Can Brett Wallace Continue the Astros' First Base Tradition?

 


Wallace is the heir to Lance Berkman, and Berkman was the heir to Jeff Bagwell, and Bagwell was the heir to Glenn Davis. Those three predecessors of Wallace are among the three greatest hitters in Astros' history.  Not trying to put any pressure on you, kid.  But, I will anyway.  By comparing you to Lance Berkman.

But that comparison brings me to an alternate title for this article: "why I won't be worried if Brett Wallace begins the season in AAA Oklahoma City." I'll explain that title shortly.

Writers and readers at TCB have discussed possible flaws in Wallace's swing mechanics, but I'll leave that level of detail to another day.  In the end, it's up to Wallace and the Astros to make whatever adjustments are necessary.  As Richard Justice points out, Brett Wallace is the most important spring project for the Astros' new batting coach, Mike Barnett.

On the surface at least, there are some similarities between Lance Berkman and Brett Wallace. Both were top college hitters.  Brett Wallace was a two time triple crown winner in the PAC-10, and PAC-10 Player of the Year in 2007.  Berkman was WAC Player of the Year in 1997, and the baseball writers' National College Player of the Year.  Both Berkman and Wallace had glittering offensive stats in college.  Despite their dominating hitting at the college level, both players dropped to the middle of the MLB draft's first round; Wallace was drafted 13th by St. Louis and Berkman, 15th by the Astros.  Neither Berkman or Wallace had a classic physique or outstanding defensive tools, which probably cost them higher draft positions.

Wallace and Berkman entered the minor leagues at the age of 21 and enjoyed success as hitters at each level.

BA / OBP / SLG / OPS

A

Berkman .293, .417, .543, .961

Wallace .327, .418, .490, .908

 AA

Berkman .305, .422, .550, .972

Wallace .305, .417, .497, .914

 AAA

Berkman .319, .435, .554, .989

Wallace .299, .357, .484, .841

Berkman and Wallace were similar offensive players at the A and AA level, but Berkman outdistances Wallace by a notable margin at the AAA level.  Berkman has shown more power than Wallace at all levels, and Berkman has shown a consistently high OBP, which probably is one of the best predictors of major league ability.  Wallace's OBP dropped off at the AAA level.  Although Berkman was a better minor league hitter, Wallace had enough success to be viewed as a good hitting prospect.

Prior to the 2010 season, Wallace was ranked the No. 27 prospect by Baseball America.  Berkman was ranked the No. 13 prospect in 1999 and the No. 37 prospect in 2000.

 

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At the age of 23, both Berkman and Wallace were called up to the Astros and received limited playing time in the second half of the season.  Berkman and Wallace both had their difficulties adjusting to the major league level.

Age 23 in Majors

(G, BA, OBP, SLG, OPS)

Berkman 1999: 34, .237, .321, .387, .708

Wallace 2010: 51, .222, .296, .615

Wallace and Berkman had a comparable rough time in their intiial taste of the majors.  Wallace faces a similar spring training to Berkman's spring training in 2000.  Berkman would have to beat out Daryl Ward in spring training to get playing time, and Wallace has to show that he should play first base over Carlos Lee.  (Perhaps Wallace's real competition is Brian Bogusevic or Jason Michael, who would play LF if Lee goes to 1st base.)

Berkman continue to struggle at the beginning of 2000.  As spring training ended, Berkman began the season at AAA New Orleans.  Berkman was optioned twice and recalled twice in the first half of 2000, but he stayed in the majors after his last recall on May 25.  Berkman had made the most of his AAA batting  following the 2000 spring training: a .330 batting average, 1.042 OPS and six HRs in 31 games.

And this is why I say that I'm not worried if Wallace starts the 2011 season in AAA.  Sure, it would be great if Wallace tears it up in spring training and earns the ML starting job.  But a return to AAA can be a spring board back to the majors, as shown by Berkman's 2000 season. 

This is how Big Puma performed in 114 games after returning from AAA in 2000: .297, .388, .561, .949.  I'm not saying that Wallace will have that kind of offensive season; but even 90% of that OPS would make 2011 a sweet year for Wallace.

In an ESPN interview with Berkman,  Lance said he didn't feel like he belonged in the major leagues until after the 2000 season: 

I guess after the 2000 season was when I really felt like, "I know I can compete and I know I can do well at this level." In 1999, I was up for two months and struggled a little bit. Didn't hit very well. The first part of 2000, I struggled. And then I finally started to put it together in my second stint up in 2000 and I got a chance to play everyday because we had an injury.

This MiLB article about Berkman's career path contains insights from John Tamargo, who was Berkman's manager at the A level and an Astros coach during Berkman's rookie season.  Tamargo describes Berkman;s swing in A+ ball as "long and powerful."  Tamargo compares Berkman's 2000 season:

"I had the privilege of seeing him in his first year in the big leagues," said Tamargo. "He got his swing under control. You could tell he'd shortened it up a bit and that was basically it. You knew he was going to hit, and for power."

Could a similar adjustment by Wallace produce a similar season for the 2011 first baseman?  We don't know. But Brett Wallace will be one of the stories to watch in spring training this season.

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