Let’s start with a blanket statement: Drafting Alex Blandino goes against everything the Reds organization believes.
Normally, I hate blanket statements because they give off an air of absolute that just doesn’t exist in the real world. However, while researching the Reds young infielder, I couldn’t help but realize that this one might just be true. Now, let’s break that statement into three parts, just to see how it holds up.
Part 1: The Reds drafted Alex Blandino
This part is pretty undeniable. With the 29th pick of the 2014 draft (a compensation pick for losing Shin Soo Choo), the Reds took the then 21-year-old Stanford third baseman.
Previously taken in the 38th round by the A’s in 2011, Blandino decided to remain in his hometown of Palo Alto to play ball for the Cardinal. In high school, Blandino won the Rawlings Golden Glove award for best fielding shortstop in the country. Curiously enough, the Cubs Javier Baez won the same award that year for third basemen. In another fun awards twist of fate, Blandino was named first team All-California along with Reds farmhand Robert Stephenson in 2011. That same year, Blandino hit .511/.453 with 9 HR and 39 RBIs and pitched 45.0 innings to the tune of a 2.18 ERA.
At Stanford, Blandino made an impact as a freshman, hit a road block his sophomore year, and then broke out again his junior year, earning second team All-America honors before being drafted. Slashing .294/.371/.523 in 29 starts his freshman year, Blandino cemented himself in the Cardinal lineup, even showing a little bit of pop as the team’s second leading home run hitter. Possibly more impressive though was a .563, 4 HR stretch Blandino had over a week in mid-April, the heart of conference play.
His second year, Blandino suffered the sophomore slump that seems to occur in every sport at every level for no discernible reason. He only slashed .268/.340/.453 that season while starting all but one game at third, but still managed to be second on the team in homers with seven. Blandino’s fielding also dropped off his sophomore season as he committed 14 errors, the most on the team by a fair margin.
Turning it all around his junior season, Blandino led the team in homers with 12, slashed .310/.397/.531, and made the Pac-12 All-Defensive team, putting his fielding demons to rest (despite leading the Cardinal in errors once more). Not surprisingly, Blandino had more home runs his junior season than did three other Pac-12 teams.
All of which led tot he Reds making the jump of selecting Blandino–the 6’0″, 190lb, 52nd ranked prospect in the 2014 draft–with the 29th pick.
Part 2: The Reds organization has a set of beliefs
More or less entirely conjecture, this part can only be proved through a litany of fan sentiment. Just look at Steve Mancuso’s open letter to Mr. Castellini from this past summer–“Unfortunately, your organization is operating based on principles that worked in the past but are now out of date.” Or look to the World Wide leader in sports and their feature on the best and worst analytical teams in sports. The Reds are ranked firmly in the “Skeptics” department and are described as “remain[ing] a front office with a traditional composition” and “hav[ing] made a relatively small investment in analytics.”
Yesterday, Steve laid out the Reds set of beliefs and how they’ve changed of late. With the promotion of Dick Williams to General Manager, the Reds are no longer the “Skeptic” that ESPN named but one year ago. The Reds are embracing modern philosophy, learning to use it, and most importantly, actually employing some strategies. But they aren’t there yet. As Steve said:
When it comes to smart baseball, there’s talking the talk and acquiring the walk, so to speak.
Even with the data buttoned down by new staff members, decision makers have to interpret it correctly in context in relation to the big picture. Tactics vs. strategy. A major part of the strategic environment is the decline in run scoring. Even a cursory glance around the major leagues indicates that clubs are emphasizing speed and defense. But it’s vital to understand why that’s happening. They’re doing it because speed and defense are what’s out there, a byproduct of the relative scarcity of power hitting.
That doesn’t mean power is less important. Just the opposite. Scarcity makes power hitting even more valuable to develop or acquire. Meanwhile, speed and defense are becoming easier to find.
Think of this current Reds iteration. We have speed (Billy Hamilton); we have defense (Zack Cozart/Brandon Phillips); and we have a whole order full of free-swinging, boom-or-bust hitters. And therein lies the problem with the Reds set of beliefs. We’re trying to use the same old techniques of run-scoring in an environment that no longer favors those techniques. We’re trying to outsmart a market by using it’s most abundant qualities.
Part 3: Part 1 goes against Part 2
So back to Alex Blandino: how does the Reds drafting of the Stanford All-American counter their set of beliefs (as it existed in 2014 and still exists to a lesser extent today)?
