Can Gregor Blanco Hold Off Brandon Jones?
Warning: If you are a Gregor Blanco supporter, you may want to stop reading right about now.
Fool me once, shame on you; fool me twice, shame on me.
It almost seems like baseball fans have never heard this phrase. Every year we see mediocre players enjoy success over small sample sizes; Players whose underlying peripherals scream fluke. Every year the fans proclaim that player the best thing since sliced bread. We were fooled last year with Willie Harris, whose hot start (.371 average through first two months) made him a fan favorite and afforded him a long leash. Though his peripherals showed he was playing well above his head, Bobby Cox seemed to either not know or not care, as Harris continued to start against righties in leftfield and finished the last three months of the season with a .205 batting average over that stretch.
Unfortunately, we may be headed down a somewhat similar path this season with Gregor Blanco. After beating the odds to make the opening day roster, Blanco got off to a quick start with a .371/.500/.429 line through the first month of the season on the back of a .500 BABIP. This hot start to his major league career seemed to make even the most statistically intuitive of Braves fans throw logic to the wind. Hes developed into a fan favorite and seems to have been made almost infallible by Braves fans, who have shown unwavering support for the 24-year old even though hes hitting a mere .216/.344/.255 over his last 51 at-bats (59% of his total at-bats).
His season line so far is a respectable .276/.404/.322, however if you break down the stats, his latest 51 at-bats may be closer to what hes actually capable of. The problem for Blanco is that hes a slap hitter and it is near impossible for a player like that to keep up a respectable average when they are striking out in over a quarter of their at-bats. Because of his inability to make contact, that .276 average carries with it a .375 BABIP. Its certainly possible to maintain a BABIP near that mark (Derek Jeter has a career .363 BABIP) but only very skilled hitters are able to do that. The average BABIP is considered to be around .290-.300 but speedy guys like Blanco (ie. Juan Pierre, Scott Podsednik) are generally able to stick around .320 because of their added ability to pick up infield hits. If you use that .320 BABIP with his strikeout rate from this year (about one point off Blancos minor league rate), you come out with a .230/.367/.280 line. The on-base ability is still nice, however with very little in terms of secondary skills (no power, not a very good base-stealer), there is no legitimate argument that could be made for putting those kind of numbers in a starting role. That is fine production for a fourth outfielder but with Matt Diazs inability to hit right-handed pitching seemingly exposed, the Braves need a starter as the fourth outfielder.
At the end of April, the response to this would have been, and who do we replace him with? It would have been a perfectly valid point. Matt Diaz seemed helpless against right-handed pitching, while Brandon Jones the pre-season favorite to platoon with Diaz struggled in Richmond to the tune of a .694 OPS. That has since changed as the top prospect is hitting just under .300 so far this month with an .838 OPS. More importantly, hes handled right-handers with ease this season, posting a .304/.402/.446 line against them. This is the kind of performance that the Braves were looking for in spring training.
The question is; how long can Bobby stick with Blanco? If he had a history of being a good contact guy, it would make sense to stick with him and see if he could cut down on the strikeouts. He doesnt though as his minor league strikeout rate is only about one point lower at 24% and that doesnt bode well for him. He makes a fine utility man but we need someone to start and it is looking more and more like Brandon Jones is the right one to have up at this point. I just get a terrible feeling that Bobbys leash for Blanco is going to be as long or longer than Harris.