I found myself thinking about how the 2012 season marked a decade since Hank Blalock debuted as a Texas Ranger in 2002. It was then that Blalock joined Alex Rodriguez on the left-side of the Rangers' infield. I don't know why I decided to entertain these thoughts. Maybe it's because of the ascent of Jurickson Profar to the top of the prospect lists. Maybe it's because of the artificial designation of meaning applied to a decade. Maybe it's because I hate myself.
Thinking about Hank Blalock joining Alex Rodriguez on the left-side of the Rangers' infield a decade ago is apparently akin to thinking about Game 6 for me. There were wonderful, majestic, life-altering moments therein, sure, but the way it all played out in the end was ultimately a roundhouse kick to the facial region.
A decade ago, though, it sure looked like the Rangers had a tandem that we would enjoy for a long time. And boy was it going to be a terror. The Rangers were essentially pairing a shortstop-manning Hank Aaron with a guy named Hank whose floor looked then like what is now potential future Hall of Famer Scott Rolen. Or so it seemed. And while that may sound like hyperbole (okay, it is hyperbole), Aaron never had a 10+ fWAR season like Rodriguez did and Blalock's "Most Similar by Age," player according to Baseball-Reference, during his ages 22-24 seasons was Rolen.
Those brief Blalock/Rodriguez years would have even made the current Adrian Beltre/Elvis Andrus pairing envious. In fact, Blalock/Rodriguez was simply blowing the modern left-side of the infield out of the water, which is saying something. Beltre/Andrus is considered one of the best 3B/SS combos in the game today. But back in the day, A-Rod was notably special, and by all accounts, Blalock was going to be.
Just consider that there was a time, in 2003, when the Rangers had the No. 1 prospect in baseball per Baseball America, a talent thought of at the time as one of the best college hitters to ever come out of the draft, in Mark Teixeira, at 1B, what we've come to know as the leader of practically every offensive stat in team history, in Michael Young, at 2B, Rodriguez coming off a 10.0 fWAR Gold Glove, Silver Slugger, Bronze Statue, Historically Platinum, All-Cosmos season at SS, and Blalock, a guy who hit .352 in A+/AA ball in '01 and was the new next George Brett, at 3B. And it didn't work.
The Rangers lost 91 games in 2003 which was tied for the most losses by the Rangers in a season since 1985. Of course, in 2003, the problem was the pitching. (Though, it's perhaps hilarious to note that the 2012 NL Cy Young winner, set-up man for the 2012 American League Champions, and Opening Day starter for the defending 2011 American League Champions were all members of the 2003 Rangers' rotation.)
In that 2003 season, A-Rod followed up his otherworldly '02 with a MVP-winning 9.3 fWAR season and Blalock was an All-Star with a .872 OPS, 5.1 fWAR season now under his belt. The future did look bright should only the Rangers finally get some pitching. Of course, Tom Hicks then paid the Yankees to take the American League's best player off his hands after the '03 season. And, though Blalock began to strikeout a bunch (a career high 149 strikeouts in 2004, 8th most in baseball), he had another promising year in the surprising Dellucci Double '04 season before devolving into a hitter who seemed unsatisfied with trying to do anything other than attempt to slug a home run in any given at-bat.
To our dismay, it was one of the more depressing and perplexing tailspins by a young player in team history. It's not like Blalock was an outright bust either. Blalock had accumulated 9.4 fWAR heading into his age 24 season. As a prospect he was always touted as a guy who could become an elite hitter for average and was a guy who had very good plate discipline/pitch recognition. The idea was that he had home run power potential, but already had lasers to the gaps installed in his armory.
Blalock hit 40 home runs total in his '99-'02 Rangers minor league career. He hit 61 homers in his first two full major league seasons. The power came so quickly. If you count IBs, Blalock had a 0.98 BB/K ratio (230/234) (or basically 2012 Prince Fielder) in his minor league career whereas he had a 0.48 ratio (318/695) (or basically 2012 Adam Dunn) as a major leaguer. The patience and disciple evaporated even quicker.
But Hank Joe Blalock was a super cool baseball name. Hank Blalock could rake, it was said. Hank Blalock was gonna be a Hall of Famer. Blalock hit .300 in his first full season with a respectable OBP of .350. He looked like he was developing into the stud who was ranked as the best position player prospect (No. 3 overall behind Josh Beckett and Mark Prior) in baseball by Baseball America in 2002.
And the early success wasn't just at the plate. Blalock actually led all of baseball in defensive bWAR (3.0) in 2003. Yes, even ahead of Beltre (2.8). That's tied for the 138th best season defensively in baseball history! If you remember back to a seemingly near-immobile Blalock manning first base in 2009, this could only be considered another black mark on the reliability of advanced defensive statistics. And yet, in 2004, he was still above average (1.0 bWAR, 9th best in baseball) at 3B defensively.
But, by 2005, he was hitting .262 with only 51 walks and .a .318 OBP in 23 more at-bats than in 2004 when he walked at a respectable 10.5% clip and sported a career high .355 OBP. And the defense was now a liability to the tune of -1.2 bWAR. Fangraphs is congruent with Baseball-Reference showing Blalock putting up 9.6 fWAR with +21.0 Fld in his first two full seasons before garnering 1.2 fWAR and -33.3 Fld for his remaining six seasons.
