Since the turn of the century, third base has boasted a lot of superstars in MLB. In the early 2000s, Chipper Jones and Scott Rolen dominated the position, and after moving over from shortstop, Álex Rodríguez won two MVPs at the hot corner. In the 2010s, Miguel Cabrera won a triple crown while playing third base, and Josh Donaldson enjoyed a surge that saw him win an MVP award as well. Later in the decade, slick-fielding sluggers Manny Machado, Nolan Arenado, and Matt Chapman along with switch-hitting star José Ramírez captivated fans with their abilities. In 2003 though, the Texas Rangers had a young third baseman named Hank Blalock who appeared to be a star in the making. The left-handed hitting Blalock mashed at the plate and played some of the best defense in baseball, yet received almost no recognition for it.
Blalock Before 2003
A native of San Diego, the Rangers drafted Blalock in the third round of the 1999 MLB Draft out of Rancho Bernardo High School. Blalock tore up the minors as a teenager and made it to Double-A as a 20-year-old in 2001, hitting .327/.413/.544 in 315 plate appearances at that level. In 2002, Blalock broke camp as the Rangers’ starting third baseman but was sent down to Triple-A after recording just a .200 batting average with eight extra-base hits in 100 at-bats. Blalock hit well in the minors and was re-called by Texas in September, and while he still struggled a bit, he showed some promise with an 11% walk rate. With the strong play of veteran Herbert Perry though, Blalock faced an uphill battle if he wanted to begin the 2003 season in the majors.
Early 2003: Red-Hot April and May
Blalock was able to crack the opening-day roster in 2003 as the Rangers’ starting third baseman, and he got off to a rip-roaring start. He began the year on a seven-game hitting streak, including a four-hit effort against the Mariners on April 5. Blalock recorded multiple hits in 12 of the 23 games he played in the month, and ended April with a blistering .388/.441/.635 batting line to go with five homers, six doubles, and 13 RBIs.
By May, Blalock was settled into the two-spot in the Texas batting order. While his numbers weren’t as eye-popping for the month, he drove in 20 runs in 24 games and hit a strong .333/.386/.538 in 101 plate appearances. Blalock’s walk rate was down from 2002, but through the end of May, he’d struck out in just 15.1% of his at-bats.
End of the First Half: A Trip to the All-Star Game
Blalock cooled off in June, though he still remained productive and posted a solid .791 OPS in 24 games. Blalock wasn’t alone in seeing his numbers take a bit of a dip, as the Rangers went just 7-20 that month to fall 17 games below .500. On July 3, Blalock recorded the first multi-homer game of his career, swatting two long-balls in a 6-5 win over the Angels in Anaheim. Despite a bit of a slump to end the first half, Blalock was hitting .323/.375/.524 with 14 homers, 19 doubles, and 48 RBIs at the All-Star break. He was named to the All-Star Game and at 22 years old was the youngest player on the AL roster, and was the second-youngest selection behind only Dontrelle Willis.
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Blalock didn’t enter the Midsummer Classic until the bottom of the eighth inning, but he delivered one of the biggest at-bats in All-Star Game history with the AL trailing 6-5. Facing off against eventual NL Cy Young winner Eric Gagné, Blalock smacked a 3-1 fastball over the right-centerfield fence for a go-ahead two-run homer. His homer ended up being the difference in the ballgame, as Keith Foulke set the NL down in order to secure a 7-6 AL victory.
Second Half: Walks Drop, Extra-Base Power Remains
Blalock’s batting average and on-base percentage never quite reached the heights that they did during the first half, but his power stroke kept right where it was. He had a strong month of August, hitting .315/.373/.587 with six homers, five doubles, and 18 RBIs in 102 plate appearances. This hot stretch included a four-hit effort to help the Rangers rally past the Twins for an 11-10 on the last day of the month.
