Name: Kyle Blanks
DOB: September 11, 1986
After hitting seven homers in the span of 14 games to begin his professional career, Blanks managed just 10 over his next 120 contests that spanned two leagues.
Did he have enough in the tank to produce a swing that would produce dingers on a consistent basis?
The answer became yes in 2007.
Batting .292 in the Midwest League after skipping short-season Eugene in 2006 was the start of Blanks maturing. An infection in his leg derailed a season that saw him club 20 doubles, the 10 homers, knock in 52 and post an on-base percentage of .382.
He came to the California League with gigantic, no pun intended, expectations. He clearly had to show that he was ready for prime time, flashing his girth and producing results.
Blanks registered 31 doubles, four three-baggers, and 24 homers over 119 games, sitting fourth in the league in total extra base hits, and he was the only player in the system to record 100 RBIs at one level – hitting the century mark to place fourth in the circuit.
"They tinkered with him a little at Instructs and closed him up and widened him out – it was a little more of a bat angle to free him up so he could use his hands more," former Lake Elsinore and current Portland hitting coach Max Venable said. "This year they pitched him inside a lot and he handled the ball quite well. It was more of him being patient and hanging in there with the sliders and curveballs away while they pounded fastballs in. I think it was more bat angle and using his hands more."
The behemoth also hit .301 and scored 94 runs while stealing 11 bags in 13 attempts – an amazing feat for a player of his size.
Blanks stacked up and padded his stats in the first half, netting 61 of his RBIs before the break and just 39 after. He also swatted .335 prior to the All-Star game but struggled with a .264 mark after.
"He hit .310 last year and struggled the second half in Fort Wayne," Lake Elsinore manager Carlos Lezcano said. "He put up good numbers all year long. He drove in 100 and hit over .300 and is improving at first base."
He also homered more times in hitter's parks than any other and it would be nice to see that balance out a little more.
The slugger added a 14-game hitting streak in the first half and was a force in the playoffs. His three homers and 10 runs scored placed second in the circuit during the California League playoffs, and he posted a league leading 10 RBIs during that span.
Part of the struggles were fatigue – this was his first year playing over 85 games and the long season was taking its toll. He also lost some of his protection when Chad Huffman and Matt Antonelli were sent to Double-A and Blanks received a steady diet of breaking balls as a result.
Blanks has changed his swing from last year to this. Instead of his Paul Bunyan appearance with the bat resting on his shoulder at the pitch, he holds the bat in the more traditional style with elbow up and hands extended out and away from his body.
The immediate impact is evident as his trigger is less pronounced and he can put the bat through the hitting zone quicker and with less room for mechanical error. He can also sit back on a breaking ball and pick up spin where previously he had to start his swing earlier, making it easier to fool him.
He drew 44 walks this past year while fanning 98 times. Given his power ability, the walks should increase and if he can keep the strikeouts around 100 in a given year he should be fine.
By freeing up his hands, Blanks can also turn quicker on the inside fastball, pulling it down the let field line with authority.
Crowding the plate is also part of his game and he provides a big target even in his hitting crouch. He was hit by 18 pitches last year, including four games in a row where he was plunked.
"He can hit for a pretty good average for his size and that is an advantage," Lezcano said. "He just turned 21. He played 20 all year. That is very encouraging. He has outstanding power and is becoming better everyday.
"He is staying off the breaking balls away. How pitchers worked him was fastball in and then breaking stuff away. When he lay away from the no-strike breaking balls or fastballs away they have to come in and he is very dangerous. He was good at staying away from the breaking balls out of the zone on the outside part of the plate."
While he is agile, Blanks does not have fluid hips to change directions from a defensive standpoint. He committed nine errors and most came on the fielding of ground balls, as he struggled with squaring up the ball. He is, however, good at picking balls out of the dirt to aid his fellow infielders.
Blanks must improve defensively and was sent to the Instructional League solely for that purpose. He is limited to first base because of his tremendous size – there just aren't a lot of outfielders that can claim to be 280-plus pounds. His lateral movement has improved but he will never move well diagonally.
"He is a good athlete for a big guy," former Padres minor league field coordinator and current MLB scout Bill Bryk said. "He has to keep his weight down so he can reach his potential."
Surprisingly spry for a man his size, Blanks has a long stride that enables him to unexpectedly steal some bases. He managed to swipe 11 bags in 13 attempts for the Storm.
"If Gonzalez is still at first base in two years, where are you going to put him?" said Bryk. "I told Grady you could stick him out in left field. He is a 7.00-flat runner. Frank Howard could play left field, why couldn't Kyle Blanks who runs better. That is why I call Blanks ‘Hondo' – after Frank Howard."
ETA: Blanks is setting a one level a year pace and proved the California League was no match for his brawn. Double-A will prove the biggest challenge for the first baseman, and it is hard to see him not continue to hit. There is a delicate balance in his game between power and average and the hope is both continue to thrive while he improves his defense.
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