Houston Astros Lance Berkman Seeks to Cross Mendoza Line

Richard ZowieCorrespondent IMay 6, 2009

Houston Astros first baseman Lance Berkman’s getting off to one of those slow starts, the kind players dread as they hear fans complain about how someone making millions of dollars a year should be able to hit a small white sphere—even if it’s traveling 95 mph. Dealing with the booing from the fans and all the armchair analysts from columnists and from bloggers (such as myself) must be very frustrating.

I’ve heard of various remedies to relieve slumps—extra batting practice, studying video, lobotomies, slumpbusters, a threat to be traded to the Japanese baseball leagues or—even worse—the Los Angeles Clippers, and, good old fashioned time. Jeff Bagwell was in slumps also, so I like to think Berkman will work his way out of it sooner rather than later.

How bad has it gotten for Big Elvis? In last Saturday’s 5-1 win over the Atlanta Braves, a scoring change on a bad-hop grounder hit by Berkman to Braves third baseman Chipper Jones was changed from an error to a hit, raising Berkman’s average (at the time) to .179.

Currently, prior to tonight’s game against the Chicago Cubs, Berkman’s hitting .198; a good night in the Windy City could raise Berkman above the Mendoza Line.

Berkman could have his hands full, though. Earlier this season, Houston hitters had as much success against Chicago pitching as Republican presidential candidate John McCain did trying to convince Chicago voters to vote for him instead of Barack Obama.

When I think of his slump, it really makes me think there’s all the difference in the world between what I, a sports fan who played two years of Little League baseball, see on the television and what Berkman sees at the plate.

A pitch normally arrives at the plate in less than a third of a second. Keep in mind, folks, this isn’t softball, where underhand tosses can be timed with a calendar rather than a radar gun. Before a major league baseball hitter swings, he tries to factor in several things: what kind of pitch does it appear to be; is it a strike or ball; if it’s out of the strike zone, is it something he can hit; if it’s too close to take but not something he really wants to swing at, can he hit it enough to foul it off; and so on.

I like to think that Berkman’s laid-back style and experience will help him snap out of this slump. He tends to joke around a lot, as evidenced by this question about what he majored in while playing college baseball at Rice University: