Jose Abreu and amazing home run starts

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So to play off something that our own Aaron Gleeman wrote earlier here, there have been seven players in baseball history who have hit 15 home runs in their first 50 major league games. Chicago’s Jose Abreu will likely become the eighth — he has 14 home runs already in just 40 games.

The seven players so far are:

1. Wally Berger, 18
2. Wally Joyner, 17
3. Albert Pujols, 16
(tie) Mark McGwire, 16
(tie) Zeke Bonura, 16
6. Kevin Maas, 15
7. Ryan Braun, 15

It is fun to note that there are two guys named Wally on the top of the list … there have been five guys named Wally who have played in an All-Star Game; Berger and Joyner are two of them. The other three are Wally Moon, Wally Moses and Wally Westlake — all three  fantastic names. Wally Post cerainly should have been an All-Star in 1955 or 1956 but he was not. Wally Backman was a pretty good player. Wally Pipp was jobbed by history; he was a very good player who twice led the league in homers and once in triples but is remembered only as the guy Lou Gehrig replaced.

Anyway, of those seven who got off to such amazing home run starts, one is an all-time great (Albert Pujols), one was, for better or worse, the most prolific home run hitter in the game’s history (Mark McGwire) and one is a superstar who led the league in home runs in 2012 and now gets booed a lot (Ryan Braun).

The other four are  interesting.

Wally Berger was a very good player who has probably been overlooked by history. Here’s a great little piece of trivia that you can use wherever you might use great little piece of baseball trivia: Wally Berger is the only starter from the 1934 All-Star game who is NOT in the Hall of Fame. Here’s a list of those All-Stars with their Wins Above Replacement (WAR) and their Wins Above Average (WAA). I have a post coming up that talks about the difference.

Babe Ruth (163 WAR, 125.8 WAA)
Lou Gehrig (112.4 WAR, 78.5 WAA)
Jimmie Foxx (96.4 WAR, 62.9 WAA)
Charlie Gehringer (80.6 WAR, 45.4 WAA)
Frankie Frisch (70.4 WAR, 39.1 WAA)
Carl Hubbell (67.8 WAR, 38.7 WAA)
Joe Cronin (66.4 WAR, 35.9 WAA)
Al Simmons (68.7 WAR, 34.8 WAA)
Bill Terry (54.2 WAR, 31.8 WAA)
Bill Dickey (55.8 WAR, 31.6 WAA)
Gabby Hartnett (53.4 WAR, 29.6 WAA)
Joe Medwick (55.5 WAR, 28.1 WAA)
**Wally Berger (42.1 WAR, 23.5 WAA)**
Travis Jackson (44.0 WAR, 22.7 WAA)
Kiki Cuyler (46.7 WAR, 21.2 WAA)
Lefty Gomez (43.1 WAR, 19.7 WAA)
Heine Manush (45.8 WAR, 15.5 WAA)
Pie Traynor (36.2 WAR, 10.2 WAA)

Point is, if you were going to leave one starter from that game out of the Hall of Fame, it probably should not have been Berger. Bill James talked about three similar contemporary center fielders: Berger, Hack Wilson and Earl Averill. He thinks Berger was the best player. The other two, though, are in the Hall of Fame.

Berger is not in the Hall of Fame because his career ended abruptly. Up to age 30, he was a career .305 hitter with a .533 slugging percentage, he had led the league in home runs and he set a rookie home run record (38) that lasted for more than a half century until it was finally broken by another guy on this list, Mark McGwire. But Berger hurt his shoulder and was traded to the Giants in 1937, it was not a good fit, he only got three at-bats in the World Series and was shipped to Cincinnati less than a year later. He never played a full season after that, and he retired at 34 and joined the Navy.

Wally Joyner was a legitimate phenomenon — in 1986 he was called Wally World after the theme park in National Lampoon’s Vacation. Nobody had expected that kind of power from him. He seemed more a doubles kind of guy. He had hit 12 home runs as a 22-year old in Waterbury, and he 12 home runs as a 23-year-old in Edmonton. He hit his first home run off of Mark Langston … that was in his second career game. A week later, he hit one off Milt Wilcox. He had six home runs through his first 23 games, which was mildly surprising.

