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During his first few years in the big leagues, Charlie Blackmon was a hacker. The Rockies outfielder was shuttled back and forth between Denver and Colorado Springs numerous times in 2011–13, accruing just 481 major-league plate appearances. He displayed above-average contact skills, but the healthy walk rates he posted in the minors didn't quite translate. His sub-3 percent rate ranked fourth-lowest among players who had as many plate appearances over that span.

Blackmon's aggressiveness didn't reach Pablo Sandoval levels of extremity, but opposing pitchers nevertheless responded by throwing him fewer pitches in the zone in 2014, his first full season with Colorado. Blackmon became slightly more selective in response, swinging at a higher percentage of pitches in the strike zone and nearly doubling his strikeout-to-walk rate. However, his chase rate still ranked 19th-highest among hitters who saw 1,000 pitches and a paltry 5 percent walk rate left much to be desired from the Rockies' leadoff hitter.

This spring, Blackmon vowed to see more pitches and work deeper counts, telling Thomas Harding of MLB.com in April:

I started trying to see a few more pitches in Spring Training. I'm better deep in the count. It's better for the team to go deeper in the count. As a leadoff hitter you give your guys more chance to see the other pitcher's arsenal, and maybe earn a walk here or there.

Blackmon has been true to his word in the first half, averaging 3.92 pitches per plate appearance, compared to his 3.79 average in 2014. The difference in pitches Blackmon has seen may not strike you as dramatic in the aggregate but he's clearly altered his plan at the plate. His conscious effort to see more pitches has led him to be extremely passive on the first pitch of an at bat.

Year(s)

Blackmon F-Swing%

MLB F-Swing%

2011–13

24.7%

26.8%

2014

29.7%

27.4%

2015

9.7%

28.9%

Blackmon's swing rate on the first pitch is the second-lowest in baseball, trailing only Ben Revere's 8.0 percent mark. As it turns out, Blackmon's shift from swinging at the first pitch at approximately a league-average rate to being one of the most passive hitters on the first pitch is the most extreme in baseball this season. Below are the ten most dramatic decreases in first-pitch swing rate this season by hitters compared to 2014.

Player

2015 F-swing%

2014 F-swing%

% decrease

Charlie Blackmon

9.7%

29.5%

67.1%

Josh Reddick

15.0%

33.1%

54.7%

Ichiro Suzuki

11.3%

22.3%

49.3%

Curtis Granderson

10.0%

19.0%

47.4%

Jose Abreu

20.1%

37.1%

45.8%

Alberto Callaspo

13.5%

20.6%

34.5%

Ben Zobrist

14.1%

21.4%

34.1%

Brayan Pena

17.3%

24.7%

30.0%

Yoenis Cespedes

16.7%

23.4%

28.6%

Rougned Odor

22.3%

30.9%

27.8%

But as Matt Trueblood wrote in March, being passive on the first pitch in the present offensive environment isn't as rewarding as it used to be. Batters across the league have become relatively more productive on the first pitch than they have been in the past, while pitchers are throwing more first-pitch strikes than ever.

And sure enough, the book has gotten out on Blackmon's willingness to let the first pitch go by. I split Blackmon's season up into three equal periods, his first 29 games of the first half, the middle 29 games of the first half, and his final 29 games. I then looked at the percentage of four-seam and two-seam fastballs he saw on the first pitch, as classified by Pitch Info.

Period

Fastball% on first pitch

Swing% on first pitch

4/6 – 5/13

61.4%

12.5%

5/14 – 6/11

66.4%

10.8%

6/12 – 7/12

71.3%

5.6%

Pitchers threw Blackmon fastballs on the first pitch 61.7% of the time in 2014 and attacked him similarly during the early part of the season. But as the season has progressed, teams have recognized that they can steal a first-pitch strike. Blackmon has let the first pitch go by for a called strike in 48.4 percent of his trips to the plate this season, the fourth-highest mark behind only Jason Kipnis, J.J. Hardy, and Brock Holt, according to Baseball Savant. Blackmon, to this point, hasn't responded to the increased diet of fastballs by swinging any more frequently.

While Blackmon could stand to benefit from being slightly more aggressive on the first pitch, he has been more selective after the first pitch as well. Recall from earlier that Blackmon's 39 percent chase rate in 2014 was among the highest in baseball. This year it's dropped to 29 percent, or just below the league average. His tendency to work deeper counts has resulted in an uptick in both his walk and strikeout rates, with his 7 percent walk rate approximately league average—a major step forward given his approach upon reaching the majors—and his contact rates remaining firmly above average.

Not only has Blackmon reaped the benefits of a minuscule 2 percent infield fly rate this season (down from 13 percent in 2014), he's also driven the ball with more authority. His average distance per fly ball has spiked from 275 feet in 2014 to 294 feet this season and his hard-hit rate this season is approximately seven percentage points higher than his previous career rate. The result has been a modest 20-point jump in ISO from 2014.

As we've established, Blackmon is swinging at fewer pitches across the board, including within the strike zone, where his 57 percent swing rate is the 28th-lowest this season (min. 500 pitches). But that would presumably imply that Blackmon is being more selective inside the zone and swinging at better pitches, thus explaining how he's been able to drive the ball with more authority this season. Take a look at a heatmap of Blackmon's career and it's clear that he's a low-ball hitter who drives pitches at the knees better than ones at the letters. (Heatmap courtesy of FanGraphs.)

Sure enough, Blackmon has quit expanding the zone upward this season and the most drastic reduction in his swing rate on pitches in the zone has been above the belt. The most notable change has been on pitches up and in.

On the one hand, it's easy to be skeptical about Blackmon's terrific first half, in which he boasted a .287 True Average and has already been worth about two wins by WARP. At this point last year, Blackmon was fresh off his first All-Star game appearance and had put up a similarly productive offensive first half before his second-half collapse left him with a .260 True Average at the end of the year, the definition of a league-average hitter.

PECOTA basically expects that same league-average hitter player to show up in the second half: Blackmon's preseason .256 True Average projection has gotten a slight bump up to a .261 rest-of-season projection. It's easy to understand why the projection systems would be bearish on the 29-year-old's first half: He was a late bloomer who didn't exactly crush minor-league pitching, and through his ups and downs in the bigs he has basically graded out as a league-average hitter.

However, Blackmon has shown during the first half that he's not the same hitter he's been in the past. He's made deliberate changes in his approach at the plate, which ultimately has put him in better situations to get on base and drive the ball than in the past. There may be some parts of his approach that could use some tweaking, but in the big picture, Blackmon has evolved from a free swinger into a more selective hitter with a better plan of attack at the plate.

Thanks to Daren Willman and BaseballSavant.com for help with first-pitch swing data.

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kgodd74
7/17
I love articles LIKE THIS ONE! Good look at an intriguing player
fawcettb
7/17
Very useful article, and well written, too.