Tuesday, June 18, 2013

Kyle Blanks Breaking Out (Again)

By now, most baseball fans are familiar with the rollercoaster of a career arc experienced by Alex Gordon. Hailed as the next George Brett, Gordon ripped up minor league pitching but failed to satisfy those lofty expectations once he reached the majors. After four frustrating seasons with Kansas City, Gordon finally broke through in 2011 and has since settled into one of baseball's best (and most underrated) outfielders.

Gordon's come to epitomize the post-hype sleeper, a player who attracted lots of attention early in his career and eventually realized his talent, but only after injuries/subpar performance sidetracked his career and caused people to forget about (or even give up) on him.

Chris Davis is one such player. Kyle Blanks is another.

Drafted by the San Diego Padres in the 42nd round (1,241st overall) of the 2004 draft, then 17 year-old Blanks didn't make much of an impression. Like most teenagers, he was raw, unpolished, and inexperienced. Even so, he excelled in the minor leagues, becoming the Padres top prospect after being named the organization's Minor League Player of the Year in 2008. The following year he was promoted to the Show on June 19th when Cliff Floyd went on the Disabled List, never to play again.

It took the 22 year-old a month to get his feet wet before he exploded. From July 21st onward he batted .296/.389/.653 with 10 home runs in 113 plate appearances before plantar fasciitis ended his power binge and his season on August 28th.

Accordingly, expectations were high for Blanks in 2010. He was installed as the club's cleanup hitter behind Adrian Gonzalez and homered on Opening Day, but his season only went south from there as pitchers began exploiting the holes in his swing. The strikeouts piled up and his batting average plunged below the Mendoza Line. Six weeks into the season, his year was mercifully cut short by elbow reconstruction surgery.

Blanks began 2011 on the Disabled List and didn't return to the majors until July 22nd. He hit well in August (.890 OPS) but went homerless in September. Despite his horrendous finish to the season, he could feel good about cutting his strikeout rate from 38.3 percent to 26.8 percent.

With his re-tooled approach, there was hope Blanks would make good on his promise in 2012. His body did not cooperate, however, and he appeared in only four games before tearing the labrum in his left (nonthrowing) shoulder.

Free of the burdens that weighed down his first few seasons and finally healthy, Banks has come back strong. He played well during spring training, only to find there was no room for him on the big league roster with Yonder Alonso holding down first base and Carlos Quentin patrolling left field. He didn't have to wait long for the opportunity to prove himself, though. In mid-April Quentin got suspended for his role in a fight, opening up space for Blanks. An injury to Cameron Maybin gave him additional job security and allowed him to play everyday.

After a slow start he's hit his stride; since the calendar flipped to June he's belted five home runs, knocked in 13 runs and compiled a 1.003 OPS, moving his batting line up to .282/.362/.507 on the year. His strikeout rate is all the way down to 21.5 percent--easily the best mark of his career. At 26 the hulking slugger seems to have finally figured it out and should be a major offensive force for the Padres going forward.

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