Colorado’s Charlie Blackmon going into Thursday’s game. David Zalubowski/Associated Press

 

Colorado Rockies outfielder Charlie Blackmon is flirting with a .400 batting average this season, a mark that’s eluded major leaguers since Ted Williams batted .406 in 1941. Some have come close. George Brett was hitting .400 as late as September in 1980 (he finished with a .390 batting average) and Tony Gwynn was hitting .394 when the season ended with the players’ strike in 1994.

Now it’s Blackmon’s turn to etch his name in the history books, even if Blackmon believes it should come with an asterisk due to the shortened, 60-game season.

“I don’t think I’ll be able to give it much credit, to be honest,” Blackmon told reporters. “I think it will be too easy to say that weird things happen. … It counts, certainly. This is Major League Baseball on major league fields, and it counts. But for right now, I feel like it’s different.”

Still, it would be a feat worth celebrating. Blackmon is already the first player since Barry Bonds (2004) to bat at least .500 through his team’s first 17 games (minimum 50 plate appearances) and the seventh in MLB history to do it. The 34-year-old right fielder also collected a hit in three at-bats Wednesday against the Houston Astros, pushing his average to .426 for the year. What makes his feat more remarkable is the rest of the majors are in a down year. Collectively, batters have hit .241 in 2020. If sustained, that would be the lowest seasonal average for MLB hitters since 1968 and the fourth-lowest in MLB history. There are also only 12 players qualifying for the batting title this year within 100 points of Blackmon’s batting average.

So how likely is it Blackmon breaks the .400 mark?

According to FanGraphs’ projections for the rest of the season, Blackmon is expected to get 116 more at-bats in 2020. He would need to get hits in 44 of those to finish the campaign with a .402 average. He has hit .304 in his career up until 2020 and .312 over the past three years, in line with the forecast at FanGraphs, which projects he will hit .310 for the rest of the season. That would leave him eight hits shy of the 44 needed to break .400. The probability he gets enough lucky bounces to get those eight (or more) hits is seven percent.

That seems like, and is, a long shot, but comparatively those odds are pretty good. For context, Brett had a two percent chance to reach .400 when he had 36 games left in 1980. Gwynn had less than a one percent chance at that same mark at the same mile marker in the season. Blackmon himself had a one percent chance to hit .400 this season based on his preseason projections, so he has significantly improved his chances.

There is reason to be optimistic for Blackmon. According to MLB’s Statcast data, Blackmon is hitting a higher rate of balls on the “sweet spot” of the bat. For example, when he led the league in hitting in 2017 he batted .331 with a sweet-spot rate of 38%. This year his sweet-spot rate is 45%. The league average is less than 33%.

It’s also worth noting Blackmon is not merely benefiting from playing in one of the most hitter-friendly parks in baseball. He’s batting .400 away from Coors Field over 10 games, with a career-high line-drive rate on the road, which helps justify the better batting average. Blackmon has a good batting eye, too. Laying off bad pitches is a must for anyone trying to reach the .400 mark but he must also have plate discipline when opposing pitchers start to nibble around the edges rather than serving up a solid pitch to hit. Blackmon doesn’t chase many bad pitches (30%; league average is 29%) and last year he added 24 runs to his team by taking pitches outside of the strike zone. Data for 2020 is not yet available.

Luck will play a role. A high batting average on balls in play was common among all hitters coming close to .400 after Williams feat decades ago. For example, Rod Carew hit .388 with a .408 BABIP in 1977. Gwynn flirted with .400 three different years, coming closest in 1994, his BABIP a robust .389 that season. Blackmon’s BABIP (.474) is astronomically high and will almost certainly drop as the season wears on but FanGraphs expects it to be .348 for the rest of the 2020 campaign. That would result in a season-long BABIP of .406 for Blackmon, high enough to at least keep the mark within reach.

There will be some road blocks, too. Blackmon is seeing a career high 10% of pitches right down the middle of the plate, a rate that will certainly decline as opposing pitchers adapt to him during the remainder of the season. And the Rockies also have the most difficult strength of schedule remaining, per FanGraphs. That includes 10 games against the Los Angeles Dodgers, who currently lead the league in ERA.

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