Head of the class

Gary Sanchez heads an interesting group of home-run hitters

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Six players in baseball history have hit 10 or more home runs in their first 25 big league games. Well, that’s not exactly right — only one player has hit MORE than 10 home runs in his first 25 games. That, as you probably know, is New York Yankees phenom Gary Sanchez. He already has 11, and he still has one more game to go to get to his 25th game. We will get back to him in a minute.

The other five players hit exactly 10 home runs in their first 25 games.

They are a bit of a mixed bag.

* * *

Zeke Bonura, 10 homers in 25 games, 1934.

Zeke Bonura’s first bit of fame came not as a baseball player but as a track-and-field star. When he was 16 years old in 1925, he shocked everyone by breaking the American javelin record and coming within inches of the world record. His throw was five feet longer than the gold-medal throw at the Olympics one year earlier. His record would later be called wind-aided and nullified — there is some dispute about whether it really was wind-aided or if the AAU just did not want a previously unknown 16-year-old Italian to have the American record.

He got his nickname “Zeke” indirectly from none other than Knute Rockne. The best version of the story is that Rockne came to Bay St. Louis, Mississippi, to recruit him and, upon showing up, said: “I want to see the one with the physique.” Physique was shortened by wiseguy teammates to “Zeke.” When Bonura made the big leagues, he was 6-foot and 210 pounds of muscle.

He made it in 1934, after a five-year stretch in the minor leagues, and upon his arrival, he hit 10 home runs in his first 25 games. He reached 10 in style, hitting two home runs off Philadelphia pitching in Game 24 and hitting two more off Boston’s George Pipgras and Johnny Welch in Game 25. It was a time in America for ethnic profiling, of course, and so as a reward for his historic start, Bonura got his photograph in the Chicago Daily News eating a big plate of spaghetti. “Spaghetti Eating Plutocrat, Bonura Is Ballplayer, Too,” was the headline.

He was often called “Spaghetti Zeke Bonura” after that.

Bonura was a superb hitter. In his first six seasons — his only six full seasons — he hit .313/.386/.504, hit 20-plus homers three times, scored 100 runs twice and drove in 100 RBIs four times. He actually owned the White Sox RBI record for 62 years until Albert Belle broke it in 1998 and Frank Thomas broke it again two years later.

But, despite the hitting, Bonura was mostly known as a sort of flake during his playing days. Stories of his inability to read signs became legendary — his manager Jimmy Dykes would tell of the time that they kept flashing the bunt sign at Bonura and he couldn’t, or wouldn’t, read it. Finally, Dykes would say, he just shouted “Bunt! Bunt!”

“And,” Dykes said to finish off the joke, “the SOB still swung away.”

This was in the day when managers felt free to insult their own ballplayers at will. Dykes also never hid his belief that Bonura was the worst first baseman in entire world.

“It was never established that beyond the shadow of a doubt that Bonura was the worst fielding first baseman in the majors,” Shreveport Journal sports editor Otis Harris wrote, echoing Dykes. “But the consensus was that he would do until another one came along.”

Funny thing is, it’s not clear at all from the record that Bonura was a bad first baseman. In truth, he looks like a very good one based on the limited stats we have. He rarely made errors (he led the league in fielding percentage three times). And while the knock on him was that he was about as mobile as a sleeper-sofa, he led the league in in range factor FOUR TIMES in six years. Yes, this could be a limitation of the statistics we have — people who saw Bonura play seem almost unanimous in their belief that he was a dreadful defender. But let’s be honest, it also could be that people tend to see what they want to see.

There is one more fun part of all this — in 1937, Bonura was one of a handful of athletes featured on the front of a Wheaties Cereal box. On one of the panels, Bonura was given the task to explain the proper way to play first base.

Bonura went to war in 1940 and received the Legion of Merit for his work as athletic director for the army in Algeria. He died in 1987.

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George “Boomer” Scott, 10 homers in 25 games, 1966

Scott, like Bonura, grew up in Mississippi. George’s father worked on a cotton field and died when George was two years old. It wouldn’t be long before George himself worked in the cotton fields to help his mother, who was trying to keep the family afloat by working three jobs.

He was a baseball phenom — according to Ron Anderson’s SABR profile, Scott was such a powerful hitter as a boy (he had a six-game stretch where he hit multiple homers every game) that he was briefly thrown off his team because he hit too many home runs. They thought he was older than he claimed. Scott was more than a baseball phenom, though. He was a fantastic athlete who starred in football and basketball, too. He would later say he loved those sports more, but he knew that baseball was where he could make his living.

