Less than a month ago, Rockies OF Charlie Blackmon was quarantined in Georgia while he recovered from COVID-19. Now he is the fifth player in the past 50 years with at least a .500 average through 17 games, after the Giants’ Barry Bonds in 2005, Rockies’ Larry Walker in 1997, Angels’ Rod Carew in 1983 and Reds’ Tony Pérez in 1970.
Blackmon now has as many hits at the entire St.Louis Cardinals team.
Only two other players in the majors are within even 100 points of his batting average: the Giants’ Donovan Solano (.458) and Yankees’ DJ LeMahieu (.400).
The major-league batting average this year has settled in at .235 through Tuesday. Blackmon is hitting 265 points better, he is more than twice as successful as the league-average hitter. Blackmon has hit safely in 15 consecutive games, a stretch in which he’s batting .567 (34-for-60) after he tripped through Texas to start the year 1-for-12.
“I just try to win every pitch,” Blackmon said. “I don’t think real big picture. I don’t think too far ahead. I just try to do the right thing for that pitch.”
No matter which way you analyze Blackmon, he is just on another level right now.
He’s hitting in Coors Field and out, with a .438 average on the road over eight games at Texas, Oakland and Seattle and .556 at home over nine games against the Giants, Padres and Diamondbacks. Against left-handed pitchers, the left-swinging Blackmon is hitting .643. He is hitting .387 with two strikes. He’s hitting for power, average, with two outs, runners on, bases empty.
In July, Blackmon was stuck in his basement battling Covid-19. He was bored without baseball and wondering if he would even be on Colorado’s Opening Day roster. He returned to Coors Field halfway through the Rockies’ summer training camp, just 10 days before the start of the season. He had just a week to prepare.
“I was concerned,” Blackmon said. “I didn’t know how long it would take. After my symptoms subsided, I did feel down, physically. I was worried how much I could do without worsening the infection. That was the toughest part for me, figuring out, do I push it physically? Do I have to sit back and wait?”
Even now, in the middle of his streak, Blackmon is still feeling the effects of the virus. Fatigue is a problem. Recovery after games — already difficult for the Rockies in their constant moves in and out of elevation, where blood-oxygen levels are lower — has been even more difficult, Blackmon said. His workouts, to which he is normally wedded in good times and bad, at all hours of the day or night, have been limited.
Before a game, he will pick an approach against each of his possible opposing pitchers, based on the scouting and statistics that suggest their tendencies and his own experience against them
“Hitting is something that you can’t consciously do,” Blackmon said. “I don’t have time to look at the ball out of the pitcher’s hand and say, ‘Oh that looks like it’s gonna be a strike and it’s a fastball, so I’ll swing.’ It’s all a reaction. The only thinking you can do is pre-pitch, or in your work off the field. So I basically try to sharpen that process of thinking. And then I basically try to put myself on autopilot. And if you’ve picked the right approach, hopefully it produces something good.
At 33, as a four-time All-Star and now in his 10th season, Blackmon has settled into a hitting philosophy that he will cite often, in streaks or slumps. His goal, simply, is to try to minimize the amount of time he’s bad at baseball. His goal is not to be great, but to not suck too much.
It may sound like accepting failure, but in a game where a 70 percent failure rate as a hitter is good enough to put you in the Hall of Fame, Blackmon knows that pushing up his floor will only raise the ceiling.
“I’ve been pretty lucky,” he said. “I hit a lot of ground balls where there’s nobody playing and some floaters out over the infield and I’ve taken some fastballs down the middle. I wouldn’t say that I’m perfect. I’ve had good results and I’ve been able to limit my mistakes for quite a while. And that’s Plan A.”
Ted Williams was the last player to finish a season batting .400 or better when he hit .406 over 143 games. In more modern times, only Tony Gwynn in 1994 (.394) and George Brett in 1980 (.390) even sniffed that mark. Even in the pre-humidor era, Walker’s best mark with the benefit of Coors Field was .379 in 1999.
Is Blackmon on his way to topping those marks? He doesn’t think so, and baseball historians hope he’s right.
“I don’t think .400 is a realistic mark in today’s game,” Blackmon said. “The pitching is too good, the stuff is too good, there’s more specialization. I don’t think it’s something that will happen. Maybe some scares. But .400 is too far away from the average. I don’t think it will be done. And I’m not expecting to hit .400 for the season. That’s not a realistic goal. Statistically speaking, it’s not very likely.”
Even if he defies his own expectations, Blackmon will earn nothing more than an impressive season amid a pandemic that will have an asterisk alongside it.
Hitting at this clip over three weeks, let alone over two months, is extremely impressive. It simply doesn’t occur. Every fraction he gains or loses will only highlight what a tremendous feat it was for Williams to hit .406 or Nap Lajoie hitting .427 in 1901, the best ever average in baseball’s modern era.
“I feel like I’ll look back and we’ll kind of just chalk it up to some weird COVID short season and we won’t give it too much credit,” Blackmon said. “It will be too easy to say weird things happen … It counts, certainly. This is Major League Baseball on major-league fields. But it’s different.”
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