But then he got hot. He hit homers on back-to-back days at Milwaukee. Afteout a week later, he homered against Milwaukee again and the next day he had his first two-homer game, hitting both off of Boston’s Al Nipper. He homered again the next day and, after a homerless day, had ANOTHER two-homer game, this time in Detroit.

Man everybody was excited about Wally Joyner. Everybody talked about what a nice guy he was, what a magical story he was. Of course, he was not really a home run hitter, and so the home run thing could not last. It did not. Joyner hit 19 home runs in his first 61 games. He hit three in the 93 games that followed.

The next year, Wally World did hit what would be a career high 34 home runs … but that next year was 1987, when baseballs flew like lightning bugs, and once things settled down Joyner settled into the kind of player everyone kind of thought he would be — a pretty good average, double-digit homers kind of guy. He played all through the Selig Power Hour Decade but only once managed even 20 homers in a season in the 1990s and he never hit 25.

Zeke Bonura played for the Chicago White Sox in the 1930s — he was a very likeable character like Wally Joyner. His actual name was Henry, but they called him Zeke because a sportswriter once commented about him, “What a physique” and “physique” was just shortened to “Zeke.” He was 6-foot, about 210 pounds and was a a football player at Loyola in New Orleans. He hit two home runs in his second game and had back-to-back two-homer games in May. In all, he hit 27 homers as a rookie which was a White Sox record for about a half century, until Ron Kittle broke it.

Any time you can mention Ron Kittle, you should.

Bonura hit 21 homers in his second year, had 138 RBIs in his third and was a very good hitter until age 30, not quite as successful but similar to Wally Berger. He was among the first major leaguers to enlist for World War II and never played in the big leagues after 1940 — his career was short but his .307/.380/.487 lifetime slash numbers are awfully good.

Finally there’s Kevin Maas — if you are a Yankees fan over a certain age, you probably feel a certain lump in your throat when you hear the name Kevin Maas. He came up in June of 1990 with almost no fanfare at all. He had been a 22nd round pick, better known for his academics (he was an engineering major at Berkeley) than his baseball. He’d hit a few home runs in a mostly uninteresting four years in the minors. He came up in the middle of the worst Yankees season since they were named the New York Yankees.

And he mashed home runs. He hit his first on the fourth of July … it was that kind of story. He banged two home runs 10 days later againt the White Sox. In Texas, he hit homers on three consecutive days and a few days later he hit three more homers in a series against Detroit. He reached 10 home runs faster than any player in baseball history.

Maas had a beautiful swing, classic, left-handed, like The Natural. If he had come up in any other year, for any other team, it would have been a cool story. But in New York, in the middle of an otherwise lost season, Maas became this phenomenon. Yankees fans — and there are so many Yankees fans all over America — pinned so many hopes on him. “I’m not going to try to be the next Babe Ruth,” Maas pleaded but the next Babe Ruth was exactly how many people saw him, how many people HAD to see him. After hitting 21 homers in 79 games as a rookie and finishing second to Sandy Alomar in the Rookie of the Year award, he hit just .220 in his one full season in the big leagues in 1991 and then faded away.

What does this suggest about Abreu. Who knows? None of the previous home run heros were 27-year-old players who had already established themselves as superstars in Cuba. Abreu has shown in his first 40 games to be a free swinger who will strike out a lot and has massive power. McGwire might be the best comp on the board. I’m predicting 40 homers, approaching 45, if he stays healthy. But I predicted Kevin Maas would be a star too.

This Day in Transaction History: Phillies acquire John Kruk from Padres

John Kruk
Bernstein Associates/Getty Images
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John Kruk is one of the more underrated hitters in baseball history. Kruk, who is currently a broadcaster for the Phillies, had a 10-year career during which he hit exactly 100 homers, batted exactly .300, and posted an excellent .397 on-base percentage. In baseball history, there are only 32 members of the admittedly arbitrary 100/.300/.395+ club. Kruk is one of only 10 members of the club that played after 1963. The others: Mike Trout, Joey Votto, Todd Helton, Chipper Jones, Manny Ramírez, Frank Thomas, Larry Walker, Edgar Martinez, and Wade Boggs. Of them, five are Hall of Famers. Trout and Votto will be, and Helton and Ramírez should be.

