From forgotten pitching prospect to Silver Slugger
Charlie Blackmon is now one of the best hitters in all of baseball, with a batting title, four All-Star appearances, a pair of Silver Slugger Awards and a career OPS+ of 116 on his resume. But once upon a time, he was coveted for his left arm much more than for any offensive potential he might have had.
During his high school and even his junior college days, Blackmon was a pitching prospect, a projectable and athletic lefty who was drafted twice for his abilities on the mound. It wasn’t until his senior year at Georgia Tech that he began to show what he could do with the bat, leading to him becoming a surprise second-round pick in the 2008 Draft by the Rockies.
MLB.com interviewed nine people -- from scouts to coaches to Blackmon himself -- about his transformation from forgotten pitching prospect to one of Major League Baseball's best hitters.
(Note: All people are listed with their job title at the time.)
HIGH SCHOOL: A PROJECTABLE LEFTY WHO WASN'T READY
Blackmon pitched and hit as a senior at North Gwinnett High School in Georgia in 2004, but interested teams thought his future was on the mound.
Brian Bridges, Marlins area scout: He’s a 6-foot-3 athlete whose body changed as he matured, but it’s basically the same body it was as a youngster. And he was easy 87-88 with good shape to it, plus he had the makings of a plus breaking ball, and he’s left-handed. Well let’s check all the boxes: one, we have an athlete; two, he’s left-handed; three, he can spin a breaking ball. He wasn’t ready to go out then, but we still had the draft-and-follow, so we went ahead and fired in the 28th round. [Scouting Director] Stan Meek took him for me, and he marched on to Young Harris College with Rick Robinson.
Charlie Blackmon: At that time, there wasn’t a lot of showcase baseball. For me it was really my senior year of high school only playing baseball. I played some football and basketball. Being very unseen and left-handed, that was kind of my projectability. That was what I was hanging my hat on, being the left-handed, projectable arm because I had no speed or power at that time. I thought I was a good hitter, but I felt like pitching was going to be my way to play baseball in college.
Had Bridges listened to his crosschecker at the time, Mike Cadihia, perhaps things would have been different.
Bridges: Charlie was playing in the outfield, and the coach guaranteed me he would throw before the end of the game. It was our chance for us to see him. What was ironic about this whole story -- talk about foreshadowing -- we are watching him play the outfield, he’s bouncing around and Cadihia goes, “I kind of like his swing.” I was like, “Yeah, he is smoking the ball over the yard.” Then he came in to pitch. Mike C nailed it. If you are going to give credit to anybody, my regional crosschecker said, “Hey man, we could really draft-and-follow him as an outfielder.”
Blackmon: It’s tough to say that he got that wrong. I think it was more that I failed as a pitcher and the hitting thing was a plan B. But there was a time I felt like I was going to be a pitcher. That is what I was working towards. It wasn’t until that door closed that I really tried to pursue hitting.
More on that later…
JUNIOR COLLEGE: ONE AND ONLY OFFER
While Blackmon was drafted by the Marlins, he was not pursued by many college programs. So he went where he was wanted, as a pitcher: Young Harris College, a two-year junior college in Georgia that had produced 2003 first-round pick Nick Markakis.
Blackmon: I grew up in Atlanta and there was East Cobb, which was some of the best amateur baseball in the country, and I didn’t really subscribe to that, so I didn’t come onto the scene or become anybody of note until probably halfway through my senior year as a lefty on the mound. Kind of tall. I wasn’t that impressive. I was probably mid 80s but athletic, and honestly, I was surprised when I got drafted. I really didn’t get any attention from Division I programs, so I signed the first collegiate offer that I got from Young Harris College. That was the first and only offer I received. I was just happy that somebody gave me a chance.
Blackmon went 7-1 in 14 appearances as a freshman, striking out 49 batters in 44 innings. He helped the Mountain Lions to a GJCAA State Championship in 2005, receiving tournament MVP honors.
