ATLANTA -- Garrett Hampson has earned yet another turn as the Rockies’ outfielder of the moment.
Sometimes injury forces change. More often it’s performance, as Hampson can attest. With a .323/.371/.600 upswing over his past 23 games -- and two home runs and a triple in the past two games -- Hampson received his ninth start in the Rockies' past 11 games on Wednesday against the Braves. It also was a chance to stabilize the leadoff spot in the order.
Before that, he went 6-for-51 and saw his playing time wane accordingly. Keeping his wits as his right-handed swing has come and gone has been as much of a challenge as, well, keeping his swing. But he has earned regular playing time during one of the most encouraging stretches of the Rockies’ season.
“Of course it’s hard -- you want to be the best player in the league every year,” said Hampson, who entered Wednesday batting .246. “At the same time, you know that you’re going to struggle at some point during the year. It’s about trying to avoid those deep valleys as best you can.
“The best players in the game, they slump, too. But you don’t realize it because they can get themselves out of it quicker than younger players, or other players in the league. I’m learning about that and trying to take each day as a new day, no matter what has happened.”
Hampson’s recent starts have been mostly in center field, a position with much turnover. Hampson, Sam Hilliard and Yonathan Daza had their turns. But left field also has gone from settled to not. The Rockies rode with Raimel Tapia's torrid and icy streaks. But after Tapia left the lineup with a right big toe injury in August, Connor Joe made the position his until he sustained a right hamstring injury on Sept. 3.
Add in that Tapia, Joe and Hampson have revolved as leadoff hitters, and there is plenty of internal competition that doesn't stop when the season ends. The Rockies could look for outfield help this offseason as they try to improve the lineup. Whether it’s for a place next year, or to catch the eye of potential trade partners, many Rockies outfielders could be establishing their futures.
“We’ve given a lot of at-bats to a lot of different guys within our outfield,” manager Bud Black said. “Between Tapia, Hampson, Daza, Hilliard, Connor Joe -- with just 200 at-bats -- the at-bats have been spread around.
“We have seen flashes of games where the performance has been there and then we’ve seen other segments of the season, other segments of games and weeks where the performance hasn’t been there. The consistency of performance is what’s needed.”
Leadoff is important. Since dropping Charlie Blackmon from that spot before last season, the Rockies have struggled. The hope was for Blackmon to be in a better position to drive in runs, but Blackmon’s effectiveness will increase only with consistent leadoff work and effective protection around him.
What puts Hampson on -- and knocks him off -- the lineup card is his control of the strike zone. Even as he has heated up, Hampson has dramatically more strikeouts (106 for the season entering Wednesday) than walks (29). But Hampson’s slugging suggests that he can punish pitchers for throwing strikes. He must curb a tendency to gift the opponent a strike by swinging outside the zone.
“It's not chasing, not helping them out any,” Hampson said. “It’s being ready to hit the pitch when it’s coming to me, whether it’s early in the count -- I’m trying not to let any strikes go.”
Eligible for arbitration this offseason for the first time, Hampson has established his value with his versatility. He can play all three outfield positions, but he was drafted as a middle infielder. He also has worked at third base, just in case. Hampson stays sharp around the diamond, even if he is in competition at only one spot.
Hampson noted that one reason the Rockies have performed well lately against contending teams -- with series wins over the Dodgers and Phillies, and a 3-2 record (before Wednesday) against the Braves -- is because they’re not letting their individual battles take precedence. For example, when Hampson tripled in the sixth inning on Tuesday, Rio Ruiz delivered a sacrifice fly that drove in the Rockies’ final run in the 5-4 victory.
“Rio came off the bench, which is huge -- if Rio doesn’t take a good at-bat in that situation, we might not win,” Hampson added. “You’re starting to see these at-bats where we’re taking drawing walks and doing little things that add up.”