The plaque for Hugh Duffy at the Baseball Hall of Fame all but certifies his status as the premier single-season hitter in major league history. “He compiled a batting average in 1894 which was not to be challenged in his lifetime,” it states — and Duffy lived for six decades after his achievement.
Duffy, an outfielder for the Boston Beaneaters, forefathers of the Atlanta Braves, hit .440 in that 1894 season. Indeed, nobody has come close to his record, not even Ted Williams, who batted .406 in 1941. No one has come within 12 points of Williams since.
Which brings us to Charlie Blackmon and the curious case of 2020. Blackmon, the Colorado Rockies’ right fielder, is so hot that he could not only hit .400 this season, he might just challenge Duffy’s ancient record.
After going 3 for 4 on Tuesday against the Arizona Diamondbacks, Blackmon was batting .500 (34 for 68), making him just the fifth player in the last 50 years with a .500 average through his team’s first 17 games. The others include three Hall of Famers — Tony Perez in 1970, Rod Carew in 1983, Larry Walker in 1997 — and Barry Bonds, in 2004.
Their seasons all lasted 162 games, of course. This season — with opening day delayed until last month because of the coronavirus pandemic — will cover only 60. Baseball has declared that all records would count nonetheless, but Blackmon, a career .304 hitter before this season, doubts he will set one.
“No, I don’t really think .400 is a realistic mark for today’s game,” he said before Tuesday’s game. “The pitching is too good. The stuff is too good, there’s more specialization. I don’t think it’s something that will happen. There’s maybe some scares, but I think .400 is just too far away from the average. I don’t think it’s something that will be done. I’m not like, expecting to hit .400 for a season. I don’t really think that’s a realistic goal.”
Before Wednesday’s games, major leaguers were batting just .235, worse than their lowest collective mark for a season: .237 in 1968. For an individual, though, .400 seems plausible — Donovan Solano of the San Francisco Giants was also on pace to beat Duffy’s mark, with a .458 average through Tuesday. In 2017, when Blackmon won the National League batting title with a career-high .331 average, he hit .374 across 60 games from July 1 through Sept. 9.
He could conceivably hit .400, right?
“Yeah, but then again it’s not a full season; it’ll be an asterisk,” Blackmon said. “Even so, I don’t think I’m going to hit .400 for 60 games. Statistically speaking, it’s not very likely.”
Last season’s leading hitter, Tim Anderson of the Chicago White Sox, was batting .424 after the team’s first 17 games. By Game No. 60, his average had dropped to .323, much closer to its season-ending .335. That seems to be a more likely path for Blackmon.
Then again, breaking records is never likely. Blackmon, who mostly hit leadoff in the past, has thrived in the No. 3 spot this season and helped lead Colorado (12-5) to the top of the N.L. West. An extended pursuit of .400 would be a talking point this season and would surely elevate his stature. Blackmon, 34, is a four-time All-Star but has never finished higher than fifth in voting for most valuable player.
“Charlie deserves recognition as an elite hitter, and if he gets over .400, it’s a great milestone for his career and for a season that needs great stories,” said Ryan Spilborghs, a Rockies television analyst who played for their 2007 World Series team. “But I don’t think it would be recognized the same way that we look at Ted Williams.”
Spilborghs said Blackmon separates himself from peers by never giving away an at-bat, a natural product, he believes, of the persistence and drive he needed to forge a career at the plate. Blackmon started college as a pitcher, but turned to hitting in a summer league with encouragement from his coach, the former major leaguer Rusty Greer. The Rockies drafted him in the second round from Georgia Tech in 2008.
“Physically and mentally, he’s as strong and tough as anybody I’ve ever been around,” said Rockies Manager Bud Black, who has spent more than 40 years in baseball. “And what he’s doing this year is a result of not only his overall talent, but what he does to get ready for a game and what he does post-game.”
Blackmon has done all this despite contracting Covid-19 before the season. Blackmon had been working out before summer training camp in Denver and then contracted the virus on a trip home to Georgia. Though his symptoms were mild, Blackmon curtailed his training for a while and has had to adapt.
“It’s been difficult to ramp up to the capacity that I need to be able to play Major League Baseball,” he said. “It wouldn’t be so hard if I just had to play for three hours a day, but there’s a lot more that goes into what it takes to be on the field for three hours. You’ve got to keep all your baseball skills sharp, you’ve got to work out, you’ve got to recover, and then you’ve got to do that day after day after day — at altitude, at sea level, back to altitude. That’s the only lingering effects that I’m seeing from the virus.”
While the spacious outfield and thin air help hitters in Denver, the constant adjustments for road games are taxing on bodies and batting averages. Blackmon has a .352 career average at home and .264 on the road, figures that underscore the importance of context, which is more essential in 2020 than ever.
The shortened schedule makes this season a historic outlier, but so much else has changed since the days of the .400 hitter. The majors have been integrated. Pitchers have perfected an array of options beyond the fastball and curve. Hitters are less familiar with the arms they see — Williams faced only 73 pitchers in the entire 1941 season; Blackmon has already faced 41 in 2020.
“The season’s the season, and I think there’s enough integrity to 60 games — 200-plus at-bats, more than likely,” Black said. “I think there is some legitimacy to this, I really do. There is competition from Game 1 until Game 60.”
To Blackmon, though, the conversation is moot. He said he had been “pretty lucky” so far, with ground balls slipping through the infield and floaters dropping safely in the outfield. He is more concerned with the Rockies’ success than his own.
In any case, Blackmon will not spend much time contemplating his season or what it could mean in history — especially not on Thursday, the Rockies’ only open date of the month. What will he do all day?
“I don’t really know,” Blackmon said, “but there’s going to have to be a lot of rest involved.”