I wasn’t that impressive. I was probably mid 80s but athletic, and honestly, I was surprised when I got drafted.-- Blackmon
Bridges: Subsequently in the fall, the velocity started to creep up a little bit. He was touching 91 and we started to get excited about how Charlie’s arm was working and the things he was doing. As the course of the next spring went on, he really didn’t materialize. It was just that his arm wasn’t bouncing back from start to start or inning to inning.
The Marlins didn't sign Blackmon, and in June 2005, the Red Sox selected him in the 20th round. A combination of the start of some arm trouble, along with a struggling Young Harris offense, led to some at-bats for Blackmon in 2006. As a sophomore, he collected eight wins with 89 strikeouts and made the GJCAA All-Conference team.
Blackmon: Halfway through my sophomore year, we were struggling hitting and our coach brought some of the more athletic pitchers out just to shock-and-awe scare the offense. And they let some of these pitchers hit BP to let our offense know they are replaceable. I had a pretty impressive BP, so I got to DH a little bit my sophomore year. But I did not play a position; I was not really a hitter. I remember my coach telling me he wanted me to hit like a pitcher, don’t hit like a hitter. Just go up there and swing the bat. “Don’t think. You’re a pitcher. We’re going to put you in there to hit here and there. No approach. Just see it and hit it.”
Bridges: [Head coach] Rick Robinson did a real good job with those guys. He had Nick Markakis up there as well; he was a two-way guy. Charlie goes back to school and then Rick Robinson gives me a call. … I stayed in contact with him. We didn’t really follow, but I always liked Charlie. He calls me and goes, “Hey man, I think we are going to do both with him this year. I said, “Oh, kind of like you did with Markakis.”
GEORGIA TECH: THROWING TO A PLASTIC DUMMY
Blackmon didn’t do enough on the mound or at the plate to get drafted after his sophomore year at Young Harris. But he had thrown well enough in the Cape Cod League (3.42 ERA in 26 1/3 innings) and over the course of his two seasons at Young Harris to catch the attention of a big Division I program.
Danny Hall, Georgia Tech’s head coach: I honestly had never even heard anything about him as a position player. So he comes in and he’s strictly going to be a pitcher, and quite honestly he had some elbow problems. So he came in with that and his velocity had gone from upper 80s to low 90s to now here’s a guy throwing 84-85 with not a lot of command, not a really good breaking ball. We were kind of scratching our heads a little bit, like "Where is this guy going to fit in as a pitcher for us?"
Blackmon: When I went to Georgia Tech my first year, that fall I had some lingering elbow issues from the end of my sophomore season at Young Harris. I could not get rid of some tendinitis. I actually went and saw Dr. [James] Andrews for consultation. I was able to rehab and avoid surgery, but I just felt like it took me too long to come back. My arm slot felt weird, I wasn’t throwing nearly as hard. I wasn’t throwing strikes. It was just a really tough year for me, and I was able to obtain a medical redshirt in my third year of college, that first year at Georgia Tech.
Blackmon appeared in one game with the Yellow Jackets that season, spending a lot of time on his own trying to work his way back.
Hall: So he really didn’t contribute hardly at all and he never made a road trip because we could only take a limited roster on the road with us in the ACC. The legend of it is, and he can speak to it more, is he would go up in our cages because we had an indoor mound up there and just throw balls into a net. He was constantly working, trying to get back to where he was and ultimately be able to contribute to our team.
Blackmon: I had a really tough time at Georgia Tech as a redshirt. I wasn’t traveling. I was home by myself half the time on campus in the cage throwing bullpens with a dummy plastic hitter standing in there. I was trying to figure it out as best I could, and I couldn’t turn the corner. That’s when I decided I just really missed baseball and I wanted to play. After that third year of college I was able to find my way into a collegiate summer baseball league.
