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Colorado Rockies

The Unrelenting Growth of Charlie Blackmon

Never trust anyone over 30.

-Jack Weinberg

The man responsible for the above quote, a rallying cry for young progressives in the 1960s, turns 78 this year. The context of the phrase has nothing to do with baseball, but perhaps baseball is where it’s most applicable.

The late Ron Santo would also have turned 78 in 2018; he was born just a few weeks before Weinberg. Through 1970- his age-30 season- Santo accumulated 61.8 bWAR, the second most in history by a third baseman through that age (Eddie Mathews had 73.8 bWAR through age 30). However, Santo’s career dwindled considerably in his thirties. He produced only 8.7 more bWAR before retiring at age 34. His precipitous decline kept him out of the Hall of Fame until 2012, a little more than a year after his death.

Charlie Blackmon was born on July 1, 1986. The first of July is the cutoff date for determining the age of a player’s season, so even though he was 31 for much of 2017, last year is considered his age-30 season. And what a season it was! The Rockies’ star center fielder led the National League in BA (.331), TB (387), H (213), R (137), 3B (14), and PA (725). He won a Silver Slugger and finished 5th in the MVP voting.

From a historical perspective, Blackmon’s age 30 season was very good, but not particularly special. The best age 30 season ever was Cal Ripken‘s, an 11.5 bWAR mark in 1991 earned him that honor. Blackmon’s 6.0 bWAR is tied for the 70th best among position players at his age.

However, Blackmon has an advantage that neither Cal Ripken nor Ron Santo had at the precipice of their thirties: upward momentum. Blackmon has played 7 seasons in the major leagues. Remarkably, his bWAR has increased every single year.

Making Progress

The Rockies drafted Blackmon in the 2nd round out of Georgia Tech in 2008. He progressed quickly through the system despite a lack of top prospect heraldry and debuted in the majors in 2011 at age 24. His first season didn’t go well; he slashed .255/.277/.296 through 102 PA. The following year was only marginally better with an 84 wRC+ in 121 PA.

He played about half a season in 2013 with roughly league average offense (adjusted for Coors Field). In 2014, he won the starting job and made his first All-Star team, despite still being only an average player. He stole a career-best 43 bases in 2015 and made marginal improvements to his OBP and SLG. In 2016, his power really developed for the first time and he posted a 130 wRC+. In 2017, he was one of the top players in the National League.

What’s missing from his curriculum vitae is any kind of setback. There’s no “sophomore slump,” “adjusting to the league,” or “down season.” What’s even more impressive is that Blackmon was a pitcher up until 2007, when, as the legend goes, he bluffed his way into an outfield job in summer ball due to a sore pitching arm. Is it really that ridiculous to think he could continue to get better? Here is a chart of his year-to-year bWAR:

Year Age season # Season bWAR Increase Career bWAR
2011 24 1 -0.7 -0.7
2012 25 2 0.2 0.9 -0.5
2013 26 3 0.8 0.6 0.3
2014 27 4 2.1 1.3 2.4
2015 28 5 2.4 0.3 4.8
2016 29 6 4.5 2.1 9.3
2017 30 7 6.0 1.5 15.3

 

On average, his bWAR increases by 1.1 every year, without any decline whatsoever. Whereas Santo was winding down at 30, Blackmon is just heating up.

The Great Beyond

There are only two possible paths for Balckmon’s future:

  1. He can age like a normal athlete, and at some point in the near future he will start to decline. This may happen gradually or dramatically, and it could begin as soon as 2018.
  2. He can progress mathematically, gaining an approximately 1.1 bWAR every year without decline, for the rest of eternity.

The first possibility is no fun for anyone. It certainly won’t be enjoyable for Blackmon and it’s a boring thought experiment. Every baseball fan knows what an aging player looks like physically and statistically.

As for the second possibility…

Year Age season # Season bWAR Increase Career bWAR

2018 31 8 7.1 1.1 22.4
2019 32 9 8.2 1.1 30.7
2020 33 10 9.4 1.1 40.0
2021 34 11 10.5 1.1 50.5

 

By 2021, he will eclipse 10 bWAR for the first time. Only 56 times in baseball history has a player achieved double-digit bWAR (though Mike Trout might do it a few more times by then). He’ll almost certainly have won at least one MVP award.  It’s unusual to become the best player in baseball at age 34 (or maybe he’s still second to Trout), but not completely suspicious.

Year Age season # Season bWAR Increase Career bWAR

2022 35 12 11.6 1.1 62.1
2023 36 13 12.7 1.1 74.8
2024 37 14 13.8 1.1 88.6
2025 38 15 14.9 1.1 103.5

 

Blackmon achieves two milestones in 2025. At the age of 38, he breaks Babe Ruth‘s record for highest single-season bWAR by a position player: 14.1 in 1923. He also surpasses 100 bWAR in his career, becoming only the 20th position player to do so (or 21st, again Trout is really good).

For comparison, only 5 players ever have had at least 6 bWAR in their age 38 season: Ted Williams (9.7), Barry Bonds (9.2), Honus Wagner (8.1), Babe Ruth (6.4), and the legendary Bob Johnson (6.3, it was 1944 and most of baseball’s best talent was serving in World War II). Blackmon is now as better than Ruth and Wagner combined at the same age.

Year Age season # Season bWAR Increase Career bWAR

2026 39 16 16.1 1.1 119.6
2027 40 17 17.2 1.1 136.7
2028 41 18 18.3 1.1 155.0
2029 42 19 19.4 1.1 174.4
2030 43 20 20.5 1.1 194.9

 

The 1884 Buffalo Bisons played 115 games in the National League. Hall of Famer Pud Galvin started 72 of them, completing 71. He had a 1.99 ERA over 636.1 IP with a 46-22 record. Remarkably, none of these stats led the league! He did, however, set a single-season record with 20.5 bWAR that still stands to this day.

Blackmon will tie Galvin’s record in 2030 as a 43-year-old. The preceding season, he will break Babe Ruth’s record for career bWAR by a position player of 163.1 and Cy Young‘s overall career record of 170.3 (of course, the Trout disclaimer still applies).

Maybe you’re more of a chart person. Well, we have something of a present for making it this far.

Returning to Reality

As a 34-year-old writer, I can attest that the human body’s inevitable decay seems to accelerate after 30. The metabolism slows down, joints start to ache, and hair turns gray. (If you’ve seen Blackmon’s mane, you’ll understand the importance of hair color). Of course, it’s been more than 20 years since I was any sort of athlete, but every living creature is susceptible to the ravages of time.

Nevertheless, if Blackmon can maintain his streak of improvement for even two more seasons he’ll be among the greatest players in baseball. But can we trust his progression to continue into his age-31 season? Ask Jack Weinberg.

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