Well, here we are again, rehashing Tater's less-than-stellar freshman campaign. No, it's not because we like bringing up the man's dirty laundry, it's because of the lofty expectations that followed him to Oxford from Altamonte Springs, Fla. Tate Blackman was the No. 63 prospect in the country, the No. 10 shortstop, a Perfect Game second-team All-American and a 20th round selection by the Milwaukee Brewers. But with heavy expectations to replace Preston Overbey at second and a preseason SEC Freshman of the Year designation hanging over his head, Blackman hit .197, slugged .254, struck out 32 times and mashed zero home runs as a freshman.
In 2016, however, a rejuvenated and composed Blackman looks like a new man at the plate, complete with a new hairdo that would make Jimmy Darmody jealous (it even has it's own Twitter account). Through seven games, Tater is destroying the baseball at a .524 clip with a .762 slugging percentage, seven RBI, a beer shower, a team-leading 11 hits and a seven-game hit streak to boot.
So what clicked all of a sudden? Let's take a look at some things that might have triggered Tate's turnaround.
Another a year to mature
Naturally, when you're counted on by your coaches and teammates to be an instant impact guy, you press a little. Last year you could tell Blackman was trying to do too much with a lot of his at-bats. But, another year in the system means more composure at the plate. This season you've seen a more surgical approach with a precise plan, particularly with two strikes.
That composed approach has led to fewer strikeouts. As a freshman, Tate struck out once every 3.8 at-bats. Through 21 at-bats as a sophomore, he's been K'd just once. He's been much more aggressive early in the count, getting fastballs in plus counts and barreling up pitches. As you can see here against FIU, Blackman jumps on a first-pitch fastball, keeps his hands inside and drives one out over the plate in the right-center gap for a double.
Patience is indeed a virtue
When Blackman has found himself behind in the count, he hasn't panicked, instead staying patient and utilizing a shorter, more compact swing to drive the baseball. A lot of times when in a negative count, pitchers will use waste pitches to get batters to chase. Last season, the young Tater would chase a chest high fastball or a slider low and away in the dirt. This year he's recognizing those pitches earlier and not chasing them.
Once you can get pitchers back into a 2-2 or a 3-2 count, you're no longer at their mercy. 2-2 is a great hitter's count because a pitcher does not want to go full. Naturally there's added pressure to not walk you, but also to make a pitch that can give them a chance to get a K or an out. Blackman has been able to stay away from the junk and get himself back into plus counts, which has cut his strikeout numbers and helped him post a .600 on-base percentage.
Hands, hands, hands
The new swing Tate has been showing off this season hasn't been a complete tear-down job, more of a tweaking by hitting coach Mike Clement. When Blackman pressed at the plate as a freshman, it typically led to longer, slower swings, which in turn made him late on fastballs and led to misses, getting fisted on inside pitches or capping one off the end of the bat.
As a sophomore, Taternator has some of the quickest hands at the dish. He has a very simple approach and is throwing those hands to the baseball. This simply means keeping a short swing and keeping his hands inside of the ball in order to use as much of the barrel as possible. The more barrel, the better. This could be seen in his first AB of the season against FIU when he sent a ball flying out to left field.
Blackman saw the pitch out in front of the plate and kept his hands inside. Instead of pulling it foul and nailing some bro dipping his nacho, he sent it out of the park and got the students chanting "TATE IT UP" while launching their beer in the air.
The season is a long one, but the early returns on Tate getting into the lab and tackling his freshman issues is something to get excited about. Now that he's a draft-eligible sophomore and ranked among the top 200 draft prospects in the country by D1Baseball, the pressure that he struggled to handle last year will continue to creep back up. He'll need to continue oozing confidence at the plate to prove to scouts that his freshman year was a fluke. With the business-like, swagger-filled approach he's shown so far this season, I personally don't think that'll be an issue.