-A, and subsequently increased his production even further, boosting his Secondary Average (SecA), ISO, BB%, extra-base hits, and home run power. He initially improved to a home run every 33 at-bats in Charlotte, but topped that by clubbing one every 25 at-bats at Tulsa. Blalock was understandably named the best prospect in the Texas League by Baseball America, and the Rangers rewarded him by making him their Opening Day third baseman for the 2002 season. It was something of an interesting decision, considering that Blalock only had about 300 plate appearances of Double-A under his belt at the age of 20, and it was really his first major success since a somewhat inflated debut year. A caveat to take into consideration was the hitting environment that Blalock played in--Tulsa and Charlotte are good offensive parks, especially for home run production.
Baseball Prospectus 2002 was enamored with Blalock, and even expected him to take the starting job at third in spring training:
Blalock is the best hitting prospect in the game, and there's not anybody particularly close. Despite being one of the youngest players in his leagues, he has mashed at every level and made seamless transitions upon promotion... this March he'll be a non-roster invitee to spring training, and it wouldn't be a shock to see him leave Florida with the Rangers' hot-corner job.
One of the mistakes made most often in analysis is going too far in either direction based off of a small sample size, and Blalock's 2001 season and the subsequent reaction of analysts serves as a reminder of that. He struggled mightily in his major league debut, sorely lacking the "seamless transitions" that he previously seemed to have, cobbling together a paltry .200/.292/.310 in his first 32 games as a major leaguer. Blalock still managed to walk in almost 11 percent of all plate appearances, but his K% jumped all the way to 28.9 percent, roughly a 17 percent increase from his career high at that stage of his career. This is another small sample, but he was clearly overmatched by major league pitching, and the Rangers sent him to Triple-A.
Blalock snapped back in Oklahoma, hitting .307/.363/.457 and cutting his strikeouts down to roughly 14 percent of all PAs. His power went missing again, though, with a homer every 48 at-bats or so, back down to his Sally League rates, and a far cry from his 2001 campaign. Baseball Prospectus 2003 looked back at the mistakes of analysts prior to the season, and produced a much improved forecast:
In one short year, Hank Blalock went from The Next George Brett to The Next Richie Hebner. He's still a very fine prospect, but his flopping at the major league level in April and his subsequent disappointing, injury-plagued showing in Oklahoma serve as a good reminder of how big the error bars are on predictions based mostly on a single season.
PECOTA projected Blalock for a .272/.340/.445 line with Texas for the 2003 season, a very reasonable prediction based off of his minor league career. Blalock was still very young for his level-failing to hit in the majors or even Triple-A as a 21-year-old isn't necessarily the end of your career-and had put up some fantastic numbers in the past, although he had received an assist from his home parks.
Blalock blew his projection out of the water in his first full major league season, at least on the surface level. His overall line was .299/.349/.523, with a home run every 19 at-bats. His walk rate dropped down to 7.2 percent, while his strikeouts bounced a bit higher, up to 15.8 percent, but he seemed to have finally found the power stroke he hadn't consistently demonstrated in the minor leagues. However, that season average was built on two massively different performances: Blalock hit .258/.300/.436 with a homer every 26 at-bats on the road, in contrast to a jaw-dropping .342/.399/.615 with a homer every 15 at-bats in Arlington. Blalock could thank Texas' 1053 park factor for those extreme differences. Even Arlington couldn't save his overall line against left-handers though, as he hit only .209/.245/.295 against them for the season.
Baseball Prospectus 2004 responded with a word of caution on Blalock, equating him with stars and scrubs at the same time:
At the tender age of 22, Blalock's 872 OPS was 18th in the AL, and 15% better than the AL average of 757. The list of third basemen who exceeded league OPS by 10% or more at as young an age is short and, for Blalock, pretty sweet. It features immortals such as Eddie Mathews, George Brett, Ron Santo, and Dick Allen. But it also has more than its share of early flameouts--Bob Horner, Richie Hebner, and Jim Ray Hart, to name a few.
PECOTA forecasted a .291/.352/.499 overall line for the 2004 season, taking into account his minor league numbers and his young age. Blalock improved upon one of his deficiencies by hiking his walk rate back up over ten percent while maintaining his home run production by finishing at about 19 at-bats per homer. He greatly improved his performance against left-handers, all the way up to .282/.344/.436, but his performance against right-handers was puzzling. Blalock only managed a .273/.360/.529 line against righties in his sophomore effort, not shabby, but it came after semi-ridiculous rates in his rookie year: .328/.381/.597. To turn this into a little bit more of a downer, Blalock only managed to hit .239/.323/.460 on the road, which was only a small improvement over the previous year.
That would be the closest his road performance came to equaling his home performance in the past three seasons. Baseball Prospectus 2005 summed it up well:
The reality is that Blalock's 2004 wasn't really all that great, and there are lots of warning signs here. The first thing that leaps out at you are his home/road splits… After the All-Star break, Blalock hit only .240 with nine home runs… but really, Blalock did a bunch of damage in interleague play in June, and was pretty much controllable outside of that stretch of games and April.
PECOTA once again forecasted slight improvement on the previous year's projection, most likely taking progress with experience into account. His .290/.363/.508 projection was well off from his actual performance, although even the most pessimistic person around probably wasn't betting on an overall line of .263/.318/.431 for anyone with Blalock's credentials with 81 games in Arlington on his schedule. His walk rate once again dropped to 7 percent, and his strikeout rate remained in the 20 percent range. This year has not been that much different for Blalock either-he's only managed a .244/.295/.361 line on the road against his hitting .292/.353/.484 in Arlington from 2005-2006, neither of which is striking.
What happened to Blalock? In a nutshell, his batted-ball numbers cratered.
Year P/PA FB% LINEDR% GB% POPUP% HR/F% BABIP 2004 3.9 47.5% 18.5% 34.0% NA 12.5% .316 2005 3.7 29.3% 24.1% 38.3% 8.3% 16.4% .296 2006 3.6 29.8% 20.8% 41.9% 7.5% 11.1% .298
Whereas he was still a severe flyball hitter in 2004, in a park that rewards that sort of thing, he's now become a severe groundball hitter. His home runs per flyball are down, and he isn't hitting as many flyballs to begin with. His BABIP has also fallen considerably; it was .320 in 2003, so there has been a 20-point decrease, which is significant for a guy who can't depend on home runs any longer. The reason for this is unclear; if we had reliable batted-ball data for minor leaguers dating back to Blalock's time there, it would be much easier to sort out.
One thing to take into consideration is that he was never really as good as many thought him to be. There is nothing in his minor league numbers that can boast anything exceptional--other than his relative youth--as they are all brought back down to earth by park factors. In fact, except for the 2004 season, his power production seems to be greatly enhanced by his home park at basically every stop. It's entirely possible that Blalock has been severely overrated from the start, and that his fall isn't as far as we initially imagined. Considering that a great deal of the change seems to be in the batted-ball type, it's possible that with the proper adjustments Blalock could tweak his swing and bring his numbers back to respectability. The less remote path is that of a superstar third baseman, as it may not have been in the cards to begin with. But hey, at least he'll always have that game-winning All-Star game home run.