Brandon Watson insists he's doing nothing different from what he has done his entire career. No alterations to his swing, no changes in his approach at the plate, no mental adjustments. The only difference has been the results, and the results include a 43-game hitting streak, which broke the 95-year-old International League record of 42 games and is the longest minor league hitting streak in 53 years.
"I'm the same player, as far as putting the ball in play and hoping it falls," said Watson, a 25-year-old outfielder for the Columbus Clippers, the Washington Nationals' Triple-A affiliate. "My greatest strength is just to put the ball in play and see what happens. It takes a lot of things to go your way for something like this to happen."
While Watson's streak has reached historical proportions, it could have ended at less than half of its current length.
"One game when the streak was around 18 or 19 games, I had Brandon on deck to pinch-hit because he had the day off," Clippers manager John Stearns said. "It was in the last or second-to-last inning, we were down in a close game and we had runners on base. Brandon was the last guy on our bench, and we needed him to pinch-hit because we were playing against a National League affiliate. But he never got up because the guy ahead of him made the last out in the inning. Thankfully that's what happened.
"Of course Brandon could have gotten a hit, but to only have one at bat to do it in is extremely difficult. I knew about the streak at that point, but you never think it will get all the way up to 43 games. Every time he gets his next hit, I'm totally amazed. What he's done is just so special."
One thing that has aided Watson in his quest for the streak is his ability to put the ball in play. He has struck out in fewer than ten percent of his plate appearances and walked in fewer than five percent of his trips to the plate.
"I'm an aggressive hitter," Watson said. "As a leadoff batter, you have to work the count sometimes, but I feel that in the right situation the best way for me to get on base is with the base hit."
Watson's ability to hit for contact (a .304 lifetime minor league hitter entering the season), his well-above-average speed, his ability to bunt and his unorthodox swing that carries him out of the batter's box have drawn comparisons to the Mariners' Ichiro Suzuki.
"You got what you got and you work with it," Watson said. "I didn't grow up watching Ichiro, obviously, but someone one day said to me, 'You swing like Ichiro,' and I was like, 'Yeah, I kinda do.' I just get the ball in play and get to first base as fast as possible."
Stearns said Watson's combination of contact hitting ability, bunting ability and speed creates more opportunities for Watson to get base hits.
"He's got a quick bat and runs under 4.0 (seconds) down the line. If he hits a ball to the left of shortstop, or up the middle forcing them to make a play on the move, he's going to beat it out. He's an excellent bunter who can drag bunt to the first base side, so teams play him way in on the corners, which opens up the infield for him."
Watson's streak, which broke Jack Levilet's International League record 42-game hitting streak set in 1912, is tied for the eighth-longest streak in the history of minor league baseball. With a hit tonight in Rochester, Watson would have eighth-place all to himself, and needs three more hits to reach Johnny Bates, whose 46-game hitting streak is next on the list.
The longest minor league hitting streak belongs to Joe Wilhoit of Wichita in 1919, when Wilhoit recorded a base hit in 69 consecutive games. Hall of Famer Joe DiMaggio, whose 56-game hitting streak is the longest in major league history, is also second on the minor league list with a 61-game hitting streak for San Francisco of the Pacific Coast League in 1933. Third on the list is Roman Mejias, whose 55-game hitting streak for Waco in 1954 is the longest of the post World War II era.
Watson's streak is longer than all but three major league hitting streaks–DiMaggio's 56 games, and two 44-game streaks, one by Willie Keeler and the other by Pete Rose.
While those marks are now in his sight, Watson said he was excited just to get his hitting streak up to 20 games.
"I've had some 19-game hitting streaks in my career," Watson said. "So when I got to 20 games, I was like, 'Wow.' I wasn't even thinking about 30 or 40 games. Right now I'm just having fun with it. Everyone's been real supportive. When I'm up to bat I just stay positive and stay focused on each at bat because you can't let every at bat go to your head. I just want to take advantage of every opportunity I get."
Does Stearns have any future plans to use Watson as a key, late-inning pinch-hitter?
"No way," Stearns said. "We have a rotation of outfielders we normally use to get everyone playing time, but right now he's playing every day, and deservingly so. "As a manager, all I do right now to help him is to put him out there every day so we're not forced to use him as a pinch-hitter. And I won't let him sacrifice bunt unless he already has a hit."