If I had a Hammer.

I caught most of Game One between the Twins and Yankees on Wednesday night, pitting AL MVP-to-be Joe Mauer against Mark Teixeira, who could be his runner-up.  Naturally, it tripped a swarm of Rangers-centric thoughts, primarily one that converges with a relatively quiet story that was never supposed to be.

A couple months ago I was talking to a friend at work about Mauer’s season, suggesting that he’s the hitter – or at least was coming into 2009 – that Hank Blalock was supposed to become.  Mauer entered the season as a lifetime .317/.399/.457 hitter, with more walks than strikeouts, averaging about a dozen home runs and 34 doubles for every 150 games.  This year, his age 26 season, he exploded with a .365/.444/.587 slash line, with 28 homers and another season with more walks than strikeouts.

Three weeks after Minnesota made Mauer the first pick in the 2001 draft, Blalock hit for the cycle twice in three days for AA Tulsa, in the middle of a breakout season at age 20 (.380/.437/.557 for High A Charlotte, .327/.413/.544 for Tulsa, then .344/.431/.713 with 11 home runs and 36 RBI in just 122 Arizona Fall League at-bats – equaling the high home run mark ever put up in what was then a 10-year-old league, and obliterating the league slug record) that led everyone from Baseball America to Baseball Prospectus to John Sickels to call him the number one position player prospect in all of baseball.  

Texas had finished in last place in the West in 2000 and 2001 – 20.5 and 43 games back – but Blalock was on the doorstep, just about ready to bring his pure hit tool, his bat speed, his extra-base power to all fields, and his exquisite plate discipline to Arlington to inject some much-needed youth into the Alex Rodriguez-led Rangers lineup.  He was going to be at the forefront of the Rangers’ resurgence, its return to perennial American League contender status . . . .

. . . along with Teixeira, who was chosen four spots after Mauer in that 2001 draft.  Both Blalock and Teixeira were third basemen, but Texas would figure out a way to get both to the big leagues when they were ready.  Blalock was going to camp in 2002 with a chance to win a big league job (which he did), while Teixeira would start his pro career in 2002, the only minor league season he would need.

Blalock and Teixeira were Holland and Feliz, times 10.

Before that 2002 season, former Astros scouting director and Baseball America national writer David Rawnsley wrote a foreword for the Newberg Report Bound Edition that included this:

There is enough material on individual Ranger minor leaguers on the following pages to fill a book (hey, it did fill a book, Jamey!), but I do feel compelled to make a comment on one prospect: Hank Blalock.
 
I’ve seen Blalock play frequently over the years, starting when he was a junior in high school.  I, like every other talent evaluator in the baseball business, have just as frequently underestimated Blalock’s ability.  Now Blalock is one of the best prospects in the game, and I saw something this fall that I’ve never seen in a prospect before.
 
Serious sports fans have often marveled at how some of the great athletes of our times seem to see the game in slow motion and are able to react earlier and more quickly to developing situations.  Joe Montana, Magic Johnson, and Wayne Gretzky are the three athletes who come immediately to mind.  All three were perceived as somewhat average physical talents who overachieved because of their incredible understanding of the game they played.
 
Until I saw Blalock in the Arizona Fall League, I can never remember thinking about a baseball prospect along those lines; here was a hitter who saw the ball so clearly, so early out of the pitcher’s hand, and so understood what the ball was going to do, that he was at a distinct advantage over his fellow competitors.  I sat in the warm Arizona desert air and tingled at the revelation.  Sure, Barry Bonds gives this impression and I know George Brett probably did, too.  But this was 21-year-old Hank Blalock.  It was exciting to watch that night and it should be even more exciting for Rangers fans in the future.

Baseball Prospectus that same off-season: “Blalock is the best hitting prospect in the game, and there’s not anybody particularly close.” 

Sickels: “Blalock is my favorite prospect. . . . I saw him play three games for AA Tulsa, and in those contests he saw a total of 44 pitches.  Not once did he swing at a pitch that wasn’t a strike. . . . If he isn’t a Grade A prospect, I don’t know who is.”

As Blalock’s Rangers career has almost certainly come to a quiet end, re-reading those four Rawnsley paragraphs, and the BP and Sickels comments, is painful.  The things that they wrote sound to me, today, like Mauer.  Not anything like what Blalock became. 

It’s almost hard to believe that Blalock hasn’t even turned 29.   The prime of his career should be now.  Instead, his peak, amazingly, was at age 22, when he hit .300/.350/.522 in 2003, his first full big league season – a year in which his decline in production actually began after his famed All-Star Game home run (he hit .323/.375/.524 before the Break, .272/.319/.520 after it).  Injuries and a transformed approach as a hitter have changed his career into something unfathomable eight years ago, and six.

The player who amassed more bases on balls (153) than strikeouts (148) in his only three seasons fully on the farm went an impossible 136 plate appearances this summer without drawing a walk (and not because he was raking: he hit .200/.199/.363 in that span).  While Mauer (.444) led the big leagues in reaching base this season, Blalock’s mark (.277) was second-worst in the game.  Not only was his 2009 strikeout rate his worst since his rookie season, his walk rate was also the worst of his career.  So was his line drive percentage.  An advanced ability to go with the pitch early in his career has given way to a tendency to roll outside corner pitches to second base, and to swing for the porch on balls in and out of the zone.

He went hitless in his final 19 plate appearances of the season, probably his final 19 as a Ranger.

Blalock is certainly not to blame for Texas missing the playoffs this year, or any other.  But while his arrival in the big leagues was supposed to help usher in a new Rangers era, instead his eight-year tenure here has encompassed an era of its own, a period in which the club never played past 162. 

The young blue-chipper in whom Rawnsley “saw something . . . that [he'd] never seen in a prospect before” has had just as extraordinary transformation the last six years, but in the wrong direction.  Blalock’s playing days are not over, and he’s made about $22 million in the game, but sadly the highlight of his career is an All-Star Game home run that, if you look carefully at the numbers, would, coincidentally or not, prove to mark the turning point in his productivity, if not his approach.

It saddens me to consider that the Rangers’ playoff history ended the year that Blalock was drafted in the third round and, many believe, is getting close to returning, just as Blalock will almost surely depart. 

It was supposed to be so, so different.

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(c) Jamey Newberg
http://www.newbergreport.com
Twitter  @newbergreport
 

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