Mark Reynolds hadn’t been a Colorado Rockie for very long when he first learned how meticulous his teammate with the mullet and bushy brown beard actually was.
During spring training in 2016, a couple months after Reynolds signed a one-year deal with Colorado in free agency, he and Charlie Blackmon were taking cuts together in the batting cage. The two of them were hitting “flips” — underhand soft tosses thrown from behind a mesh screen — when Reynolds noticed that Blackmon looked a little agitated.
“His timing was off or something,” Reynolds recalled. “He stepped off from home plate to the ‘L’ screen. He was like, ‘No, we’re a step off. It needs to be 10 steps (away).'”
Blackmon measured the steps out for himself. Sure enough, he was right. The screen that’s designed to protect pitchers from batted balls wasn’t quite 10 strides away, so Blackmon moved it back a hair.
“I was like, ‘What is this guy doing? It’s just flips,'” Reynolds said. “But he’s got his intricacies and his strange things that he does. It works for him.”
It’s this obsessive attention to detail, combined with a work ethic his teammates talk about unsolicited, that’s helped Blackmon quietly turn himself into one of baseball’s best outfielders. Entering Tuesday’s game against the Mariners, the Colorado Rockies center fielder was batting .329 with 13 home runs and 46 RBI. Earlier this season, he became the fastest leadoff hitter to ever reach the 40 RBI benchmark since the MLB began recording the statistic in 1920, doing so in 47 games.
Blackmon was named the National League Player of the Week for the fifth time in his career on Monday. The 30-year-old has taken a long and meandering route to becoming one of the game’s best center fielders.
Blackmon was a pitcher for most of his college career, first at Young Harris College then at Georgia Tech. Blackmon converted when his pitching coach at Georgia Tech, Bobby Moranda, who’s now at Western Carolina, suggested he try to hit more during a season of summer ball in the Texas Collegiate League. He wound up hitting .316 that summer. In his final season at Georgia Tech in 2008, he batted .396 with eight home runs.
The Rockies chose Blackmon in the second round of the 2008 MLB Draft. He made his big-league debut in 2011. Due to inconsistency, injuries and a crowded outfield, Blackmon wouldn’t make the 25-man Opening Day roster until 2014, when he was 26 years old. Blackmon has held down the Rockies’ starting center fielder job ever since then, growing his game not unlike the way he’s grown his mullet and facial hair.
“From the other side, I’d seen Charlie from his first couple years until now, and there’s been a vast growth,” Rockies first-year manager Bud Black said. “You usually see that growth in the minor leagues, where guys get better as they go through the minor leagues, and when they get to the big leagues, they sort of maintain a level of performance. I think Charlie is one of those guys who has truly gotten better as a big leaguer from the time he first got here until now. You don’t see that often.”
Blackmon hit .287 with 17 home runs in 2015. In 2016, he upped that to a .324 average with 29 dingers. This year, he’s batting a similar average and is on pace to hit a Nolan Arenado-esque 39 home runs and 140 RBI from the leadoff spot.
Blackmon is almost always intense when he’s at the ballpark. Before the game gets going, he watches video of the opposing team’s pitchers, reads up on scouting reports and works in the batting cage. When it’s over, he goes from the field to the weight room to lift.
“He’s a great student pre-game of the opposing starting pitcher and bullpen,” Black said. “This is not happening from nowhere. He puts the work in.”
“He busts his ass,” Reynolds said, putting it more bluntly.
Every once in a while, Blackmon will let his dry sense of humor out. On Tuesday, he was asked how he keeps up with his rigid routine as the Rockies’ schedule gets more and more hectic.
“By not answering questions like this one,” Blackmon replied.
Blackmon’s come up was not a quick one. There were four years of college, pit stops in Tri-City (Pasco, Washington), Modesto, Tulsa and Colorado Springs, a broken foot, turf toe and a staph infection before all of this. That it wasn’t easy for him to break through, Blackmon said, is part of the reason he’s so focused on his craft today.
“The guys that make it a little bit later in life have a little bit different makeup, personality, whatever you want to call it,” Blackmon said. “Obviously you look back. I really wasn’t that talented compared to the young players in the game when I was their age. I didn’t stand out necessarily. So you’ve got to figure it out somehow.
“I’m thankful to have the opportunity to play the game a little bit later in life and to be able to put all that together. Some guys are almost done by the time I even came into pro ball. I’m just thankful that my path is what it is. I don’t think I would’ve made it if I had been one of those guys that signed right out of high school.”
Blackmon, who turns 31 on July 1, has gotten to a place few could’ve imagined when he was toiling away in the minors through his mid-20s. He’s done so mostly through hard work, perseverance and an attention to detail that once caused a teammate to wonder if there was a method to his madness.
“I’m very particular in the way I do things,” Blackmon said.
“Yeah, I walked it off because I want to feel consistent,” he said, thinking back to that day he hit flips with Reynolds. “That’s the way I hit flips and BP (batting practice). The same distance every day. Some people don’t care it about. I do. I want to be the variable. If I need to adjust, I’ll adjust. They don’t pitch from 70 feet and then sometimes 50 feet. I’ll do the adjusting. I don’t want the cage to be the adjustment.”
Subscribe to Denverite’s weekly sports newsletter here.