Blalock showed promise in the '07-'08 seasons (.901/.846 OPS) but was plagued by unusual injuries in each (In '07 he was one of the original Rangers' Thoracic Outlet Syndrome victims and in '08 he was sidelined with carpal tunnel issues) and only played 123 games in the two years combined. Through all of these failed Blalock years the Rangers were either plain bad or merely mediocre. And I'm pretty sure we all remember 2009. Blalock, fairly healthy but obviously weathered, cratered to the tune of a .736 OPS, -0.5 fWAR season that saw him strikeout 108 times while collecting only 26 walks. Hank's Homies could only hang their heads. '09 was Blalock's final season as a Ranger.
Blalock's final great moment as a Ranger likely came in a July 1, 2009 game against the Anaheim Angels, a contest that mirrors this season's August 1 game from a similar season that was full of intrigue but ended bitterly. The Rangers trailed the Angels by 1.5 games going into the rubber match finale of a three-game set in Arlington. A win and the Rangers would have climbed back to within a half game of the Angels in a season that saw the Rangers contend into September for the first time in five years.
The Rangers led 7-1 heading into the 7th before allowing three Angel runs in both 7th and 9th. The Angels were actually down to their last out before Frank Francisco allowed a three-run game-tying home run to notorious Ranger death-dealer Juan Rivera. In what could have been a season-deflating loss, Hank Blalock stepped up in the 9th:
And in a win unlike many that had been seen in The Ballpark at the time, it was a moment that produced one of my favorite .gifs:
If for no other reason than this, thanks Hank.
After signing a minor league deal with the Tampa Bay Rays before the 2010 season, Blalock hit .349 for Triple-A Durham. On May 15, he was called back up to the majors by the Rays. Blalock played another 26 games in the majors with Tampa. He hit .254. His final at-bat came on June 27, 2010. He grounded out against Blaine Boyer of the Arizona Diamondbacks in a 2-1 loss. Two days later, he was designated for assignment when Gabe Kapler (of all people) returned from the DL. Rather than return him to Durham, Blalock was released on July 8.
In a way far less impactful than the sight of Johnny Unitas in a Chargers' jersey or Emmitt Smith wearing a Cardinals' helmet, the sight of Blalock as a Ray feels wrong to me even so. There were rumors that Blalock's descent to terrible began because he took to the drink too much. Maybe it was steroids that led to the power surge and therefore the slugger's mentality. Regardless, there's a fragment in this that doesn't feel right that Hank Blalock doesn't own a 2010 Pennant ring from the Texas Rangers after suffering the aughts with all of us. And yet, in many ways, it seems perhaps a sort of justice were I allowed to judge people I don't know.
The shedding of Hank Blalock was perhaps a totem that signified an end and ushered in the greatest era of success in Rangers' history. And yet, for me, that plays a rather somber note on my memories and identity of the decade where I still have spent the most time being a Rangers fan in.
Hank Blalock was probably my favorite Rangers prospect ever and, for a few years, my favorite Ranger on some really bad Rangers teams. I think back to the days before he was ever a big leaguer when Internet baseball forums battled because Billy Beane was trying to get Major League Baseball to send the A's Blalock as compensation for the Rangers tampering when they hired Grady Fuson away from Oakland--a plot point for the Moneyball movie far more intriguing than how much chocolate syrup Beane's daughter likes on her ice cream, if you ask me.
I think back to Blalock hitting .380 in high A Port Charlotte over a third of a season in 2001 and imagining what his left-handed stroke would look like at The Ballpark with every Newberg Minor League Report. I think back to Blalock launching what would be a game-winning home run off of Eric Gagne in the '03 All-Star game when anyone on the planet hitting Gagne was an impossibility.
Seriously, I know Gagne was juicing but just stop and look at that season he had in '03. Only one right-handed hitter took him deep all season. Only one left-handed hitter took him deep all season. Well, make that two. There's Vlad Guerrero, Todd Helton, and then there's Hank Blalock. I know it was an exhibition game, but it felt at the time like a damn coronation. Garrett Anderson owes Hank that All-Star Game MVP award!
But with over a decade of hindsight from Blalock's debut to now, when I look back on the overall scope of Hank Blalock the finished baseball player, I get a similar feeling to the one that pervades when visions of Lance Berkman blooping a single into center violate my thoughts. And that's certainly unfortunate when ruminating on the things that could have been.
It's not all horror, though. That "one of the best college hitters to ever come out of the draft" first baseman guy from the '03 team ended up netting the club the elite starting shortstop, Cy Young vote-garnering Game 7 starter, and Rookie of the Year closer for a team that did work. Twice.
I'm not sure what to take from these thoughts. Perhaps that Blalock was simply the aughts-Rangers personified. While it looked possible at one point in time, Batlak ultimately proved one of baseball's more recent unassailable truths: There just never will be another George Brett. But maybe you can have a modicum of fun dreaming for a while that you've found him.