It all boils down to the idea of the Stanford Swing. An idea that permeates scout’s evaluations of Stanford hitters, the Stanford Swing supposes that the specific brand of hitting taught by Cardinal coaches zaps players of their power in favor of an inside-out, contact-heavy approach. The label has the connotation of working well in the college game (hence Stanford’s success) but failing at the upper levels. Players who have been tagged with the Stanford Swing and washed out of baseball pretty quick include Michael Taylor, Austin Wilson, and Kevin Diekroger.
Accounts on whether Blandino has the typical Stanford Swing differ, but most projections prior to the draft all mentioned the phenomenon in some way. Blandino has an even swing through the zone that’s not quick to the ball but not long either. His swing–like most Stanford products–leads to more line drives, but it doesn’t focus on driving the ball the other way. Also, across the board, scouts have praised Blandino’s plate discipline and his ability to not chase pitches outside the zone. Despite all of this, as a player without one specialized tool but decent across the board, the Stanford Swing seems to have been used as a false indicator to his worth.
I say that drafting Alex Blandino goes against the Reds set of beliefs because surprisingly, the Reds somehow drafted a solid player who works well in the current league environment. Blandino fits nicely into the strategy of analytics that Steve wrote about. He’s not defense for the sake of being of being defense, but complements that tool with other decent, usable traits. Also, not only did the Reds take Blandino 23 spots ahead of where he was valued, but they did so against the conventional wisdom of traditional baseball scouting.
To put this front office coup in perspective, compare Blandino to Jose Peraza, acquired this winter as part of the Todd Frazier trade. Peraza is the stereotypical Reds infielder: fast, good glove, no power, and no plate discipline. None of those are particularly bad qualities, but considering he was the centerpiece of a trade for the Reds marquee chip, it’s all a bit demoralizing. Blandino looks to be a moderately richer man’s Zack Cozart: decent glove, enough power, and walks at a decent clip (9.1% in 80 A games/13.0% in 30 AA games). He’s toolsy in the way that clubs need from a shortstop; not a superstar by any means, but dependable.
Part 4: So where does Blandino fit in the organization?
After the draft, Red Reporter writer Cy Schourek projected Blandino’s ceiling to be something like Jed Lowrie, which if it comes to fruition, would be a boon for the Reds.
After a decent first year on the farm (.294/.370/.438 in A; .235/.350/.374 in AA), Blandino looks to continue steadily moving up the ladder and hopefully make the team come spring 2017. Most promisingly, Blandino posted above average wRC+ at both minor league stops, giving the Reds hope for a solid bottom third hitter.
As for his long-term future, there was talk that Blandino might be lost in the organizational shuffle with the addition of Peraza at second, but I would beg to differ. With Cozart and/or Phillips gone after 2016, all infield positions are up for grabs (sans Joey Votto’s domain) with Suarez, Blandino, and Peraza to fight for them. Most coaches see Blandino at the hot corner, but if he can maintain numbers anything like Zack Cozart and walk a bit too, I think letting him take the reins at short and leaving Suarez at third could be the best move for the organization. Blandino would have to up his arm strength quite a bit to stick at short, but having good options for both spots on the left side of the infield is not a bad dilemma.
On paper, Blandino is solid all around and somehow that’s a detriment in a lot of scout’s eyes, but what about the intangibles? For one, Blandino is bilingual, having grown-up with a Nicaraguan father who required Spanish be spoken at home. As the Billings Gazette reported in 2014, Blandino is uniquely skilled to help bridge the language barrier between coaches and players and has done so in part at the minor league level.
Second (and far less important but it needs to be said), Blandino has fantastic hair. Like truly amazing hair. There has been a definite void in the follicle department since Bronson Arroyo, Mike Leake, and Johnny Cueto were all traded and Alex Blandino is obliged to fill it.
— Cincinnati Reds (@Reds) December 5, 2015
All of this to say, the Reds–whether knowingly or not–drafted a solid prospect in Alex Blandino against what is perceived to be their system. With the new management starting to gain more influence, Blandino will be a welcome cog in the team’s new direction, ideally playing a large role in the rebuilt team of 2017 and beyond. But the entirety of this projection is overwhelming premature. As of now, Blandino is just another solid prospect on paper who put up decent, if not good, numbers last year; who has a solid swing and good defensive instincts; who is charismatic and good-looking; but most of all, who is unproven and still a “wildcard” that the Reds took an unexpected risk on a year and half ago.