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Blackmon ready to lead by example in 2020

@harding_at_mlb
November 6, 2019

The Rockies’ difficult 2019 season left Rockies right fielder Charlie Blackmon feeling strangely energized. Blackmon hit just .219 through his first 18 games, but was able to get back to .300 before a calf injury cost him 14 games as he struggled through a tough June. Despite those difficulties, Blackmon

The Rockies’ difficult 2019 season left Rockies right fielder Charlie Blackmon feeling strangely energized.

Blackmon hit just .219 through his first 18 games, but was able to get back to .300 before a calf injury cost him 14 games as he struggled through a tough June. Despite those difficulties, Blackmon still managed to rebound and finish the season with a .314/.364/.576 slash line, hit 32 home runs and 86 RBIs -- a bright spot in the Rockies’ disappointing 71-91 campaign.

His entire environment changed in '19 going from center field to right field and sliding from the leadoff spot to cleanup at the end of the season experiment that could carry into 2020.

“It’s something I enjoy, finding more weaknesses,” said Blackmon. “I like to identify what it is that I can do better and figure out the best way to get there.”

For example, Blackmon is turning the prism toward finding the answers to plate discipline.

Blackmon gave an exasperated chuckle when he said, “There are no fastball counts anymore.” No wonder. According to Statcast, his slugging percentages against the fastball were .566 in 2016, .599 in ’17, .543 in ’18 and .560 in ’19.

Those numbers discourage pitchers from throwing the heater, even when Blackmon is ahead in the count. Pitchers threw 74.8 percent fastballs when behind in 2015, but the rate has dropped dramatically since. The 66.1 percent in 2019 was a five-year low.

But Blackmon is in a years-long battle against the propensity to chase out-of-the-zone pitches when ahead in counts. In 2016, he chased 38.4 percent of the time when ahead -- well above the 28.1 percent MLB average for that season. That information may have led pitchers to go out of the zone with off-speed pitches when behind.

Blackmon was more disciplined in ’17 (27.4 percent chase rate against 27.3 percent MLB average) and ’18 (25.5 against a 27.5 average). It got away at times in 2019 – 33.6 percent versus a 29 percent MLB average.

Much of this occurred with Blackmon batting at the top of the order. Manager Bud Black experimented with Blackmon hitting cleanup at season’s end. Will pitchers challenge Blackmon with fastballs after having to deal with Trevor Story, David Dahl and Nolan Arenado? Maybe not. Blackmon is preparing to have his discipline tested.

“The problem is it’s just so hard at this point to say, ‘I need to swing at this pitch but two inches over here, that’s the pitch I need to take,’” he said. “When you get real fine like that, that becomes difficult. But that’s what makes really good players good players -- that pitch selection.

“That’s the ultimate pinnacle of where I want to be. When I have really good pitch selection, I turn into a much more productive baseball player.”

Let’s look at the good and the bad of 2019, and even more ways Blackmon hopes to enhance his performance in 2020.

What went right

After having a 1.000 OPS in 2017, Blackmon rebounded from a slight production dip in ’18 where he finished with an .840 OPS. The 33-year-old right fielder raised his OPS to .960 in ‘19 and he sounded ready to find ways to help the team rebound from its 71-91 record.

The Rockies’ primary center fielder since 2014, Blackmon went through an adjustment period in right field, in a home park where the defensive metrics haven’t been kind to him. Even with the calf injury and other pains along the way, Blackmon felt fresher at the end.

What went wrong

While pitching struggles were the key reason for the Rockies' downfall, all of the team’s offensive leaders struggled when the season was falling apart. Blackmon was not immune. After a monster month of June, which saw him carry a 1.275 OPS en route to National League Player of the Month honors, he struggled mightily in July and finished with a .256/.304/.360 slash line.

Best moment

Blackmon set a Major League record with 15 hits in a four-game series against the Padres June 13-16, and three hits in six straight home games June 13-28.

Worst moment

During the ninth inning of a 7-4 loss to the Red Sox on Aug. 29, home plate umpire Jerry Meals called Blackmon out on a pitch that appeared to be out of the zone. Blackmon -- who would put his sense of strike zone up against anyone -- vehemently disagreed. He earned the ejection by spiking the bat, continued forcefully arguing and gesturing, and slammed his helmet as he exited.

2020 outlook

Expect more change.

Black has identified Blackmon as one of the regulars who will get more days off in hopes that younger depth has developed. Of course, the IL stint was part of it, but Blackmon also rested during the latter stages of the season and finished with 140 games played -- his fewest since becoming a regular in 2014.

Still, Blackmon had the second-most homers of his career (32, behind 37 in 2017) and tied for third in the NL in extra-base hits with 81, after just 67 the previous year.

Black and the Rockies’ staff have “encouraged Charlie to be vocal with the guys, because I think he has so much to offer … he has a certain touch of what things to say to certain players, and what things not to say to certain players.”

Blackmon wants to embrace that push outside his comfort zone.

“The problem with baseball is, for me personally, I don’t trust anybody -- I want to do my own scouting, I have to be my own hitting coach,” he said. “I don’t want to leave my career up to someone else. I’m taking ownership of it. Most of the guys that are competitive enough to be at this level feel the same way. I try not to just start throwing out advice left and right.

“But when I look around and realize I do have more experience than some of the guys in this locker room, it’s my job.”

Thomas Harding has covered the Rockies since 2000, and for MLB.com since 2002. Follow him on Twitter @harding_at_mlb and like his Facebook page.