On this day in 1989, the Phillies made a franchise-altering trade, acquiring Kruk along with infielder Randy Ready from the Padres in exchange for outfielder Chris James. The Padres had just swept the Phillies at home and were hoping to jump into the playoff race. They immediately went into a losing skid, but caught fire at the end of the season, finishing 89-73. However, that wasn’t good enough as the Giants won the NL West with a 92-70 record. James was solid for the Padres, posting a .743 OPS with 11 homers and 46 RBI in 87 games.

Kruk had an interesting but brief major league career with the Padres. His roommate, Roy Plummer, was an armed robber. Kruk was completely unaware of this. In spring training of 1988, the FBI informed Kruk of his roommates’ activities. Kruk feared retribution from Plummer and said that the anxiety affected his baseball performance. In 1988, Kruk batted what was for him a poor .241/.369/.362 with nine homers and 44 RBI over 466 plate appearances.

The Phillies didn’t enjoy immediate success upon Kruk’s arrival in 1989. The club finished the season with a losing record and would do the same in the ensuing three seasons. None of it was Kruk’s fault, though: in aggregate, from 1990-92, he hit .303/.393/.459, earning two All-Star nominations. In this span of time, the only other first basemen to hit above .300 were Frank Thomas, Paul Molitor, Hal Morris, and Rafael Palmeiro. The Padres had used Kruk both in the corner outfield and at first base, but the Phillies made him a full-time first baseman, which turned out to be a good move.

In 1993, everything came together for the Phillies and Kruk had what was arguably the greatest season of his career. He hit .316, which was actually seven points below his average the previous year, but he drew 111 walks to push his on-base percentage up to .430. Kruk hit third in the lineup, creating plenty of RBI opportunities for Dave Hollins in the clean-up spot, Darren Daulton at No. 5, and the trio of Jim Eisenreich, Pete Incaviglia, and Wes Chamberlain in the No. 6 spot. The Phillies shocked the world in ’93, winning the NL East by three games over the Expos with a 97-65 record. They then dispatched the Braves in six games in the NLCS to advance to the World Series against the Blue Jays.

Kruk was productive in the NLCS, contributing six hits including a pair of doubles, a triple, a home run, four walks, five RBI, and four runs scored. But he turned things up a notch in the World Series, registering multi-hit performances in the first three games. He would finish the World Series with eight hits in 23 at-bats along with seven walks, four RBI, and four runs scored. The World Series was winnable for the Phillies as they lost a barnburner Game 4 15-14, and of course, dropped the deciding Game 6 on a World Series-clinching walk-off three-run home run by Joe Carter off of Mitch Williams.

1994 was tough on Kruk in many ways. He was diagnosed with testicular cancer in spring training. Knee issues continued to bother him, and then Major League Baseball had a work stoppage. In an abbreviated season, Kruk hit a still-productive .823 OPS. He became a free agent and, when baseball came back, he signed with the White Sox. In the first inning of a July 30 game against the Orioles in ’95, Kruk singled to left field off of Scott Erickson. He reached first base, bowed to the fans, and walked off the field into retirement. Kruk told the media, “The desire to compete at this level is gone. When that happens, it’s time to go.”

Kruk has spent his post-playing days working in sports media as both a broadcaster (Phillies, ESPN nationally) and as a commentator (The Best Damn Sports Show Period, Baseball Tonight). The Phillies inducted him into their Wall of Fame in August 2011. One wonders if Kruk hadn’t been bit by the injury bug, and if there hadn’t been a work stoppage, if he might have been able to accrue some more numbers to have a borderline Hall of Fame case. Regardless, he’ll go down as one of the games’ quietly great hitters.