Blackmon eyeing big 2023 after rules shift

January 26th, 2023

DENVER -- This offseason is the perfect time to remove a concern from Rockies designated hitter and outfielder ’s list.

At the end of last season, Blackmon, 36, had arthroscopic surgery to repair the meniscus in his left knee. He and his wife, Ashley, also welcomed their second child, Wyatt, to team with their daughter, 2-year-old Josie. Rehabbing Blackmon's injury, it turned out, was smooth -- it has not slowed his preparation for 2023. Finding sleep? Not so much.

But when the zzz’s do come, Blackmon can rest easier now that MLB has banned the infield shift -- which has been an increasingly effective way to mute the veteran's effectiveness. So add Blackmon to the list of players around the game who could benefit from the shift ban.

“I’ll spend less time on the beat-the-shift approach,” Blackmon said. “Whatever you decide to do. Some guys don’t do anything, and I’d rather not do anything but just hit. Occasionally, there are situations where you try to do something different to try to beat the shift -- maybe bunt, maybe hit one the other way. I don’t have to do that anymore.”

According to Sarah Thompson, research and development analyst for Sports Info Solutions, which has compiled and analyzed baseball at all levels:

• Since SIS began tracking shifts in 2010, Blackmon ranks 13th in estimated hits lost to the shift with 135. This number includes full shifts (three players on the second-base side) and partial shifts (with players far enough out of traditional positioning to make it notable).

• Blackmon lost 38 hits to the shift in 2022, second only to the Rangers' Corey Seager.

• In 2021-22, the 69 hits Blackmon lost came in second to current Dodger Freddie Freeman. Blackmon ranks fourth in hits the shift cost from 2019-22.

There is a flip side, though. According to SIS, Blackmon has “gained” an estimated 118 hits -- tops among Rockies and sixth among all players. But the “just hit it the other way” retort doesn’t give justice to aspects of the shift that depress offense.

In his best years (2016-19), Blackmon homered 29-37 times and doubled 31-42 times. He is the Rockies’ career leader in triples, with 58.

Giving away at-bats to the shift robs Blackmon and the Rockies of his slugging and run production. And hits “gained” might not be gains at all.

“For every successful hit the other way, you hit, like, two into the shift,” Blackmon said. “The shift is obviously very effective. That’s why they do it; it definitely hurts you. There are times you try to beat the shift, and you don’t. You sell out to hit one the other way, you try to bunt, or you change something from what you normally do. Sometimes it works, but oftentimes it doesn’t.”

Even with the shift no more, Blackmon will have to regain and maintain his health, his consistency and his best swing.

Blackmon’s .316 weighted on-base average against the shift nearly matched his .317 in non-shift at-bats, which typically occurred with runners on base and fewer than two strikes. His batting average without the shift was much higher (.299 vs. .250) but against the shift, he struck out at a lower rate (15 percent vs. 20 percent) and slugged higher (.424 vs. .401).

Blackmon saw encouraging signs last season, and factors such as the shift and what he feels were changes in baseball should not be annoyances. By the All-Star break he had 14 home runs (one more than during a disappointing 2021) and an .802 OPS. But he had just two homers in the second half.

“I think I played pretty well in the first half of last year, and I think I can do it again,” Blackmon said. “And I think I can do that for the whole season.”

The Rockies will need Blackmon to reverse the decline of the past two seasons. Top outfield prospects are on the way, but mainstays will need to rebound this year. Also, Colorado's efforts to obtain a center fielder and true leadoff man fizzled, so Blackmon may be back at the top of the order.

Blackmon exercised a $15 million player option for 2023, the final year of a contract he signed at the beginning of the '18 season. Beyond that? It's like the shift: Blackmon isn’t concerned about it.

“I pretty much take it year-to-year,” Blackmon said. “Most guys generally don't know when they'll play their last game, so I'm not going to be ignorant and think that I'm going to play forever. I definitely want to play this year, and hopefully, I have a good experience if I’m productive and healthy. I'm really focused on 2023 for the Rockies right now."