SUMMER LEAGUE: THIS KID ISN'T A PITCHER
The Texas Collegiate League had been formed in 2004, and was in its infancy when Blackmon headed there, mostly to make up for lost innings in the summer of ‘07. But when he arrived, Blackmon talked his manager, former big leaguer Rusty Greer, into letting him hit.
Blackmon: I didn’t have any aspirations of playing at the next level. I was just missing baseball, having not played that year at Georgia Tech and I wanted to get on the field. So I told Rusty Greer I was a two-way player, which wasn’t true. I hadn’t been hitting, hadn’t been playing any defense since high school really. So I just grasped at anything, trying to get on the field in any way possible.
Greer: I did not know that [but] he was taking BP and I liked his stroke. Had I known he hadn’t swung a bat in two years I would have probably been more impressed with his stroke, because it was a good left-handed stroke with some juice and we’re using wood bats. He is hitting the ball right on the button, and of course we don’t know the whole history of every player. He wanted to get some at-bats, but his main goal was to come in and pitch. Because of what he did in his BP and the way he swung the bat, he was pretty much a regular in our lineup every day.
Blackmon: I came in as a pitcher, and it’s a wood bat league. I had never actually swung a wood bat really, so I was trying to get used to that. I was still really wanting to hold on to the pitching thing because I thought that was my potential. By that point I was maybe 190 pounds rather than the 170-something I was when I graduated high school, so I was starting to get stronger. I didn’t have any leg strength in high school, and I’m starting to add some strength, I can move my frame a little better at this point. I am running a little faster, maybe a little stronger, I can swing the wood bat with enough bat speed to be competitive. That’s when Rusty really started to try to change my mind away from the pitcher mentality. He told me that he thought I was going to be a much better hitter or outfielder than I would ever be as a pitcher.
Greer thought Blackmon was a solid enough pitcher to be able to help Georgia Tech out in the bullpen. But he couldn’t get away from how much he liked the swing. Then he saw Blackmon running sprints in the outfield and was blown away by his speed, leading him to a question.
Greer: I say, “Charlie, you can run a little bit,” and he says, “Yeah, I’ve always been able to run.” I said, “Have you ever thought about playing the outfield? In particular center field?” It was the typical profile, if you’ve got speed, you can play center field. This is probably still typical of Charlie Blackmon to this day, he said, “I’ll do whatever you want me to do. I just want to play.” So we put him in center field. I turned to the assistant coach and said, “This kid isn’t a pitcher; he’s an outfielder.”
That led to a conversation that changed the trajectory of Blackmon’s baseball career forever.
SENIOR YEAR: THE CONVERSATION
Greer: He had a great summer, so I actually called coach Hall over at Georgia Tech and said, “I know Charlie is a pitcher.” And Coach Hall probably wouldn’t remember this conversation, but I told him, “I know he came as a pitcher, but he’s an outfielder. He’s playing center for us and doing really well.” I just said, “If you want to get the most out of him, I’d put him in the outfield.”
It wasn’t a conversation Coach Hall could easily forget.
Hall: I answer the call and it’s Rusty Greer and he’s like, “Danny I don’t know if you know who I am, but I am Rusty Greer.” And I said, “Well, if it’s the Rusty Greer who played for the Rangers, I know who you are.” He goes, “I don’t know if you’ve been following it, but we’ve been letting him hit a little and play in the outfield. I would never want to tell you what to do, you’ve been coaching a long time, but if I am you, I would definitely take a look at him in the fall as a position player and as an outfielder.” So I just said, “If you are telling me I need to take a look at it, we are going to take a look at it.” That was the seed planted in my mind by Rusty Greer that this guy may be able to help us as an outfielder and a hitter.”
Blackmon: I am glad it was Greer because I am pretty hard-headed. I like things my way, and had it been somebody else without as much experience I could have maybe just blown them off. But Rusty was adamant about it. I really had nothing to lose. I wasn’t really getting better at pitching at this point. I thought hey, this guy seems to know what he’s doing, he’s got a lot of experience, he’s certainly a great player -- maybe he’s right. Maybe I can believe in this a little bit.
