The Beard and the Bat: on Charlie Blackmon’s April

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April statistics are fun. Each year, players go through stretches where they hit .400 or higher in a month. But when those take place in June or July, the batter’s season average doesn’t tend to change very much. The accumulation of at bats as the season progresses in the summer means that more time is needed to dramatically alter a player’s rate numbers. April is different. Because all metrics begin the season at zero, whatever a player does in April is more vivid this time of year. Charlie Blackmon has had, to understate it, a pretty good April. While there is still five months of baseball left to play, Blackmon’s April will be remembered as one of the best in Rockies history. In fact, at various points throughout the month, it has been among the best in major league history. Of course, slumps, adjustments to playing time, and regression will all take place—but those are no fun. This article is dedicated to isolating a few moments over the course of the month and finding players in history who have performed at Blackmon’s level in April with comparable playing time.

Using Baseball Reference’s Play Index, I searched for players in major league history whose batting averages sat at .600, .500, and .400 in April with a similar number of at bats as Blackmon when he was at those levels. The results generated a mixture is what you would expect from a series of relatively narrow performance comparison searches: you’ll find Blackmon in the company of Hall of Famers, former and current superstars, forgotten players, and old timers with funny names.

On April 5, Blackmon had played in six games and started four of them. He had twelve hits and twenty at bats, which is good—or great, as the case may be—for a batting average of .600. If Blackmon stopped playing while sitting at .600, he would have been the only player not only in Rockies history, but baseball history since 1914, to finish April with at least twenty at bats and an average at .600. If we lower the threshold to 15 at bats, only four players since 1914 have finished April with an average above .600: Cookie Lavagetto and Ken O’Dea in 1938, Peanuts Lowrey in 1952, and John Morris in 1989.

Hitting .600 in April (min. 15 AB)

If we expand the search for players in any single month, not just April, that have hit .600 or over with at least 20 at bats, we find just three instances in major league history. In June 1991, Chris Jones of the Cincinnati Reds hit .636 after going 14 for 24 in June. Cincinnati Red Ival Goodman hit .600 in July of 1939 in 25 at bats, and two Julys later in 1941 Estel Crabtree of the St. Louis Cardinals also hit .600 in 20 at bats. The lesson: it’s both extraordinarily difficult and rare to hit .600 over a stretch of 20 at bats. In 2014, Charlie Blackmon was the first player to lead the league in hitting at .600 after accumulating at least 20 at bats.

These seasons are distinct because the players did not have the chance for their batting averages to come down to earth. Charlie Blackmon, of course, has continued to accumulate at bats, and he has continued to hit. But there’s nowhere to go but down from hitting .600. What is notable about Blackmon’s April has been the unhurried manner of his batting average’s decline. It dipped to as low as .448, but he did manage to elevate his batting average up to .500 again. Blackmon was last at .500 on April 12. At that point, he had accumulated 38 at bats. To underline the point: he needed to almost double his number of at bats to finally bring his average down to merely superhuman levels. Ten other players in major league history have hit at least .500 with a minimum of 38 at bats in April. The last time it happened was in 2001, when Moises Alou hit .500 in 40 at bats for the Houston Astros. Before Alou, the last player to do so was Hank Aaron in 1959, who hit .508 through his first 61 at bats that season. Neither Blackmon, nor Alou, nor Aaron, however, quite reached the heights established by the leaders in this narrow statistical search. Cecil Travis of the Washington Senators hit .553 through his first 38 at bats in 1941, and Bob “Fats” Fothergill hit .542 through his first 48 for the 1927 Detroit Tigers.

