SCOTTSDALE, Ariz. -- Charlie Blackmon's performance and the Rockies' fortunes are intertwined.
In 2014, Blackmon hit .295 with a .369 on-base percentage and .438 slugging percentage in Rockies wins, .279/.328/.459 in losses. Last season, the differences in the slash lines were even more pronounced -- .376/.425/.607 in wins, .228/.271/.325 in losses.
It would be simplistic to say the left-handed-hitting Blackmon, the Rockies' bearded center fielder and leadoff hitter, is the biggest determining factor in wins and losses. After all, he doesn't pitch. But Blackmon is the X-factor in a lineup that is capable of high run totals but at times has struggled with efficiency.
"When I play well, it's easier for the Rockies to win games," Blackmon said. "It may not be super-obvious in the box score, like Nolan [Arenado], when he hits a home run every night. But being on base a whole bunch of times, putting pressure on the pitcher, maybe getting a good read from second, just those little things add up over the course of the game, over the course of the season."
X-factor types are hard to define. This description fits Blackmon, who signed a one-year, $3.5 million contract this winter, his first of arbitration eligibility.
No one expected Blackmon's .372/.411/.611 through 32 games in 2014 to sustain, but a dip to as low as .281 (he finished at .288) didn't define him, either. Last season, Blackmon finished at .287 but saw increases in his OBP (.347, 12 points higher) and slugging (.440, up 10 points). Heading into this season, many fantasy ratings of Rockies players put him behind Arenado, who hit 42 homers last season, but ahead of Carlos Gonzalez, who totaled 40.
Blackmon's role is heightened by the Rockies' plan to hit rookie shortstop Trevor Story second. With a stolen-base threat in Blackmon on the bases, pitchers are more likely to give Story fastballs. And with Gonzalez and Arenado behind Story, those fastballs are more likely to be in the strike zone. But it's all predicated on Blackmon being a difficult out.
"He can get on base, he can steal a base, he can hit a ball in the seats," Rockies manager Walt Weiss said. "When he's rolling, we're in pretty good shape with those guys coming up behind him."
The numbers suggest that Blackmon is evolving, despite the fact he turns 30 on July 1. He lost large chunks of playing time while breaking into the Majors in 2012 and '13 because of foot and knee injuries, so he has less experience and mileage than his age suggests. But the Rockies see him getting better because of his self-driven approach, which was typified by his becoming a stolen-base threat last season.
Blackmon studied opposing pitchers and catchers and based his reads off that information. With speed that's above-average but not blazing, Blackmon went 42-of-56 in stolen-base attempts last season.
Blackmon is taking the same approach, not just to hitting and baserunning, but to his reads in the outfield.
"He got to the big leagues late in life, and by working harder than anybody else and actually being a real student of the game," Rockies hitting coach Blake Doyle said. "He's a really good self-evaluator, and he feels there are parts of his game that can get better. He feels faster than he was last year and stronger than he was last year."
Last season, Blackmon's pitches seen per plate appearance rose to a career-high 3.98. Can he find more areas to improve?
"If you're going to look at me, the point is look at year-over-year statistics, I think they've gotten a little more consistent, a little better, a little more predictable," Blackmon said. "That's what I strive more in my career, to be a little bit better, a little bit more consistent year to year. I'm not looking for a lot of ups and downs.
"I'm not trying to do anything new. I'm just trying to take all the little parts of the game that I've been working on and make them better, like reads on the basepaths, defensive jumps and reads, having good at-bats, swinging at better pitches -- if I can't hit it hard, I don't want to swing. Just little incremental difference in a few of those areas can make a big difference added all up."