Blackmon got a look that fall as a hitter, and Coach Hall didn’t make it easy. After impressive BP sessions, Hall made him face their top pitcher in the first intrasquad game of the fall: 6-foot-9 lefty David Duncan.
Hall: First at-bat: home run.
Blackmon: I was super nervous. Just really nervous, hoping for the best. Picked the worst draw with our Friday night pitcher. I might have gotten a little bit lucky.
That led to more fall at-bats and the end of Blackmon’s pitching career. He swung the bat well enough that Hall suggested new Rockies area scout Alan Matthews meet with him that offseason as someone worth following the next spring.
Matthews: That’s really when my first knowledge of Charlie and who he was and what he was capable of really began, that conversation I had with Danny Hall that afternoon before the ‘08 season.
THE DRAFT: PLAYING WITH HOUSE MONEY
Blackmon began his senior season as an everyday outfielder and would go on to hit .396/.469/.564 as one of best hitters in the nation. Matthews was one of several area scouts who took notice, and that the new Rockies area scout never knew Blackmon as a pitcher was helpful.
Matthews: We have history with them, or we have some preconceived ideas about what they are and who they are and sometimes we tend to scout with one eye closed. I know I have been guilty of it since. In this case it probably worked to my benefit because I didn’t know him as a pitcher who was trying to hit. It was definitely a gradual progression. One of those guys who the more you saw him, the more you appreciated how good he was. Then you would have a conversation with one of his teammates or a former Georgia Tech player who was around the program, or an assistant coach and you would get all these anecdotes about his athleticism or his work ethic or things he had done with teammates.
Blackmon: I had played well and was having success at a very competitive level and then all of a sudden I have a pro day and I run a pretty fast time at pro day, and scouts are showing interest. So now it’s become a real possibility that I might get to play pro baseball. I was excited for it. At that point that was my fourth year in school so I was really close to my degree. I had no problem with moving ahead and going for it. I was playing with house money.
Matthews made sure Rockies crosschecker Danny Montgomery knew about Blackmon, and Montgomery relied on his longstanding relationship with Hall to check in on the outfielder without much of a track record.
Montgomery: I had no idea about him. He shocked me the day I was able to get in and see Coach Hall and that crew play. I got to him really, really late that spring. Coach Hall is a very close friend of mine, so after the game I was able to sit around and talk with him about him, to get a feel for what Charlie was all about. The next day after talking with him he mentioned he was going to have another game the following Monday, a makeup game. So I stayed.
Montgomery wasn’t alone for that rare Monday game. Rolando Pino, now the Red Sox co-director of international scouting, was a Florida area scout for the Cubs in 2008. He had snuck in to get a look at Blackmon during a swing to see the top players in Georgia.
Pino: I didn’t think anybody would be coming up on a Monday. Sure enough, D-Mont was there. It was a good day. I thought Charlie was an everyday player in the second round; that’s how I put him in.
Montgomery: I knew there was another scout at the game. He was sitting way up in the corner. Just doing pretty much what I was doing, trying to stay discreet, but he was there and he did not tell me that until [a couple of months ago] in the Dominican, that he is still upset at me every time he sees me -- that he should have gotten that kid.
Montgomery saw enough to make sure his bosses got the chance to evaluate Blackmon at the Atlantic Coast Conference Tournament.
Montgomery: I had to get on it and try to get [scouting director] Billy Schmidt, and at the time Bill Geivett was with us. I told him, “When you go into that tournament there is just one guy I want you to pay attention to, and just keep it as quiet as you can because I’m going to push Billy to get this guy way higher than he probably wants to take him.”
Schmidt: I ran to the ACC tournament and saw Charlie for the first time, and I could see what Danny was so excited about.
Montgomery liked Blackmon even more than Matthews did, and Montgomery’s opinion as a veteran scout definitely carried more weight at the time.
