What happened to Charlie Blackmon?

His pursuit to hit .400 has turned into quest to stay above .300

September 24th, 2020

DENVER -- What happened to ?

The Rockies’ right fielder got off to a sizzling start at the plate in 2020, and he was hitting over .400 as late as Aug. 23. On that day, Blackmon was hitting .405/.442/.568 after going 2-for-4 against the Dodgers in Los Angeles.

But since then, Blackmon’s production at the plate has plummeted. In 26 games from Aug. 25 through Wednesday, Blackmon hit .185/.271/.337 in 107 plate appearances. Talk of Blackmon potentially becoming the first player (albeit in a much shorter season) to hit .400 since Ted Williams in 1941 has morphed into talk of whether Blackmon would finish the year over .300 (he entered play Thursday hitting .305).

To figure out what might be behind Blackmon’s drastic offensive decline, we first need to figure out how the 34-year-old slugger was so successful early in the season.

The 'Sweet Spot'

As Blackmon’s batting average stood at .405 on Aug. 23, his expected batting average -- based on Statcast launch angle, exit velocity and actual strikeouts -- was 62 points lower, at .343.

Blackmon’s hard-hit rate over that period was 29.5 percent -- for context, that ranked 260th in the Majors among hitters with at least 25 balls in play.

So if Blackmon’s hard-hit rate was below 30 percent, how was he hitting north of .400 at that point?

Enter Statcast’s Sweet Spot metric, which measures the percentage of batted balls with a launch angle between eight and 32 degrees, an optimal range for hits. The expected batting average across baseball on batted balls that are hit in the Sweet Spot range is .611 this season.

Blackmon was hitting the Sweet Spot 44.2 percent of the time through Aug. 23 and he was hitting .756 on those batted balls. In other words, nearly half of Blackmon’s batted balls over this period were netting him a .756 batting average, hard-hit or not. And the expected batting average on those was more than 100 points lower, at .636, suggesting there was a good amount of luck involved in them becoming hits.

So what happened?

Blackmon said earlier this month that an off-day following a stretch in which the Rockies had 20 scheduled games in 20 days from Aug. 14-Sept. 2 was crucial to reset mentally and physically.

"Mentally, that was the longest stretch of the season," Blackmon said. "And we had made it over the halfway mark, so now -- even in a shortened season -- you don't have to worry about preserving your body, and you can kind of sprint to the finish."

The trouble for Blackmon and the Rockies is that it's been more like labored jogging than sprinting since then.

Beginning with an 0-for-3 night against the D-backs in Arizona on Aug. 25, not only did Blackmon’s luck start to even out, but his Sweet Spot rate began a rapid descent. Entering Thursday, it was 32.4 percent from Aug. 25 onward.

The gap between Blackmon’s actual batting average and expected batting average since Aug. 25 remained about the same (56 points), only in the other direction -- he was batting .185, while his expected batting average was .241.

In the end, it comes down to a drop in the rate that Blackmon hit the Sweet Spot, as well as the related note that he’s hitting more ground balls and popups while hitting fewer fly balls and line drives. Prior to Aug. 25, the percentage of Blackmon’s batted balls that were either fly balls or line drives was 63.2 percent. Since then, it’s 46.5 percent.

Blackmon’s season has been much like the Rockies’ season overall -- Dr. Jekyll at the outset, Mr. Hyde toward the end. The question for both the player and the club is, how will they fix that?

"It seems like things matter more now because the clock is ticking," Blackmon said. "But I don't want to get ahead of my first at-bat. If I do really well on that first pitch, I'll try and do it again on the second pitch. And I think that's the way to approach it in a baseball season -- it's not to look at big chunks of time, but just doing the best you can each pitch, and then doing it over and over."