SCOTTSDALE, Ariz. — A couple of hours before the start of the 2017 Home Run Derby at Marlins Park in Miami, Charlie Blackmon downplayed his chances.
“Home runs aren’t my thing,” the Rockies outfielder said with a shrug. “You come watch my batting practice and I’m flipping balls over the shortstop. I’m going to have to do something a little different.”
For one night only, Blackmon supercharged his approach and hit 14 home runs during the first round. It wasn’t enough to beat out the Dodgers’ Cody Bellinger, but it proved that Blackmon can turn batting practice into pyrotechnics.
But launching majestic home runs during BP isn’t his thing. So what is? A consistent, methodical, rhythmic approach that rarely varies, day after day, week after week, month after month.
“I use batting practice to get ready to play,” Blackmon said. “I look at everything I do as preparation for the game.”
If the Rockies are facing a left-hander pitcher, perhaps Giants ace Madison Bumgarner or the Dodgers’ Clayton Kershaw, the left-handed hitting Blackmon has manager Bud Black throw batting practice.
“Buddy’s a lefty and he gives me a realistic look,” Blackmon said. “He throws the ball pretty firm and he’ll throw some sliders and curves. I like to see a fastball-slider mix. He’s tough, he’s really good.”
Black, 61, pitched in the majors for parts of 15 seasons, loves throwing BP and he’s been doing it for a long, long time.
“Probably the last five years of my career as a player,” he quipped.
So what makes a good batting practice pitcher?
“Durability, for one,” Black said. “You have to be able to go to the post, every day. It can’t be like, ‘Hey, Black throws a great BP, but he only throws once a month.’ ”
Working on his game
The No. 1 rule for a good batting practice pitcher is that he must be able to throw with consistent spin and velocity.
“The hitter wants to work on his timing,” Black said. “Then he can take it a step further, and after throwing some strikes over the middle, the hitter might say, ‘Hey, throw some in, throw some away. Throw some at the top of the zone.’ So the ability to move the ball around is a great quality to have, too.”
Black stands on a platform, 33 feet from the plate and behind an “L screen” when he throws to Blackmon. The 33 feet is closer than most BP pitchers stand, but Blackmon likes working on his reaction time. Traditional batting practice utilizes pitch speeds around 60 miles per hour, thrown from about 40 feet. Pitching machines can fire fastballs at more than 90 mph, typically from about 55 feet.
Although kids arrive at Coors Field early for batting practice in hopes of snagging a home run ball, Blackmon doesn’t oblige them very often.
“Some guys definitely swing for the fences, but I don’t,” said Blackmon who won the 2017 National League batting title a .331 average while also hitting a career-high 37 home runs. “The best thing for my body is not to take 80 max-effort swings. One thing I’ve taught myself is that home runs are not the result of really swinging hard. I think they’re the result of making really good contact.”
In 2010 at Double-A Tulsa, Blackmon discovered that he was striding too far, causing his head to move too much. His simple solution? Put something in front of his foot in the batter’s box to prevent him from over-striding. He decided to use a cinder block and ended up carrying it to the indoor cage, outdoor cage and even on the team bus for a few road trips.
“It was a reminder to me to never get complacent, to always work on my skills,” he said.
Blackmon begins BP the same every day, taking pitches inside on his hands and hitting the ball the other way to left-center field. He focuses on using his legs and keeping his head still.
“I just let the ball get really deep and then hit it the other way, and then I work up from there,” he said. “I work my contact point a little farther out as I go, then during my last round I will try to implement the approach that I will be trying to do that night.”
During spring training, batters often work on situational hitting. The BP pitcher will shout, “Man on third, one out, bring him home!” And the batter then attempts to lift the ball to the outfield for a sacrifice fly. At other times, the batter will try to hit the ball to the right side to move a runner from second to third.
Once the season begins, however Blackmon rarely plays those games.
“I feel like I can pull the ball when I want to, at least most of the time,” he said. “That’s something that comes natural to me. I’m mostly trying to get a feel, loosen up and see the ball.”
Toward the end of his BP, Blackmon becomes more aggressive.
“I work on meeting the ball more in the middle and driving it as I start lengthening my swing,” he said. “I finish off by meeting the pitch out front and pulling the ball to right field.”
Blackmon’s approach is all his own. As former teammate DJ LeMahieu once said: “He has a formula for hitting in his head. I can’t understand it.”
Asked to describe Blackmon’s swing, Black responded: “How about a good one? From a pitching standpoint, there’s not one way to attack him. His weaknesses are a short list.”
Blackmon attributes that to his work in the cage.
“I look less at the results and more at how I got there,” Blackmon said. “I want to give away very few at-bats. If I make an out, I want them to make multiple good pitches to get me out. Most of the time I just want to swing at good pitches and take good swings.”
It all begins with BP.