The Astros’ Five Greatest Hitters
Jeff Bagwell (1991-2005)
The most intimidating hitting presence in Houston franchise history, Bagwell used an almost violent approach to his swing and often made good on it, becoming the Astros’ all-time leader in home runs (449), runs batted in (1,529) and, showing off good patience, walks (1,401).
Bagwell grew up in Boston and looked ready to fulfill his boyhood dream when he was drafted by the Red Sox, but while in the minors he was traded, one-up, to the Astros for reliever Larry Andersen that was a short-term gain for the Red Sox (Andersen helped Boston to the 1990 AL East title) but a huge long-term catch for Houston. Given the everyday role in 1991, Bagwell earned National League Rookie of the Year honors and put up mild but solid stats over his first three years—then exploded in 1994 with juggernaut force, hitting .368 with 39 home runs and 116 RBIs in just 110 games during a campaign not cut short by the players’ strike but, instead, by a broken hand sustained just a day before the players walked out. Nevertheless, Bagwell set a major league record by knocking in and scoring 100 runs in the fewest number of plate appearances, produced a .750 slugging percentage that was the highest by a major leaguer since Babe Ruth hit 60 homers for the 1927 New York Yankees, and was a unanimous choice for the NL MVP award.
The leader of Houston’s “Killer B” clan that included teammates Craig Biggio and (later) Lance Berkman, Bagwell made the pitcher-friendly Astrodome seem small and gave the Astros more prodigious seasons in the years to follow, though not on the scale of his Herculean 1994 effort. He went deep three times in a franchise-record three games, two of those efforts coming in 1999, when he nearly won a second MVP (finishing second) with 42 homers, 126 RBIs, 143 runs and 149 walks; he also stole 30 bases. He helped christen in Enron Field (now Minute Maid Park) in 2000 by notching career highs in homers (47) and runs (152).
Severe back problems nearly cost Bagwell the opportunity to finally play in a World Series in 2005, but after he missed most of the year was able to make the postseason roster and was an ineffective 1-for-8 against the prevailing Chicago White Sox. It would be his last action on a ballfield; he retired a year later. Bagwell’s number 5 was retired by the Astros in 2007 and, 10 years later, he was admitted into the Hall of Fame.
Lance Berkman (1999-2010)
The good-natured but sometimes outspoken switch-hitter from nearby Waco all but became Bagwell’s heir apparent in the slugging department, hitting for a solid average with occasionally voluminous power numbers and a penchant for attracting a horde of walks.
Nicknamed the Big Puma for his portly physique, Berkman was raised as a first baseman but had to switch to the outfield upon his arrival at Houston because Bagwell was already stationed there. The transition hardly affected Berkman’s performance; in his first full year (2001), he batted .331 with 34 homers, 126 RBIs and a NL-high 55 doubles. He twice hit over 40 homers for the Astros, knocked in over 100 runs six times—including 136 in 2006, a NL record among switch-hitters—and won the Home Run Derby at the 2004 All-Star Game, one of five Mid-Summer Classics he played in. The added pressure of playing in the postseason—which apparently affected Bagwell and Biggio—proved to be no sweat for Berkman; in 29 playoff games for the Astros, he hit .321 with six homers, 26 RBIs and drew 20 walks.
Berkman’s reign in Houston ended in mid-2010 when he was dealt away along with fellow star Roy Oswalt as part of a veteran-purging period.
Jim Wynn (1963-73)
Petite but powerful, the “Toy Cannon” fired as many blanks as direct hits during his stay in Houston, but he did become the franchise’s first major power hitter and was a fan favorite in spite of his maddening inconsistency.
After a few years of common part-time play, Wynn came into his own in the team’s first year at the Astrodome when he hit .275 with 22 homers, 73 RBIs, 84 walks and a career-high 43 steals (he was only caught four times). After a blasé follow-up in 1966, he powered up in 1967 and belted a personal-best 37 homers with 107 RBIs and for the next three years enjoyed the most sustained success of his career. He fell apart in 1971, batting just .203 with seven homers in 123 games, had a strong comeback showing a year later, then badly regressed again in what would be his final year as an Astro in 1973. Tiring of the yo-yo output, the Astros sent Wynn to the Los Angeles Dodgers for pitcher Claude Osteen in a trade that left Astros fans fuming—especially when Wynn produced one of his best years immediately with the NL pennant-winning Dodgers in 1974, while Osteen stumbled in Houston. Wynn had his number 24 retired by the Astros in 2005.
Jose Altuve (2011-present)
The pint-sized, Venezuelan-born second baseman has experienced it all over a decade of service with the Astros—from the depths of a painful rebuild to the heights of multiple World Series titles to the utter ignominy of his participation in the team’s unforgiveable cheating scandal.
Altuve was one of the Astros’ early emerging bright spots during the early 2010s, when the team was perennial 100-game losers under new owner Jim Crane. But it wasn’t until 2014 that people outside of Houston began to take notice; Altuve batted .341 for the first of three batting titles, collected 225 hits for his first of four consecutive years at 200-plus, and stole 56 bases for his first of back-to-back campaigns leading the AL. He also began to show a penchant for going on impressive tears; in 2014, he became the first player since 1917 to have multiple steals in four straight games, had five straight contests with three or more hits in 2017, collected a franchise-record 10 straight hits in 2018, and had a five-game homer streak in 2019.
The 2017 season proved to be the peak of Altuve’s career—and the source for the vitriol that would soon come his way on an almost indefinite basis. As Houston impressed its way to its first-ever World Series triumph, Altuve took AL MVP honors, smoked seven postseason home runs (including three in one game), and at year’s end garnered honors for AP Male Athlete of the Year and a co-share of Sports Illustrated’s Sportsman of the Year with local football star J.J. Watt, not only for their achievements on the field but their over-and-above involvement in aiding the Houston community after it was trashed by Hurricane Harvey.
All the goodwill and admiration built up by Altuve would be shattered after the 2019 season when it was revealed that the Astros used an elaborate scheme to cheat their way to the 2017 title. Though he didn’t take as much advantage of the nefarious system as his teammates, Altuve was still involved. He avoided punishment by cooperating with MLB’s investigation, but the bruising punishment from opposing fans outside of Houston would become far harsher, as he became the poster boy for the scandal due to his elite accomplishments during that campaign. Additionally, he curiously sat out the 2021 and 2022 All-Star Games—the seventh and eighth of his career—for various reasons, though it was widely speculated that he didn’t want to face the music of bitter AL teammates whose teams were victimized by the scandal.
It remains to be seen whether the cheating controversy will harm Altuve’s Hall-of-Fame prospects. But his career trajectory and notable achievements—beyond the aforementioned, he’s also second in career postseason home runs with 23, including an ALCS-clinching walk-off against the Yankees in 2019—any debate over his potential Cooperstown enshrinement will certainly be a robust one.
Cesar Cedeno (1970-81)
The Dominican native is arguably the most dynamic player to don an Astros uniform, a five-tool talent who shouldered intense expectations of becoming the next Willie Mays and, early in his career, lived up to that promise before his play began to erode, perhaps as a result of troublesome off-field events.
The all-time Houston stolen base leader with 487, Cedeno could hit, steal and fly in his center field spot where he won five Gold Glove awards. At the height of his game, he hit .320 in back-to-back years (1972-73), stole 50-plus bases six straight times (1972-77) and led the NL in doubles in consecutive seasons of 1971-72. He was not a power hitter per se in part because the spacious, dead-air Astrodome wouldn’t allow him, topping out at 26 homers in 1974. His power would diminish considerably through the rest of his tenure at Houston, though he remained a valuable enough catalyst in the lineup.
Being a girlfriend of Cedeno proved to be an occupational hazard, as he was frequently in trouble with the law as a result of numerous physical altercations involving such women. Most notoriously, a mistress he had on the side was “accidentally” killed in the Dominican Republic in December 1973 when a loaded gun she and Cedeno wrestled over fired point blank into her head. Cedeno’s sentence: 20 days and pocket change.
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