Thursday, May 5, 2011

And Your National League Player of the Month Is...

After roughly thirty games of baseball, only one player ranks in the top five in his respective league in each of the triple crown categories. Hell, as of Cinco de Mayo, he ranks third or better in the entire MLB in batting average, home runs, and RBI.

Can you name him?

No, it’s not Albert; his batting average is about one hundred points below what we’re used to seeing from him. Take another guess.

Despite his return to fantasy royalty, it isn’t Matt Kemp either, although if we were including stolen bases, he’d be the only person in the top 30 for all four categories.

If you guessed Ryan Braun or Miguel Cabrera, you’re pretty close, as I believe they are the only other guys to crack the top ten in each of the categories, but you’re ultimately incorrect.

Give up?

It’s Lance Berkman.

It’s okay, there’s nothing to be ashamed of if you didn’t know the answer...although the picture should have really given it away. Most people probably didn’t even realize that the Cardinals signed him in December; if I didn’t own two Houston jerseys with his name on them, I probably wouldn’t have noticed either.

And let’s be honest, Berkman hasn’t exactly been an all-star for the past two seasons. He was barely even a platoon player during the second half of last season after being traded to the Yankees.

But after hitting six home runs between the 11th and 15th of April and recording multiple hits in seven straight games from April 20-28 (batting an absurd .607 during that stretch!), I think it’s about time to take the Puma seriously again.

The dude is batting .390 with 9 home runs and 28 RBI. He has the highest OPS in the NL by a full tenth of a point, which is an even more significant lead than a tenth of a second in a one hundred meter sprint. The only thing he’s done wrong this year is come into Houston and bite the hell out of the hand that used to feed him. As the biggest Astros fan living in Washington DC, it’s going to be extremely surreal to sit in Nationals Park June 14-16 watching and wearing the jersey of my favorite player as he plays for the team I’ve despised like none other for the past decade. If I catch a home run that he hits, my head might explode.

Unfortunately, we live in an era in which this kind of late-career resurgence will be met with speculations of steroid use. Far be it from me to accuse a player of anything before personally handing him a cup to piss in and running the tests for myself, but I can understand why people might make assumptions about a 29 year old Jose Bautista suddenly hitting a home run in one out of every 10.37 at bats after a five year career of hitting one in only every 29.9 at bats.

But even though he’s turning things around 6 years later in life than Bautista did, Berkman has always been a good hitter. Prior to 2009, his career batting average was .302; and prior to 2010, he had never gone a complete season averaging more than 21.5 at bats per home run. And don’t you dare tell me this just proves he probably juiced up through 2008 and then decided to start again this year, or else I’m running home in tears to set my Berkman jerseys on fire and never watching baseball again.

You see, since the Mitchell Report first started circulating, I’ve maintained that there are only four guys in the league that I refuse to believe used steroids, and it would ruin the game for me if I ever found out that they had: Ken Griffey Jr., Derek Jeter, Albert Pujols, and Lance Berkman. He probably isn’t on that list for many other people, but as an Astros fan who knew all along that Roger Clemens would find a way to taint the only World Series appearance in our team’s 50 year history, I need to believe that this Lance is clean just as much as the entire US of A wants to believe that a one-nutted cyclist named Lance was clean.

So if we’re operating under the assumption that he is clean as a whistle, how do we explain where this return to prominence came from? After being traded by Drayton McLane for minor leaguers and a salary dump, and after being tossed out like yesterday’s garbage by the Yankees, it’s not incredibly surprising to see him playing with a chip on his shoulder. But this surge goes beyond a chip; it’s as if he’s walking to the box with an extra bat on his shoulder.

Even as a part-time 1B/DH for the Yankees last year, Berkman has been under intense pressure to perform for awhile, so I’m sure it helps that for the first time in about six years he’s finally a regular in a line-up that isn’t relying on him as the only source of RBI. Entering the 2011 season, I presumed the Puma would be the fifth most important bat in the Cards’ line-up behind Pujols, Holliday, Rasmus, and Freese; and even at that, I figured he would platoon with John Jay on a fairly regular basis. The expectations from him were significantly below average for him in recent years, and when someone with his career statistics is suddenly placed in a position where twenty home runs would be a lot of gravy as opposed to a mild disappointment, the ball looks a little bigger and the bat feels a little lighter.

It’s not exactly a leap of faith to assume he won’t keep up this pace over the course of the season (especially the batting average), but certainly no one expected him to end up as the National League player of the month for April. 

No comments:

Post a Comment