Believe it or not, Boomer Scott was a second baseman and shortstop when he first went into the minor leagues — it was probably that middle-infield dexterity that helped Scott win eight big-league Gold Gloves at first base. He didn’t flash real power until he went to Pittsfield in 1965 when he was 21 years old. There, he mashed 25 home runs along with 30 doubles and nine triples. His last at-bat in Pittsfield was cool. He needed a home run to win the batting title, the home run title and the RBI title. So he hit the home run. And as it turned out, in addition to giving him the triple crown, the homer won the game that clinched the playoffs for PIttsfield.

When he came to Boston for spring training, he was not the resident phenom. That was Joe Foy, who had hit .302 in Triple-A Toronto and was widely viewed as the real can’t-miss superstar. The two were often compared that spring training with Foy getting most of the accolades.

But once the season began, Boomer made clear who the real star was. He hit nine home runs in a 13-game stretch, and he hit his 10th in his 21st game. The Sporting News did a big story on him then (“Great Scott!” was the headline, the first of approximately 10 billion times Scott would see it) and though it doesn’t have too much information, it does have one fun exchange. Scott has huge hands and so the reporter asked him if he could palm a basketball.

“Don’t know,” Scott said.

“Haven’t you ever tried?” the reporter asked.

“No,” Scott said. ‘When I got the basketball, I put it in the basket.”

Boomer went on to a fine major league career. He hit 271 home runs, led the league in homers and RBIs in 1975 and twice led the league in total bases. He died in 2013 at the age of 69.

* * *

Kevin Maas, 10 homers in 25 games, 1990.

When Kevin Maas hit his first big league home run — on July 4, 1990 — absolutely nobody noticed. This is because on the very same day, in the very same game, Bo Jackson unleashed a 450-foot megabomb that crushed what was destined to be the worst Yankees team in almost 80 years.

Maas was not really a prospect. He had been taken in the 22nd round four years earlier, and he had not blown anyone away in the minor leagues. But with the Yankees in utter free fall and with hero Don Mattingly in sudden decline, there was a lot of hope pinned on Maas. He was left-handed, had a sweet swing that was perfect for Yankee Stadium, and when the team went to Texas for a three-game series, he homered in each game, once off Kevin Brown, once off of Bobby Witt and once off of Nolan Ryan. The last was when Ryan was trying to win his 300th game (he would have to wait until his next start).

Six days later, he homered off Detroit’s Dan Petry, and two days after that he mashed two more homers off Tigers pitching. That gave him 10 homers in 25 games. He hit a few more home runs — for the year, Maas hit 21 home runs in just 254 at-bats. Lots of people were doubling those numbers and considering the possibilities.

The Maas era did not last much longer, however. He hit 23 home runs in his second year and he walked 83 times. But he hit just .220 and slugged just .390 — it was becoming clear that he just did not make enough hard contact to stick. He kicked around for a while longer and played a year in Japan for the Hanshin Tigers.

* * *

Chris Davis, 10 homers in 25 games, 2008.

He was a pretty big prospect when he got the call. Davis had 36 home runs in the minors as a 21-year-old and he was so battering the Pacific Coast League (having hit 10 homers in just 31 games there) that the Rangers brought him up in late June. He hit an opposite-field three-run homer in his second game. He took Jamie Moyer deep in his fourth. He hit four home runs on a long road trip to end his first 25 games — hitting his 10th homer in that 25th game off of Justin Duchscherer in Oakland.

Davis, like Maas, more or less stopped making contact in his second year — he hit 21 homers but had just a .284 on-base percentage, largely because he walked just 24 times but struck out 150. He couldn’t get it back in Texas and was dumped on Baltimore for reliever Koji Uehera. The Rangers didn’t get the best of Uehera either; he left for Boston after two years and became almost unhittable.

Davis, of course, reemerged in Baltimore in 2012 and has 191 home runs the last five seasons, the most in baseball.

Most home runs, 2012-2016:

1. Chris Davis, 191

2. Edwin Encarnacion, 187

3. Nelson Cruz, 167

4. Miguel Cabrera, 159

(tie) MIke Trout, 159

* * *

Trevor Story, 10 homers in 25 games, 2016

Is it weird that two of the six players to hit 10 homers in their first 25 games came along this year? Yeah, but it’s no weirder than the obscene jump in home runs this year. In 2014, teams were averaging .86 homers per game and 139 homers per year.

