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Ruminations on what to expect when Berkman returns

The Astros' offense is mired in a quick sand, and the hitters seem like they have no way to pull themselves out of it.  So, its natural to pin our hopes on the return of Lance Berkman.  And Berkman appears to be closer to returning to the Astros' lineup.  He is scheduled for two rehab assignments at Round Rock this weekend.  I don't know if he may be given more rehab assignments in the minors after that or not.  Perhaps it depends on how well he performs for the Express--and how his knee responds to game condition.

But it's not unreasonable to think that--with a little luck--Berkman could return to the Astros' lineup next week.  How soon could he bring a positive impact to the batting order?  It's possible that he could enter the batters box in Houston next week and crush pitch after pitch. It happens.  Albert Pujols returned from the DL, for a calf injury, on June 26, 2008, without any minor league rehab assignments, and batted 3 for 4.  Albert Pujols had a hip injury in 2006, returned 19 days later from the DL, again without any rehab assignment, and in his second game went 4 for 5 with a double and HR.  While the Astros could get lucky that way with Berkman, the reality is that it's unrealistic to expect that to happen..  Berkman will probably require some time in the batting order before he returns to being an offensive force.  After all, he barely saw any work in spring training games.  Outside of that, he hasn't seen major league pitches since last year.  And, his knee is probably still rounding into form, and discomfort could hinder his hitting to some unknown degree, at least initially.

After the jump, I'll look at the last time Lance Berkman returned from knee surgery in May, 2005.

Let's get a big caveat out of the way when we examine the Big Puma's return from knee surgery in 2005--before he was even known as the Big Puma, by the way.  Berkman had much more serious knee surgery in 2005 (on the other knee).  Berkman blew out his knee on Oct. 28, 2004 while playing safety and quarterback in a flag football game. The 2005 knee surgery had a 5 - 6 month recovery time, compared to the 1 month or less recovery time associated with the scoping of his knee this year. Ironically, like this year, Berkman scoffed at the notion that he would miss opening day in 2005.  But it was early May before he re-entered the Astros' lineup.  The caveat: given the difference in seriousness of the two injuries, we shouldn't expect Berkman to take as much time to become productive, compared to 2005.

In 2005, Berkman played in five rehab assignment games at Round Rock.  His batting line: .286, .412, .357, .769.  His first game back from injury was May 6, 2005.  He went 0 for 4.  The next day in a 4-1 loss to the Braves, Berkman had a double, walk, and RBI.  But Berkman's return from injury was marked by a slow return of his offense.  By May 23, one week before the Houston Chronicle published its famous "tombstone" for the 2005 Astros, Berkman's line stood at .173, .295, .269, .564.  Berkman's first HR was struck eight days after he returned from injury.  His first multi hit game was May 25, almost 20 days after he returned.  But he followed that with 3 multi hit games over the next 6 days.  Berkman raised his OPS by almost 100 points in the week and a half after May 22.  In short, Berkman's offense began to heat up two weeks after he returned from injury.  At the end of May, Berkman's OPS stood at .662, and his batting average was .234.  The Chronicle published its tombstone on June 1, and Berkman responded with a HR in a 4-1 win over the Reds.

Berkman had returned to form in June 2005. His OPS that month was .966, compared to his May OPS of .662.  Berkman's offense continued to heat up in the next month, with his July 2005 OPS of 1.093.  The Astros team offense in May 2005 produced an OPS of .655.  The Astros team OPS in June 2005 was .750.  In July as Berkman's hitting reached the scalding mark, the the Astros' team OPS was .800. 

The two week time required for Berkman to begin producing in 2005 may overstate the amount of time which may be required for Berkman to return to form this year.  But a look at the 2005 history suggests that we shouldn't expect Berkman to be in mid-season hitting form.  However, the 2005 history also suggests that when Berkman does return to form, he can heat up the whole team's offense.  If anyone doubts Berkman's ability to carry a team when he gets hot, look at May, 2008, when Berkman's offense achieved a 1.409 OPS.  Berkman had 15 multi hit games in May, 2008, which was the key to a .608 team winning record in that month. The Astros started out May 2008 five games behind the NL Central leader, and had reduced that number to 1.5 games by May 22.

I agree with Stephen's point in this article that Berkman's impact on the lineup is interactive, saying "you have to be a genius with Markov chains" to effectively model the Big Puma's impact.  Berkman's presence immediately adds OBP to the lineup, and allows players to hit in batting order positions closer to their ability.  Mills hasn't had much choice, but hitting Feliz in the No. 3 spot is a travesty.  Perhaps, equally important, Berkman's return may provide a psychological boost to other hitters' confidence.  Hopefully, this can take some pressure off Carlos Lee and Hunter Pence, who appear to be pressing.  As the Chronicle's Levine stated, after looking at the Astros' dismal O-swing (out side the zone) percentages, "I don't know the technical definition of pressing, but it would appear from how much they're swinging outside the zone that they are pressing, especially in the middle of the order."

The Astros may not be a good hitting team when Berkman returns.  But, surely, they will be a better hitting team.