#44 -- The 50 Greatest Rangers of All-Time -- Hank Blalock

#44 on the list of the 50 Greatest Rangers of All-Time is the first active Ranger to crack the list, which makes his write-up both easier and harder to do...easier, because as a current player, information about him is more readily available, and my personal recollections are much more extensive.  But also harder, because you folks are familiar with the active players as well, making the walk down memory lane less relevant.

In any case, #44 on the list is a guy who has spent his entire career in the Rangers organization.  He was a third round draft pick in 1999 out of high school, a guy who rocketed through the minors, was heralded by some as the #1 prospect in all of baseball before the 2002 season, a two-time All-Star who just turned 25 a couple of months ago...but who is also viewed, by some, as something of a disappointment, as someone who hasn't lived up to his potential.  Which is understandable, given the hype that surrounded this player when he came up...as Chris Martin said in one of the comments on the latest poll question, "When you are expecting George Brett and you get Travis Fryman it can be a letdown."

Still, letdown or not, this player has, in his 3+ seasons, already performed well enough to crack the top 50 list...and he's still young enough that he has time to make The Leap, to eventually vault himself into the top 10 Rangers of all time before his career is over.

As you've probably guessed, #44 is my favorite current Ranger, third baseman Hank Joe Blalock.

Blalock was a high school standout at Rancho Bernardo High in San Diego, a school known for its strong baseball program that has produced first round picks Matt Wheatland, Jaime Jones, Scott Heard, Cole Hamels and John Drennen, as well as Danny Putnam, a first round pick of the A's who attended Stanford, and Hank's brother Jake Blalock, a 2002 5th round pick of the Phillies.  Hank's uncle, Sam Blalock, was his coach at Rancho Bernardo, and his father was also a baseball coach in the San Diego area.  Given that background, it is natural that Hank was a more polished, advanced player than most high schoolers, particularly with the bat.

Blalock slipped to the third round in the 1999 draft (notable players taken ahead of him in the third round included Justin Morneau, Ruddy (brother of Jose) Lugo, Doug Waechter, Josh Bard, Jon Rauch, and Wee Willie Bloomquist).  While scouts liked his bat, there were concerns that his lack of athleticism would force him to move to another position, and he didn't have the speed that a lot of scouts want to see in a first round pick.  

Blalock immediately made an impact, posting a .361/.438/.560 line at the rookie-level Gulf Coast League in 51 games in 1999, to earn himself a brief stint at low-A Savannah at the end of that season.  To put that sort of line in perspective, 2005 2nd rounder Johnny Whittleman, a high school draftee with a similar profile to Blalock's, impressed folks with a .279/.393/.426 line in the much more hitter-friendly rookie-level Arizona League this summer.

Blalock followed up his impressive debut with a solid season at Savannah in the Sally League in 2000.  At just 19 years old, he was one of the younger players in the Sally League, but he held his own, posting a .299/.373/.428 line in one of the most difficult hitters parks in one of the most difficult hitters leagues in the minors.  He didn't crack BA's top 10 prospect list for the SAL - the #1 slot was held by D-Ray phenom Josh Hamilton, with the likes of Jovanny Cedeno, Carl Crawford, Brett Myers, and Keith Reed making the list - but he was named the Rangers' 10th best prospect coming into the 2001 season.

2001, of course, was when Hank Blalock really exploded...in the course of just a couple of months, Blalock went from being a decent, fringe-type prospect a year or two away from having to prove himself to being one of the most heralded prospects in the game.  At the age of 20, starting the season at high-A Charlotte in the Florida State League, hitting .380 with 19 doubles, 7 homers, and 26 walks in 236 plate appearances before being promoted to AA Tulsa on June 17, 2001.  

At Tulsa, he became a national story when he hit for the cycle twice in three games, barely a week after being promoted, and ended up with a .327/.413/.544 line in the Texas League in 68 games.  After an impressive AFL stint, Blalock was named by Baseball America the #1 prospect in the Texas League, the #1 prospect in the Rangers system (ahead of Mark Teixeira), and the #3 prospect in all of baseball, behind just Mark Prior and Josh Beckett.  It was, interestingly, a strong class of third basemen, with Sean Burroughs, Drew Henson, and Teixeira joining Blalock in BA's top 10 prospect list, the first time as many as four third basemen were included in the BA top 10.

I saw Blalock in a couple of games at Round Rock last in the 2001 season, and remember coming away impressed with his presence and poise out there.  You never would have guessed, by watching him, that he was the youngest player on the field...he had a very professional approach at the plate, a nice swing, and just looked like a ball player.  A came away from there extremely impressed with both Blalock and Travis Hafner, and believing that they were both going to be very good major league hitters.

After all that, it seems almost inevitable that Blalock would have to come back down to earth, and he did at the start of the 2002 season with a crash.  While an impressive spring won Blalock the starting third base job, forcing veteran Herb Perry to the bench, he stumbled almost immediately coming out of the gate.  After getting an RBI single in his first major league at bat, against Mark Mulder, Blalock went 0 for his next 16, and struggled through the month of April to get his average as high as .200.  2 hit games would be followed by 0-fers, while Blalock looked overmatched at the plate, and the strikeouts mounted.  There were a few highlights - he got his first major league home run on April 30, off of fellow rookie Scott Cassidy in the 9th inning of a 10-3 victory over Toronto, and went 3 for 3 with a double and a couple of runs scored in a May 6, 6-5 win over the ChiSox - but they were few and far between, and after a hitless game on May 10 made Blalock 0 for his last 11, dropping him to .200/.292/.310 for the season, the Rangers finally demoted him to AAA.

Even in Oklahoma, Blalock struggled to find his stroke, spending some time on the disabled list and not returning to the majors until September roster expansion time.  His .307/.363/.457 line at AAA was certainly not bad, particularly for a 21 year old with barely a half-season above A-ball, but it isn't the sort of production expected from one of the best prospects in baseball.  In 17 September games after returning to the majors, Blalock hit just .234/.333/.362, leading some to wonder if he was just a flash in the pan.

Under new manager Buck Showalter, Blalock proved the doubters wrong in 2003.  He won the starting third base job out of spring training, although Showalter made it clear that he was going to be careful with Blalock, sitting him against most lefthanded starters.  Blalock made the most of his second chance...in the season opener against Anaheim, Blalock went 2 for 5 with a pair of singles in the first of seven straight games to open the season in which Blalock would get a hit.  This included a 7 for 11 stretch in a homestand against Seattle in which Blalock homered in consecutive games off of Ryan Franklin, Julio Mateo and Fat Freddy Garcia, part of a .387/.443/.650 month of April that served to announce to the league that Hank Blalock was back.

Unfortunately, while Blalock (and the rest of the infield) were playing well, not much else was going right for the Rangers in 2003.  After hovering a little under .500 for the first month, the Rangers started May by watching starter Colby Lewis give up 7 runs in 2+ innings to bury the Rangers early in what became a 7-6 loss at Toronto.  A win would have meant a sweep at Toronto and put the Rangers at .500 for the season...but instead, that loss started an ugly 3-10 stretch that dropped the Rangers to 16-24.

This being the Rangers, of course, they had to get hot, tease the fans, make us think there was reason to believe.  After being swept at Boston, the Rangers went into New York on May 16, 2003, and jumped to an early 4-1 lead over the Yanks on the strength of a Hank Blalock second inning bases-loaded double off of Roger Clemens.  Colby Lewis was shaky thru 5 innings, giving up 7 hits and 3 walks, but just 4 runs, before turning over the lead to the bullpen.  Alas, Francisco Cordero blew the save in the 8th, allowing the Yankees to tie the score, and it seemed like this would be just the latest in a string of disappointing losses for the Rangers.

Remarkably, though, the bullpen held.  Brian Shouse got out of a 2 on, none out jam in the bottom of the 9th, with the help of a Donnie Sadler-to-Todd Greene throw home on a John Flaherty single to nail Bernie Williams trying to score from second, and R.A. Dickey cruised through the 10th and 11th to give the Rangers the chance to win in the 12th.  After two were out, Juan Acevedo loaded up the bases, allowing a double to Todd Greene, a walk to Ryan Christenson, and hitting Carl Everett.  Blalock, once again, with the bases loaded, laced a double to centerfield, clearing the bases and giving the Rangers an 8-5 win.

That would be the first of a seven game winning streak, getting the Rangers back to one game below .500, at 23-24, and giving them the chance to get back to .500 with a win at Baltimore.  Despite jumping out to a 3-1 lead against Omar Daal, the Rangers let Baltimore come back, with starter John Thomson allowing a two out, three run homer to Melvin Mora in the top of the 7th to give the Orioles a 4-3 lead.  Aaron Fultz and Todd Van Poppel then gascanned the 8th inning, allowing 6 runs while combining for just one out, while the Rangers watched a winnable game that could have gotten them to .500 slip between their fingers.

The Rangers would never again be so close to .500 in 2003, despite the fine efforts of Hank Blalock and the rest of the infield.  Blalock was stellar in the first half of the season, going into the All-Star Break with a .323/.375/.524 line, and was rewarded by being named as a reserve for the American League All-Stars.

The 2003 All-Star Game ended up being one of the most memorable in baseball history, largely because of Hank Blalock.  As most Rangers fans no doubt remember, Blalock was sent up to face Eric Gagne as a pinch hitter in the bottom of the eighth, with a runner on, two outs, and the A.L. down by a run.  On a 3-1 pitch, Blalock turned on a Gagne fastball and sent a no-doubt blast into the rightfield bleachers, giving the American League a 7-6 victory and putting Blalock on the front page of sports sections around the country.

