December 15, 2010

Top 40 Minnesota Twins: #28 Tom Brunansky

Thomas Andrew Brunansky | RF | 1982-1988 | Career Stats

Taken by the Angels with the 14th overall pick in the 1978 draft out of a California high school, Tom Brunansky held out while he debated accepting a scholarship to play football at Stanford University. According to a July 6, 1978 article in the Los Angeles Times, here's how Brunansky settled on baseball:

Brunansky was invited to the Angels-Kansas City game June 26 where [owner] Gene Autry was waiting to meet him. Autry told Brunansky he wanted him to meet a special friend, who turned out to be [Richard] Nixon, an Angel fan who was making a rare appearance at a game. Brunansky said that Nixon told him that he would enjoy himself tremendously playing baseball and would be fortunate to join an organization headed by as fine a man as Autry.

The introduction to the club owner and the former President made a lasting impression, but Brunansky went ahead with plans to spend the rest of that week at Stanford getting oriented to the football program. When he returned, the Angels were ready with a new offer. After four hours of discussion at the Brunansky home, a contract was signed.

Brunansky hit .332 at rookie-ball after signing and then had three straight 20-homer seasons in the minors--one each at Single-A, Double-A, and Triple-A--all before his 21st birthday. The last of the three came after Brunansky began the 1982 season with the Angels, hit .152 in 11 games, and was quickly sent back down to beat up on minor-league pitching for a bit longer. He did just that, hitting .332 with 22 homers and 81 RBIs in 96 games at Triple-A.

Brunansky began the 1982 season back at Triple-A and was hitting just .205 with one homer when he was traded to Minnesota in mid-May along with Mike Walters (and a bunch of cash) for Doug Corbett and Rob Wilfong. He was immediately handed an everyday job and turned in a fantastic rookie season for the Twins, hitting .272/.377/.471 with 20 homers, 30 doubles, and 71 walks in 127 games while splitting time between right field and center field.

Despite that strong production Brunansky was somewhat overlooked because the Twins also broke in rookies Kent Hrbek (23 homers, 92 RBIs) and Gary Gaetti (25 homers, 84 RBIs) that same year. Frank Viola and Randy Bush were also rookies on that same 1982 squad, and the core of a championship team was quietly being built despite a 60-102 record. Brunansky was the youngest player on the roster.

A walks-and-power guy before that was appreciated nearly as much as it is today, Brunansky was an underrated player because it was easy to get caught up in his low batting averages. He never batted above .260 for the Twins after his rookie year, but blasted at least 20 homers in each of his six full seasons in Minnesota, leading team in long balls three times, and also led the team in walks twice.

Brunansky ranked among the league's top 10 in home runs in 1983, 1984, and 1987, and from 1982-1987 only Dwight Evans (175), Eddie Murray (175), and Dave Winfield (165) had more homers than Brunansky (162) among AL hitters. Brunansky made his lone All-Star appearance in 1985, but his best season in Minnesota was likely 1987, when he hit .259/.352/.489 with 32 homers in 155 games and then put the Twins on his back against the Tigers in the ALCS.

In five games against Detroit he batted .412/.524/1.000 with two homers, four doubles, and nine RBIs as the Twins bashed the Tigers into submission before defeating the Cardinals in the World Series. Despite what his low batting averages and big power might suggest, Brunansky was far from a plodding slugger. He actually played good defense in right field, had a fantastic arm, and could be counted on to play nearly every game.

While far from the team's best player, Brunansky's strengths epitomized the 1987 team in that he played solid defense and hit the ball over the fence. Brunansky (32), Hrbek (34), and Gaetti (31) each topped 30 homers that year, with Kirby Puckett adding 28 more as the Metrodome gained its "Homerdome" nickname. Remarkably, after that power-laden 1987 lineup the Twins waited another 20 years for their next 30-homer season.

That year was also the last full season Brunansky played for the Twins. After he got off to a slow start in 1988, hitting .184 with one homer in 14 games, the Twins shipped Brunansky to those same Cardinals for Tommy Herr. It was a strange move at the time, because while the Twins had a need at second base Herr was 32 years old and just wasn't all that good. And in retrospect, it looks even worse.

Brunansky continued to put up good numbers for another few seasons while Herr complained about being in Minnesota, played poorly, and was dealt to Philadelphia along with Tom Nieto and Eric Bullock for Shane Rawley in another disappointing move in the offseason. Brunansky had two more 20-homer seasons after leaving the Twins and interestingly was sent from the Cardinals to the Red Sox in a swap for Lee Smith in May of 1990.