Blalock had his worst month of the year in September, but despite hitting just .226 and only drawing three walks, Blalock clubbed five homers and seven doubles while driving in 14 runs. Furthermore, he kept his strikeout rate below 20%, striking out just 18 times in 102 at-bats. In 62 games in the second half, Blalock hit .272/.319/.520 and clubbed 15 homers and 14 doubles with 42 RBIs in 276 plate appearances.
End of Season Totals: A Year to Remember, Zero Accolades
All told, Blalock finished the season with a .300/.350/.522 (117 OPS+) batting line with 29 homers, 33 doubles, and 90 RBIs in 615 plate appearances. While his walk rate dropped to just 7.2%, his strikeout rate fell from 25% in 2002 to 15.8% in 2003. His power numbers were especially strong considering he never hit more than 18 homers in any season in the minor leagues.
While his offense was impressive, Blalock was just as great defensively at third base. He racked up 28 DRS at the hot corner, which led all third basemen in MLB. As a result of his stellar play, Blalock racked up 6.4 rWAR, which ranked second among position players in the AL behind his teammate Álex Rodríguez and seventh in MLB.
Since defensive runs saved became a statistic in 2002, only six players have put up a season in which they hit 25 or more homers with an OPS greater than .850 and over 25 DRS: Scott Rolen in 2004, Albert Pujols in 2007, Chase Utley in 2008, Ben Zobrist in 2009, Mookie Betts in 2016, and Hank Blalock in 2003. Yet despite this amazing year, Blalock left the 2003 season without any hardware. He missed out on the Silver Slugger to Boston’s Bill Mueller and lost out on the Gold Glove to Oakland’s Eric Chavez. In fact, Blalock didn’t even receive an MVP vote, while the other five players who’ve had this stat line finished in the top 15 of MVP voting.
Why didn’t Blalock get any love from awards voters? Some might say that the Rangers’ 71-91 record may have contributed to it, but the man who shared the left side of the Texas infield with Blalock, Álex Rodríguez, won the AL MVP award. The race for the MVP award was also extremely tight in the AL, with nine different players receiving at least one first-place vote. Among these players was fourth-place finisher Shannon Stewart, whose 3.1 rWAR is dwarfed by Blalock’s mark, as is his .823 OPS. While Blalock maybe didn’t deserve MVP over A-Rod, he deserved to at least make it onto some ballots and should have easily won a Gold Glove. Still, at just 22 years, Blalock looked to be just getting his career started.
Ensuing Years: Injuries Derail Blalock’s Career
Blalock continued to mash in 2004, clubbing a career-high 32 homers and driving in 110 runs, making his second straight All-Star Game. While his defense wasn’t as spectacular as the year prior, Blalock finished 18th in the AL MVP voting, and by this point had his own fan club in Texas called Hank’s Homies.
Blalock played in a career-high 161 games in 2005, but his numbers dropped off precipitously from the years prior. He still managed to hit 25 homers, but his OPS dropped to a below-average .749 and he recorded an abysmal -19 DRS. His production dropped even further in 2006, swatting just 16 homers in 152 games with a .726 OPS (89 OPS+) and his defense remained below average.
Blalock got off to a slow start in April of 2007, but he appeared to be turning things around with a 1.073 OPS in 15 games in May. However, he was diagnosed with Thoracic Outlet Syndrome that month and additionally had to undergo surgery to remove a rib. He was again productive when he returned to the lineup in September, but he was limited to being the team’s designated hitter. Blalock missed significant time again in 2008, this time with a hamstring injury, and eventually was forced to move to first base to avoid re-injuring his shoulder.
Between 2007 and 2008, Blalock played in just 123 games and while he was able to play 122 games in 2009, he batted a career-worst .234 with just a .277 on-base percentage and a .736 OPS. Blalock signed a minor-league contract with the Rays in 2010 but was released in early July after just 26 games with the team. Following the 2010 season, Blalock retired from baseball, just shy of his 30th birthday. While his career was cut short, people should remember Blalock for what he did in his early 20s, and how he continues to be overlooked despite his excellence.
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