After a strong August, Blalock ended the year with a difficult September, hitting just .226/.245/.453 for the month and ending the year with a .300/.350/.522 line and a .288 EQA, helping lift him to a WARP3 of 5.3 and a VORP of 50.8, good for second on the Rangers and 22nd in the A.L.  Blalock didn't face many lefties in 2003, and struggled against them when he did, and his fade late in the season was a bit of a disappointment, but all in all, you couldn't ask for much more from a 22 year old than Hank Blalock's 2003 season.  The Rangers seemed to agree, signing him to a five year contract extension on the eve of the 2004 season.

For Hank Blalock on an individual level, 2004 was much like 2003...a strong start, and All-Star appearance, a fade in September, struggles against lefties.  His .276/.355/.500 line and his .285 EQA was actually a little worse than his 2003 line, but that could be explained by the fact he was facing more lefties, which was going to create a drag.  He posted a 7.6 WARP on the year and a VORP of 40.2, good for 3rd on the team and 30th in the A.L.  For a 23 year old in his second full season in the majors, it was another encouraging year, his second straight season of being one of the best third basemen in the majors.

Of course, from the team perspective, 2004 was nothing like 2003...there was the ARod situation hanging over the team all offseason, and at the beginning of the year, the question seemed to be whether the Rangers would be able to avoid 100 losses.  But the team got off to a good start, due in no small part to Blalock's strong first half - he went into the ASB with a .303/.369/.572 line, and seemed to be making the jump to superstardom.  In the heat of the summer and a true pennant race, however, Blalock tailed off over the second half, and his .240/.338/.406 second half was a factor in the Rangers ultimately falling out of the divisional race.

Last year, 2005, was a step backwards, both for the Rangers and for Blalock.  After a largely static offseason, the Rangers, who had hoped to make a run for the division title again, ended up disappointing, dropping from 89 wins in 2004 to 79 wins in 2005.  And Blalock's performance was, if anything, even more disappointing than the team's.

Rather than building on his strong first half of the 2005 season and taking that next step, Blalock regressed in 2005.  His first half was good, but not great, as he went into the All-Star Break with a .285/.346/.479 line, and posted an OPS in the 800s in each of the first three months of the season.  After two straight All-Star game appearances, Blalock wasn't named to the team in 2005, the first time he'd been left off the team since he had made the majors for good.

Rangers fans were hoping that Blalock would be able to at least maintain his performance in the second half of the season, but Blalock, continuing a disturbing trend, was awful in the second half.  Blalock hit just .236/.283/.375 in the second half of the season, getting worse in each successive month and bottoming out with an abysmal 605 OPS in September.  2005 was Blalock's worst full season in the majors, as he ended the year with just a .263 EQA and a WARP3 of 4.2, followed by an offseason where he was almost dealt to Florida in the proposed Josh Beckett deal.

In a particularly prescient passage, the BA writeup of Blalock after the 2000 season said, under weaknesses, "At times, Blalock can become too pull-conscious and lengthen his swing too much."  To my untrained eye, that seems to be one of Blalock's biggest problems...when Blalock is going well, he'll yank balls into right, but he's also more willing to use the whole field.  When he's struggling - as he was for much of 2005 - it seems like every swing, he's trying to put the ball in the second deck of the right field bleachers.  

Blalock's numbers show a remarkable pattern of extremes over the course of his career.  His career home line is .310/.379/.548, which is a very nice performance even considering the advantages of hitting at TBIA.  But his career away line of .238/.296/.396 isn't good enough for a third baseman to maintain a major league starting job.  His righty/lefty splits show a similar dichotomy...Blalock has a career 880 OPS against righties, versus a 624 OPS against lefthanders.  And perhaps most troubling are his persistent second-half problems...his .294/.356/.506 first half line is All-Star caliber, while his career .248/.314/.426 career second half line is barely starting caliber.  

It is easy to forget that Hank Blalock was just 24 when the 2005 season ended, that despite having three full seasons in the majors, he's still at an age when some prospects are just breaking in.  His second half problems may be attributable to wearing down over the course of the season, something that conditioning or more rest can help.  And his struggles against lefties and on the road may be a function of youth, although you have to be concerned that he's going backwards in this regard.

Nevertheless, Hank Blalock has been a quality player for the Rangers for the last three years.  At an age when most players are in AA or AAA, Blalock was putting up All-Star caliber years for the Rangers at third base, and even in his disappointing 2005 campaign, he was more or less an average performer at his position.  While hopefully there will be great things to come for Hank Blalock, his performance to date has been good enough to justify including him as one of the 50 Greatest Rangers of All-Time.

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