Brunansky went on to have two solid seasons out of three years in Boston, while Smith went on to save 240 games while making five straight All-Star teams. Going to St. Louis and then to Boston couldn't stop Brunansky from being part of Minnesota history again, as he hit into the first of two triple plays that the Twins turned versus the Red Sox on July 17, 1990. He rejoined the Twins last year as a minor-league hitting coach.

TOP 25 ALL-TIME MINNESOTA TWINS RANKS
Isolated Power       .202     6th
Homers                163     9th
Walks                 394    12th
Extra-Base Hits       330    12th
RBIs                  469    14th
Plate Appearances    3760    16th
Total Bases          1498    16th
Times On Base        1240    16th
Runs Created          492    17th
Games                 916    18th
Slugging Percentage  .452    18th
Runs                  450    19th
Hits                  829    20th
Doubles               154    21st
Adjusted OPS+         109    21st
OPS                  .752    25th

11 Comments »

  1. Touch ‘em all Tom Brunansky!

    Comment by Tom W. — December 14, 2010 @ 11:14 pm

  2. I had never seen anyone play the baggy as well as Bruno.

    Comment by Steve Johnson — December 15, 2010 @ 12:47 am

  3. Love Bruno as a kid. The Herr trade was godawful.

    Comment by mrgerbik03 — December 15, 2010 @ 1:21 am

  4. The trade of Bruno was the lowlight of my childhood, few batting stances were more fun to impersonate than his.

    Comment by Matt — December 15, 2010 @ 9:26 am

  5. For those who don’t remember or were too young to recall Bruno, he was the Cuddyer of the ’87 team (except with a little more speed.)A real fan favorite and the perfect #5 hitter. The trade that send Bruno to St. Louis for the malcontent Tommy Herr defied logic.

    Comment by Adam S — December 15, 2010 @ 10:02 am

  6. I think everybody is using 20/20 hindsight to be overly critical of the Bruno-Herr trade. From 1985-1987 Bruno was a 5.1 WAR player, while Herr was a 9.6 WAR player. Herr was older and in decline, but it isn’t really fair to say he “just wasn’t all that good” (compared to, say, Brunansky) or that the trade “defied logic”.

    Obviously Herr didn’t like playing in Minnesota and the trade didn’t work out long term for the Twins. However, in 1988 Bruno was a 1.1 WAR player for the Cards and Herr was a 1.1 WAR player for the Twins. Given that the Twins had a greater need at 2B than OF, that isn’t a bad swap.

    It wasn’t a strange move or a trade blunder.

    Comment by mbrian33 — December 15, 2010 @ 1:05 pm

  7. Well, unfortunately, I am old enough to remember the Herr-Bruno trade, and I can tell you that not many outside of the Twins organization thought it was good trade, even at the time. While it is true that Herr had a decent reputation, and while it is also true that Brunansky was struggling, the fan base was still enthralled with the power lineup, a large part of which was given up with the trade. The memory of his heroics during the ’87 playoffs was still fresh, as was the timely play and overall popularity of Lombo, whom Herr was obtained to replace.

    What made it an awful trade to the general fan base was the fairly public sulking that the Iron Horse Herr did upon arrival.

    Comment by marietta mouthpiece — December 15, 2010 @ 2:06 pm

  8. Baseball Ref has Brunansky’s WAR at 5.0 in his 21 y.o. season….wow.

    Comment by tg — December 15, 2010 @ 3:41 pm

  9. marietta,

    Having attended the ’87 Series, I’m also old enough to remember the Bruno-Herr trade. And I agree that Herr’s attitude about the trade, as well as Brunansky being a post-season hero put a bad taste in fans mouths after the fact. But after 1987, Brunansky was barely more than a replacement level player.

    I’m just trying to get people to tone down the rhetoric a bit. It wasn’t really a strange or illogical trade, much less a disaster.

    Comment by mbrian33 — December 15, 2010 @ 4:29 pm

  10. wow — I remember the strikeouts, not the walks.

    Comment by Rhubarb_Runner — December 15, 2010 @ 9:05 pm

  11. I didn’t understand the trade, either, and the results should have been predictable. Herr had a reputation as a complainer while with the Cardinals, and during the World Series he made no secret of his loathing for the Metrodome. So why would you trade a team leader and a fan favorite like Bruno for a clubhouse problem who hated your stadium and was on the wrong side of the skill mountain? The Twins didn’t need a second baseman that bad.

    That was a strange year, ’88–trading Bruno for a jerk; Gladden driving over to Lombardozzi’s house and punching him out; Gaetti accepting Christ into his heart as his risen Lord and Savior; the mediocre Alan Anderson somehow winning an ERA title; German Gonzalez.

    Comment by Tom — December 16, 2010 @ 1:03 pm

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