If you’re participating in a fantasy baseball league and even paying moderate attention to what’s happening in that league, you’re likely aware that Charlie Blackmon is blistering the baseball and has proven to be one of the more unexpected stories of the early season. He’s currently hitting .410/.453/.692 and his .491 wOBA is second in the league (which should highlight just how crazy of a month Troy Tulowitzki, who is number one, has enjoyed in April).
Thus, fantasy owners have plucked Blackmon off the waiver wire in almost every league. He currently has a 100% ownership rate in ESPN leagues and is actually the number-one fantasy player in ESPN leagues — ahead of Giancarlo Stanton, Alexei Ramirez, Albert Pujols, and Adam Wainwright. He’s one of the few players who has contributed in all five standard categories. The 27-year-old has six stolen bases, five homers, a .410 batting average, 19 runs scored, and 16 runs batted in. To put that in perspective, here’s where he ranks in each standard category:
|Runs Batted In||16||17|
In short, Charlie Blackmon has been a top-20 player in all five offensive categories. No other player can claim that. Alexei Ramriez is the closest. The 32-year-old shortstop qualifies in four of the five categories, but he only ranks 27th in homers. Blackmon is the only guy who has been truly elite in every category, which is the paragon of a fantasy hitter.
Fantasy baseball analysis isn’t simply about looking to the past to explicate what has occurred. While that’s an effective story-telling tool, which is important in its own right, we’re much more interested in attempting to determine whether a player can be expected to produce at a high level going forward. Anyone can have a scorching-hot three weeks. It’s something else entirely for a fringe fantasy player to sustain an acceptable level of performance throughout an entire season.
In other words, should you be buying what Charlie Blackmon is selling?
Let’s get the obvious stuff out of the way. The outfielder isn’t going to hit north of .400 all year. He almost certainly will not be able to sustain a .391 BABIP for the next five months. Considering he’s never hit more than 11 homers in a single season, including in his minor-league career, we shouldn’t expect him to threaten the 30-homer mark, even at Coors Field. That 21.7% HR/FB rate will decline, as it’s more than twice his previous career high.
But I’m willing to suggest there are things to like about Charlie Blackmon’s performance this month that suggest he could have long-lasting fantasy value in 2014. As long as he’s batting atop the Rockies batting order, he should score runs. He’ll continue to get stolen base opportunities, and he once stole 30 bases in High-A ball. In fact, his Triple-A stolen base numbers suggest he could’ve been a 20-steal guy if given 500+ plate appearances.
Thus, I’m willing to suggest Blackmon could remain valuable in those two categories based on playing time and his place in the batting order. Really, though, owners are much more concerned about his potential to keep hitting and hitting with power. I’ll get the pessimism out of the way before getting to the really interesting aspect of his performance this month.
The power doesn’t appear sustainable, which is perhaps the most obvious piece of the article. I mentioned the HR/FB ratio that’s been sky high. Furthermore, he currently ranks #183 in average batted-ball distance this year, along with guys like Domonic Brown, Gerardo Parra, Jedd Gyorko, and Matt Carpenter. That’s not suggesting his power will suddenly become non-existent. It’s not as worrisome as someone like Eric Hosmer, who ranks below Alcides Escobar, Everth Cabrera, and Denard Span. But one must concede Blackmon’s lower average-ball distance does suggest the home run output won’t continue at an elite rate throughout the remainder of the season.
With that said, owners should note a couple significant improvements for Blackmon this month. First and foremost, his strikeout rate has decreased dramatically. He struck out 19.0% of the time last year — which is hardly anything to be worried about — but that number has plummeted to 5.8%. That’s encouraging. If we dig deeper, the picture only becomes rosier. He’s cut his swinging-strike rate in half, from 8.7% last season to just 4.2% this season. His O-Swing% dropped from 37.8% in 2013 to 29.4% in 2014. Combined, that illustrates the fact that Blackmon is swinging at fewer bad pitches and making better contact overall. That’s likely why he’s walking more than he’s striking out, which has never happened before in his professional career.
It seems to be some kind of fluke, as it doesn’t fit with his career numbers, but swinging-strike rate and O-Swing% tend to stabilize rather quickly. There’s obviously a chance the numbers regress to his career norms, but it’s not as if we’re working with a huge sample size. He only has 567 career plate appearances in the big leagues. Thus, if his seasonal numbers prove sustainable, he’s not deviating from a massive sample.
I’m not necessarily buying Charlie Blackmon on the entire season. Of course, ride the wave of elite production while it lasts. There are interesting numbers underlying his torrid start that suggest he could continue to be useful after he cools off, and taking advantage of fringe guys at Coors Field is never a bad idea, but fantasy owners also are correct to be skeptical. Even when the homers and batting average come back down to earth, though, he does appear to be someone who can still score runs and steal a few bases.
As we scrutinize his performance and attempt to determine if his performance is somewhat sustainable, though, enjoy him being the number-one overall fantasy player. It’s a crazy, unexpected story to begin the season. And if you were lucky enough to grab him off the waiver wire in a league or two, you’re likely laughing to the bank. As we go forward, though, just remember to evaluate Blackmon on what he’s likely to do in the future, not what he’s done over the past three weeks.
J.P. Breen is a graduate student at the University of Chicago. For analysis on the Brewers and fantasy baseball, you can follow him on Twitter (@JP_Breen).