Charlie Blackmon understands all the fuss. It’s been 79 years since a major leaguer hit .400, and the Colorado Rockies star is nearing the halfway point of the season with a major league-best .424 average entering Friday night’s game in Dodger Stadium.
Conditions couldn’t be more conducive for an assault on .400, with baseball declaring all 2020 records valid even though the usual 162-game grind — perhaps the biggest obstacle to hitting .400 — has been replaced by a pandemic-shortened, 60-game sprint.
But don’t get your hopes up, Blackmon warns. There’s still an army of hard-throwing relievers with nasty breaking balls out there to attack him, and the career .351 hitter in mile-high Coors Field still has to play half his games on the road, near sea level, where he’s a .264 hitter.
Even in an abbreviated season, the right fielder with the long hair and bushy beard probably has a better chance of landing an endorsement deal with The Art of Shaving than he does of hitting .400.
“I mean, it’s still pretty early, and .400 is not a realistic goal,” Blackmon, a four-time All-Star, said earlier this week. “For me to set out and say I want to hit .400 is not something I’ve ever done. I’m much more process-oriented.
“I want to swing at the right pitches and be prepared and do my work in the cage and kind of look up at the end of the day and everything will be where it needs to be. Personally, it’s not something I make a big deal of. I think it’s more for everybody else.”
Only two players, both Hall of Famers, have flirted with .400 since Ted Williams hit .406 in 1941. Tony Gwynn was hitting .394 when the players’ strike ended the 1994 season in August, and George Brett was hitting .400 as late as Sept. 19 in 1980 before finishing with a .390 mark.
The last player to hit .400 through the first 60 games of a season was Hall of Famer Chipper Jones in 2008.
Even if he were to bat .400, the left-handed-hitting Blackmon said he’d attach an asterisk to the achievement because it wouldn’t come in a full season. Rockies manager Bud Black begs to differ.
“I think there is some legitimacy to this, I really do,” Black said on a recent video call. “There is competition from Game 1 until Game 60.”
Blackmon, 34, has developed into one of baseball’s best hitters, with a .307 average over 10 seasons, thanks in part to his highly regimented pregame and postgame routines, which are filled with extensive video study, cage work and weight-lifting sessions.
He hit leadoff for most of his career before being moved to the third spot this season so the Rockies could maximize his slugging ability. Blackmon averaged 31 homers and 85 RBIs over the last four seasons.
“He uses the whole field, from the left-field line all the way to the right-field line, he makes adjustments in the at-bat, and he’s got power, too,” said Angels manager Joe Maddon, who spent the previous five years with the Chicago Cubs. “He covers it all, and he has a real swag about him. He really believes in himself.”
Blackmon, in the third year of a six-year, $108-million contract, is something of an anomaly this season. While he flirts with .400, players entered Thursday with a collective .241 average, 11 points lower than last year’s .252 mark and four points better than the major league-worst .237 average in 1968.
Slowed in late June and early July by the coronavirus, which caused fever, body aches and a cough, Blackmon went hitless in eight at-bats in the Rockies’ first two games.
A single in the fourth inning of a July 26 game at Texas sparked a 15-game tear in which Blackmon hit .567 (34 for 60) with a 1.408 on-base-plus-slugging percentage, three homers, six doubles and 20 RBIs to raise his average to .500 through 17 games on Aug. 11.
“It’s always a little different when games start counting,” Blackmon said. “It seems like it takes me a little while to get a feel for the intensity level and kind of find the right sweet spot where my brain needs to be in the box. I usually start a little slow, but luckily I was able to get there quickly.”
Blackmon’s hot start helped Colorado win 12 of its first 17 games, but he cooled along with his team this last week, batting .250 (eight for 32) over eight games in which the Rockies went 1-6, including four straight losses to the Houston Astros this week.
“Man, I don’t ever think it’s a baseball season until crap hits the fan and everybody panics, like, that’s when you know what kind of team you are,” Blackmon said.
“It’s not a baseball season until this hurts, your swing feels terrible, this guy goes down on the pitching staff … that’s when it gets real, when you see what your team is made of.”
The Rockies appear to be at that point. Even with a young and improving rotation, a potent lineup and relative good health, their 2020 is beginning to mirror 2019, when they were 44-39 and in playoff contention on June 29 before cratering over the next two months, going 16-45 in their next 61 games.
A playoff team in 2017 and 2018, Colorado finished 71-91 in 2019. An expanded 16-team playoff field should provide a cushion this season, but the Rockies, who play nine of their final 35 games against the Dodgers, have aspirations beyond reaching the postseason.
“We’ve shown that we can go out and pitch and hit and play defense, but the real key is, are you going to be that team wire to wire, all season, and when it counts, in the playoffs?” Blackmon said.
“And that’s something we haven’t done yet. So, until we do that, you can’t give us too much credit, to be honest. I think that’s the mind-set we need to have, that we still have a lot to prove.”