The list of players to have hit .400 is short and illustrious.
Wee Willie Keeler. Ty Cobb. Rogers Hornsby.
Fourteen Hall of Famers, all of whom managed to bat .312 or above in their career, including Cobb’s career .366 batting average, decorate the list of the most elite hitters to play the game of baseball.
The most recent and memorable is Boston Red Sox legend Ted Williams.
Williams went 6-for-8 during a doubleheader to bat .406 on the final day of the 1941 season. (Going into the game, he was at .39955 and, according to the rules, the number would have rounded up to .400, but that wasn’t the Splendid Splinter’s style.)
Since then, there have been many suitors, but not once has a player sealed the deal.
In this, the year 2020, Charlie Blackmon aims to be crowned as the next in the lineage of the greatest ball hitters of all-time.
Coincidentally, the closest anyone has approached the record was in another abbreviated season.
In 1994, Tony Gwynn was batting .395 through August 11. What he – or anyone else that year – couldn’t have predicted on Opening Day was that the season would end abruptly on August 12 due to the Player’s Strike.
A major advantage – or disadvantage, depending on how you look at it – for Blackmon is that the finish line is apparent: September 27 at Arizona. The carpet won’t be swept out from underneath him… unless enough folks want to skirt the health and safety protocols and the season becomes even more fragmented.
Since 1941, Rod Carew has the highest single-season batting average of .388 in 1977, followed by Stan Musial (.376 in 1948) and Ichiro Suzuki (.372 in 2004).
Also appearing the top five since ’41 is Blackmon’s former teammate Todd Helton batted .372 and slapped 59 doubles, the most since 1936.
Several more Rockies appear as you expand the list, such as a top 10 performance by Andrés Galarraga (.370 in 1993), Larry Walker – twice in top 25 (.366 in 1997 and .363 in 1998).
Even when perusing the top 100 seasons, a lot more purple highlights the greatest seasons: Helton in 2003 (.358) and 2004 (.347), Walker in 2001 (.350), DJ LeMahieu in 2016 (.348), and Ellis Burks in 1996 (.344).
As a professional ballplayer and coach going on 40-plus years, Rockies’ manager Bud Black – who was over a decade from being alive in 1941 – has seen a lot of futile attempts at Williams’ legacy.
When asked about whether he’s seen a player so locked in for such a long period of time, Black answer with a short list of challengers off the top of his head: Darin Erstad, Barry Bonds and George Brett.
OF Darin Erstad, Anaheim Angels – 2000
Your unfamiliarity with this name does not make you crazy.
Erstad, a punter and place kicker for the 1994 National Championship Nebraska Cornhuskers, hung up his shoulder pads upon being selected as the 1st overall pick in the 1995 MLB Draft by the California Angels.
“In 2000, Erstad had a tremendous year,” Black said when reminiscing on players with Blackmon-like stretches at the plate.
As the pitching coach for the Angels that season, Black witnessed a 20-20 season from the North Dakota born outfielder in addition to 100 runs batted in by the team’s leadoff hitter, opening with a .449 batting average through April before finishing at .355 over 676 at-bats.
Erstad was an All-Star that year and won the only Silver Slugger Award of his career. He finished eighth-place in American League MVP voting despite putting up the second-most bWAR (8.4) by a position player.
While he never approached the heights of 2000 again for the remainder of his 14-year career, Erstad would win the World Series with the Angels in 2002 over the San Francisco Giants.
3B George Brett, Kansas City Royals – 1980
“I played with Brett. George, probably at some point, went through a streak like (Charlie),” Black said of his teammate of seven seasons.
When batting a career .305 and winning batting titles in three different decades (1976, 1980, 1990), there’s a good chance you do a little better than going 1-for-3 on a nightly basis.
While Gwynn’s attempt was cut short before he had an opportunity to make a push at the milestone, the best recent attempt at unseating Williams had been previously held by Brett in 1980.
The third baseman finished at .390 to lead the major leagues – as was the case for on-base percentage (.454) and slugging percentage (.664) – and did a lot of damage to the Royals’ biggest rival in ten games, the New York Yankees: .425 with 22 RBIs. (He hit them again in the American League Championship on the way to the organization’s first World Series appearance.)
And Brett did have a stretch like Blackmon is having now.
From May 30 to August 30, Brett hit .470 with 116 hits in 61 games, batting .494 in the month of July during his one and only AL MVP Award.
As for the fate of his club, Kansas City went 46-15 during those span of games en route to a West Division title.
OF Barry Bonds, San Francisco Giants – 1993
“I played with Barry Bonds in 1993, his first year with the Giants, he won the MVP,” Black shared. “Barry had a great year. I’m sure there were times when Barry went through a streak like this.”
Say what you will about Barry Bonds, but the guy was a force and had little to show for it his first seven seasons in the majors.
In spite of two NL MVP Awards with Pittsburgh, Bonds had been selected to the All-Star Team only twice despite having the highest fWAR (48.4) of any hitter between his rookie season of 1986 through 1992. More than Rickey Henderson, Wade Boggs and Cal Ripken Jr.
Going back further from 1982 through 1992, Bonds has the 10th highest fWAR of any hitter in the game. (It should be noted that Bonds was still in high school in 1982 and wouldn’t get signed out of the draft until 1985 before making his debut the next season.)
Bonds batted .336, the fourth-highest batting average of his 22-year career, on the way to becoming only the 10th man to ever win consecutive MVP Awards.
He may have had streaks even better than those of 1993, but that’s a topic for another day.
OF Charlie Blackmon, Colorado Rockies – 2020
Batting .400 during an abbreviated season is going to come with an asterisk.
However, Black doesn’t necessarily think it should.
“I think there is some legitimacy to this. I know a regular championship season is 162 for all 30 teams. Now we’re down to a championship season for 30 teams in 60 games. There’s competition from game one until game 60. So, if he does, obviously it’ll get talked about being a 60-game season.”
Black finished by adding, “But, I do think there’s a legitimacy to that if it does happen.”
Rather conversely, Blackmon doesn’t feel the same way about the validity or the probability with which a .400 season will happen for him.
“It would be an asterisk,” believes Blackmon. “Even so, I don’t think I’m going to hit .400 for 60 games.”
Citing the quality of pitching, specialization of bullpens and the simple fact that .400 is several deviations away from the norm.
As of Friday, the Rockies right fielder is hitting .472 through his team’s first 18 games. That includes starting the season 0-for-9 in Texas and raising questions about his recovery from COVID-19.
Ultimately, the positive test that kept Blackmon out of Summer Camp for the first few weeks has been a non-factor on results even though it was big one leading up to Opening Day.
“I think it’s been difficult to ramp up to the capacity I need to play baseball,” Blackmon told the media. “I don’t think it would be so hard to play if it were three hours a day. There’s a lot more that goes into what it takes to be on the field for three hours.”
One of the largest elements to his game is one never seen on the field nor capable of quantifying: dedication to craft.
It has become commonplace to not see Blackmon back in the locker room until well over an hour after the final out of the ballgame. Those workout sessions have become a thing of legend at this point in his distinguished career.
“That’s a big part of it,” Black confirmed of the 10-year veteran’s routine. “Don’t think that Charlie is not in great shape. He is even though he’s into his 30’s. He still takes great care of himself. He’s diligent about his workout post-game. Charlie is in the weight room a number of times a week, post-game, to get his work in. So, he never neglects his body.”
Whether or not he reaches the promised land of .400 or receives recognition from the nation’s press for being the MVP or if his club does indeed raise the Commissioner’s Trophy in October, one thing is certain: Chuck is Nazty.