Hitting .500 in April (min. 38 AB)

The groups are now getting larger, but they do so only to highlight rather than diminish Blackmon’s April accomplishment. As of this writing, prior to Monday night’s game, Blackmon is hitting .402, after 25 team games and 86 at bats. Just thirteen players, and two Rockies, have finished April with at least 86 at bats and an average above .400. The two Rockies were Larry Walker, who hit .456 in April of his MVP 1997 season. That mark, by the way, is the best April batting average of all time. He did it in 106 at bats. The following year, Dante Bichette hit .415 in an impressive 123 at bats. Most recently, Chipper Jones hit .410 in 100 at bats in 2008. While 13 seasons is larger than the other searches, it is skewed because teams played fewer games in April before the regular season expanded to 162 games in 1961-1962. Searching the same minimum number of at bats and batting average for the other months of the year uncovers anywhere from 116 to 150 instances of hitting .400 for an entire month. The more at bats Charlie gets and sticks above .400, the smaller the group will be. But if he finishes April below .400, it won’t be by much, and he’ll still be in some pretty exclusive clubs.

Hitting .400 in April (min. 86 AB)

We know Blackmon has had an incredible April, and we’ve had some fun with historical comparisons. It’s also useful to think about what kind of season we’ll be assessing come November. To determine that, we need to shift from amusing performance comparisons to asking how Charlie Blackmon has put together such an excellent first month. Jeff Sullivan at FanGraphs attributes Blackmon’s success to a dramatically decreased strikeout rate, which was 19.5 percent in 2013, but is just 6.5 percent so far this season. Contact rate stabilizes pretty quickly. According to Russell Carleton, fewer than 100 plate appearances are needed to draw conclusions in that facet of hitting. So a small sample size disclaimer does not necessarily apply.

Additionally, Zach Marburger at Mile High Sports points out that Blackmon’s batting average on balls in play (BABIP) is at an unsustainably high .384. That may be true, but Blackmon possesses the skills that play above league average BABIP of about .300. He makes a lot of contact, which increases the chance that ground balls in particular will find their way through the infield for hits. He’s also fast, so he also has the ability to leg out infield hits, but also to force infielders to be quick when defending his balls in play, which can lead to mistakes. He displays a slight tendency to pull the ball, so he might start seeing infields shift against him. Finally, Blackmon has always had a high BABIP. He sports a career .340 mark over 573 plate appearances. His BABIP in Triple A ranged from .329 in 2013 to .361 in 2011. Blackmon’s normal is probably around .330, which he should sustain as long as he continues putting the ball in play at an excellent rate.

Projection systems also expect Blackmon to perform well for the rest of the season. This is particularly evident in terms of his expected wins above replacement (WAR).  Marburger writes that in April alone Blackmon has nearly doubled his career WAR. Blackmon came into the season with an fWAR of one, while he has already accumulated 2.1 so far in 2014. The ZiPS projection system updates throughout the season based on the new information the player’s performance provides. Right now, Blackmon’s updated WAR projection for 2014 is 3.8. Let’s put that into context: in 2013, the Rockies only had two players with a higher WAR, and you know who those two are. Several players hovered around 3.8 fWAR in 2013, but the closest player comparison is probably Coco Crisp Crisp’s 2013 looked like this: .261/.335/.444, with 21 stolen bases and 22 home runs. Blackmon has the chance to match Crisp’s 3.8 WAR value. If he does reach Crisp’s level, he’ll likely end up doing it with less power, but with a higher average and better center field defense.

On Opening Day, I wrote the following about the Rockies center field situation: “I think within the next couple of weeks Corey Dickerson will be the everyday starter, Drew Stubbs will play against left-handers, Brandon Barnes will be a bench player, and Charlie Blackmon will either play for the Sky Sox or a different team.” I was wrong, but given the information at hand at the time, I wasn’t wrongheaded. Based on the information we have now about what Blackmon has done in April, I’m more optimistic than ever that he can be an everyday contributor going forward. And by “going forward,” I don’t just mean this season. “Everyday contributor” doesn’t have the same flare as hitting .600, but it is players like that who fortify the core of a winning team.

About Eric Garcia McKinley

I grew up in Colorado and have been a Rockies fan from the very beginning. I've previously written about the Rockies for Rox Pile. You can follow me on Twitter @garcia_mckinley.
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