Dan O’Dowd, Rockies General Manager: Alan Matthews did a really good job on Charlie. We loved his intangibles. Danny Montgomery was really pushing hard for Charlie.
Matthews saw Blackmon as a third- or fourth-round pick. It was Montgomery who pounded the table to take him earlier. As the second round unfolded, the Rockies had two college hitters on their board: Blackmon and South Carolina third baseman James Darnell. Darnell would go three picks earlier to the Padres, making the decision easier for the Rockies.
O’Dowd: We didn’t really think it was much of a reach because we felt the entire package, if he had a longer look, probably wouldn’t have been there at No. 72.
Blackmon: It was a huge surprise. The second round was way earlier that I thought I’d need to pay attention.
Matthews: As a first-year area scout I was thrilled to get him, but shocked we took him as early as we did, to be frank. I thought he would have been available in the third, fourth and maybe even fifth round. Obviously had they listened to my recommendation, this guy would have been in a uniform and making All-Star Games for another organization.
Schmidt: At the end of the day we had a good feel. We are very close to Danny Hall, especially D-Mont. Danny signed off on the workouts. We did our work. You are wary about it but at the same point, the tools are pretty strong. This game is about relationships and people you can trust who are going to lead you the right way. The two Dannys, I respect both of them. There’s a lot of trust with both.
MLB: EXCEEDING EXPECTATIONS
As much as the Rockies liked Blackmon, no one thought he’d be as productive as he’s been. There was always confidence he’d hit, starting with a .338 average during his pro debut in 2008 en route to hitting .308 in the Minor Leagues. There was a belief some power would come, but anyone who claims they predicted he’d hit 29 or more homers in four straight Major League seasons would be lying.
Greer: I have said this before and I will say it again -- by no means do I take credit for Charlie Blackmon’s career or anything he’s done. That is all on Charlie. Charlie was, and still is, one of the hardest workers, and is an “I will do anything you want me to” guy.
Hall: I don’t think anybody could have predicted this guy could be an All-Star and be one of the better hitters in the game for many years. I don’t think anybody saw that. I certainly didn’t. Did I think he could play in the big leagues? Yes I did, but not at the level he’s been able to play at. In saying that, one of the things I don’t think a lot of people realize is he was an academic All-American; he’s really smart. He has become a student of hitting. He’s always been a hard worker.
Matthews: You knew he was going to hit and he was going to be every bit of the player he had the potential to become because of how bright he was and how hard he worked at it. But to say that he would have played in four All-Star Games and probably more and win a batting title? I don’t think I ever knew that until he started doing what he’s done in the Major Leagues.
Montgomery: Once we found out what this guy was all about IQ-wise, we had something. He’s been able to make adjustments, and you could have never told me from doing my report he would have had the power that he’s had. It’s unbelievable what he’s been able to do. It’s not an exact science.
Schmidt: No doubt it comes back to his work ethic, his drive. As much as you try to know what makes them tick and what drives them, I would say that the biggest thing with Charlie is his desire to be great.
Everything Blackmon went through, from converted pitcher to one of the best hitters in the big leagues, serves a constant reminder that nothing should be taken for granted.
Blackmon: It helps me keep things in perspective. Baseball is just so hard and there is so much failure. I had lots and lots of failure and without that, I don’t think I would have been able to make the jump from level to level. There were so many times when I thought I was done. This is the injury, or this bad performance. I just felt like baseball was going to get taken away from me and then I got another chance. It seemed like that every step of the way. My perspective has changed a little bit and now I look around the league a little bit and I like to find players who remind me how hard the game is. I like to see guys who struggle, make adjustments, and then become competitive and succeed.
You cannot translate an amateur talent directly into the big leagues. It’s not like the NFL or basketball where bigger, stronger, faster plays. Baseball is all about baseball skills and development of those skills and how you use your mind to let those skills show through. You just don’t know who is going to out-develop everybody else.