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Blanco out to prove stellar 2013 was no fluke


Tony Blanco was very good in 2013. Ridiculously good even, considering the already solid performer shattered a slew of career highs in one fell swoop.

In his first season with the Yokohama BayStars, Blanco led the Central League with a .333 average and 136 RBIs, both career (in NPB) highs. His 41 home runs, another career best, left him second to CL MVP Wladimir Balentien, who set the NPB single-season record with 60, and one category short of the Triple Crown.

Blanco also ended the year with a slash line (batting average/on-base percentage/slugging percentage) of .333/.416/.634, blowing away his previous bests of .275/.349/.534.

He garnered some attention, but overall his performance flew woefully under the radar as Balentien’s historic pursuit hogged the spotlight. Blanco was so underappreciated that when it came time to decide the CL MVP, he didn’t garner a single first-place vote, fewer than Yomiuri relievers Tetsuya Yamaguchi and Scott Mathieson each received.

Blanco was great last year, but can he be that good in 2014?

It wasn’t his power numbers that were surprising, it was the overall consistency at the plate.

Blanco was a career .262 hitter entering the 2013 season and a batting champion by year’s end. He also struck out less — 118 times after whiffing 157 and 158 times in his other two seasons with at least 100 games played — and set a career high with 62 walks.

How repeatable a .333 average for Blanco can be is questionable, but as long as pitchers are cautious of him in smaller CL parks and he can remain somewhat disciplined at the plate, Blanco can keep his walks up and strikeouts down.

Blanco’s numbers were always going to rise once he stopped playing the bulk of his games at Nagoya Dome and moved to hitter-friendly Yokohama Stadium, but some of his extreme improvements — not the least of which was a .366 batting average on balls in play (BABIP) .288 points higher than the league average — could be exceptions rather than rules.

Blanco’s BABIP was .314 and .321 in his first two seasons in Japan and .266 and .257 with the initial standardized ball in 2011 and 2012. Last year it spiked, and the 102-kg slugger wasn’t beating out too many infield singles either. His balls were finding holes or being hit to fielders unable to make the plays, resulting in a lot of safe hits, which usually means good things are happening.

An abnormally high BABIP, though, sometimes suggests a player is due for a regression to the mean, but that alone hardly makes it a certainty. Many factors including the skill of opposing pitchers, fielders and even managers come into play. Perhaps defenses simply turn more of Blanco’s batted balls into outs this year. That would bring his batting average and BABIP closer to his normal levels.

Though there’s no defense for a ball that goes over the fence (home runs don’t effect BABIP) and while Blanco may, or may not, create fewer runs on balls in play, he’s always been a consistent power threat and could easily be in the 40-50 homer range and again drive in over 100 runs, which is probably what the BayStars had in mind when they signed him.

Maybe Blanco’s season simply hinges on pitchers finding his weakness. Last year his coldest zone was low and away, where he managed a paltry .211 average and struck out 46 times. Opposing hurlers also now have a year’s experience with the latest official ball under their belts.

Blanco set the bar very high in his first season in Yokohama, and there isn’t a lot to suggest he can’t do it again.

His batting average is the mostly likely candidate to drop, but even if he creates fewer runs with balls that stay in the park, his power numbers should remain in the stratosphere and another big year could be on tap.