In 2016, teams are averaging 1.16 homers per game — that’s 187 homers per year and the second-highest home run average in baseball history behind only 2000.

What gives? Well, that has been the point of much speculation, from the juice in the baseball, to the juice in the players, to the juice in the bats, and so on. The sudden uptick of home runs after the All-Star Game last year suggests something rather sudden happened, but it doesn’t necessarily add up that way. There are many factors when it comes to home runs and if we are going to get a clear picture we have to look at everything. Just as an example, weather plays a huge role in hitting, and this has been the hottest summer on record.

Thing is, other than home runs, offense is at an all-time low. Hitters are striking out at a considerably higher rate than ever before, and they’re not walking much. Hitters are batting .256, which is below historic norms, and hitters aren’t hitting doubles and triples at a particularly high rate (triples have been at historic lows this entire decade). It’s just home runs. And while cynical fans give knowing looks, the truth is we don’t exactly know why hitters are knocking baseballs out of the park at a crazy rate.

Story came into this year as the Rockies’ eighth-best prospect, according to Baseball America. He was a top prospect once, but that was way back in 2013. Then, he struck out a staggering 183 times in 130 games in Modesto as a 20-year-old. He never hit even .280 in the minors, and he only managed to hit 20 homers in one of his five minor league seasons. Few thought he would make enough contact to be an impact hitter.

Then he came up and splashed like no one ever had — he hit two homers in his first game in Arizona, another in his second game, another in his third and two more in his home debut against the Padres. That’s six homers in four games, and then he hit his seventh homer in Game 6. He slowed down considerably from there, but still managed to hit his 10th homer in Game 21 to be part of this club.

* * *

Which brings us back to Gary Sanchez.

Scouts have loved Sanchez’s talent since the day the Yankees signed him at 16 years old. They gave him a $3 million signing bonus — that’s the sort of talent they saw. Of course, sixteen-year-old kids are impossible to scout — at the same time, the St. Louis Cardinals gave $3.1 million to Wagner Mateo, who never hit and he bombed out at age 21. That’s a much more common tale.

Sanchez rushed through the low minors as if in a hurry to make his name, but then he stalled. He stopped hitting. He was benched for off-the-field stuff. He was dressed down for insubordination. And, perhaps most strikingly from a baseball perspective, questions grew about his dedication to the game. “All the talent in the world,” one scout said. “If only they could get him to care.”

All of this might just have been growing pains, of course. You give a 16-year-old kid in the Dominican $3 million, then put him into a situation where he needs to overcome a language barrier and the doubts of others, it’s amazing that anyone comes through that. But the good ones find a way. In 2014 and 2015, Sanchez reestablished himself as one of the best prospects in baseball, a unusually gifted receiver with emerging offensive skills. He hit well in the International League.

And even with all that, his debut has been jolting. Of course, it’s jolting to see someone hit .383/.448/.819 with eight doubles and 11 home runs in his first 24 games. Nobody has ever done that in baseball history. But what’s perhaps just as amazing is how good he looks doing it — there is absolutely nothing about Sanchez’s swing, his approach or his general posture that doesn’t point to superstardom. There are some fond remembrances now of one-time Yankees freak Shane Spencer, but — and with absolutely no offense meant for Spencer — it’s pretty clear that Sanchez isn’t the same story.

* * *

A final word … about Shane Spencer. I was surprised not to see him on this list. It turns out he just missed it, hitting his ninth and 10th home runs in Games 26 and 27. It isn’t really fair though because he didn’t get an at-bat in his first game and had just one plate appearance in seven other games. He hit 10 home runs in 73 plate appearances in his magical run during that magical Yankee season of 1998.

Spencer, unlike Maas and Story and even Sanchez, was a minor-league masher. He hit 32 homers in the minors in 1996 and 30 more the next year. Nobody thought that would translate to the big leagues, but the power was there. He wasn’t a big guy, but he was stocky and had a good swing, especially against fastballs.

When he came up to hit in that crazy-good Yankees lineup, he was fed a lot of fastballs — and Spencer knew what to do with them. He just kept hitting homer after homer after homer, much to the delight of Yankees fans who were already luxuriating in the riches of an almost unbeatable team. After 1998, Spencer was thrown a lot more off-speed and sliders, and he settled into a solid utility player. He, like Maas, went to play for the Hanshin Tigers in Japan after he fell out of the Major Leagues.