Wednesday, January 29, 2014

Bye-Bye Berkman

Berkman was an outstanding hitter before his body gave out (SportingNews)
Lance Berkman announced his retirement from baseball today. The soon-to-be 38 year-old is leaving the game after a pair of injury plagued seasons in which he played just 105 games and batted .246.

But Berkman accomplished a lot during his 15 big league seasons, the first 11 and a half of which were spent with the Houston Astros. During that time he made his mark as one of the greatest switch hitters ever (more on that to come).

I already wrote a good deal about Berkman's career when he signed with the Texas Rangers last winter, but even then I don't think I realized just how impressive some of his numbers were. His 293/.406/.537 triple slash stats are tremendous, nearly identical to those of one-time teammate Jeff Bagwell (.297/.408/.540). His career .943 OPS has been bettered by only 25 men and is the 14th best mark for players who debuted after World War II. His 144 OPS+ is tied for the 48th best mark of all-time.

Perhaps most surprising was how well he rates by Baseball-Reference's advanced statistics. He has the 29th best Win Probability Added of all-time, which suggests he was good at coming through in tight spots. He also rates inside the top-35 in Base-Out Runs Added (31st), Situational Wins Added (33rd) and Base-Out Wins Added (34th). The traditional numbers bear this out too: he batted .311/.432/.550 with men on base and posted a .963 OPS in high leverage situations.

Because Berkman's prime years overlapped with Albert Pujols's (and Barry Bonds' ridiculous run) he  never won an MVP, but did finish third twice and in the top-10 four other times. He never won received a Silver Slugger despite enjoying an eight year-stretch from 2001 to 2008 where he was worth 40.6 bWAR, averaging 33 home runs and 110 RBI per season in addition to his .303/.417/.564 batting line. FanGraphs rates him as the sixth most valuable position player during the 2000s, behind Alex Rodriguez, Pujols, Bonds, and a couple of other phenomenal switch-hitters--Chipper Jones and Carlos Beltran.

But that decade is pretty much the entirety of Berkman's career. He played just 34 games before it and struggled with age and injuries after it. Because of the relatively short length of his career (fewer than 8,000 plate appearances and not even 6,500 official at-bats), his counting numbers are a bit lacking. He failed to reach 2,000 hits and 400 homers, for instance.

Actually, some of Berkman's numbers are almost indistinguishable from those of another great hitter who recently retired: Todd Helton. Both were pure hitters who walked a lot, drove in tons of runs, hit for power and posted high batting averages.

Berkman 1999-2013: 366 HR  .293/.406/.537  .943 OPS  six All-Star appearances
Helton 1997-2013: 369 HR  .316/.414/.539  .953 OPS  five All-Star appearances

But while Helton is a deserving Hall of Famer (though not by much), Berkman is not (but also not by much). By all established Hall of Fame standards (JAWS, Bill James, Hall of Stats), Berkman falls a tad short. His numbers aren't strong enough for a corner outfielder/first baseman who was a liability in the field and on the basepaths. Berkman's peak was Cooperstown quality for sure, but he didn't do enough after leaving Houston and so his 52 career WAR don't cut it. He needed at least two or three more quality seasons, but unfortunately injuries essentially finished him after his age 35 season.

Big Puma, like most sluggers of his ilk, simply wasn't built to last. Players like him rarely age well, especially when they play more games in the outfield than they do at first base. Had Bagwell not blocked first until 2005, perhaps Berkman would still be playing. Maybe he would have fallen apart anyways, since he didn't become serious about his conditioning until it was almost too late. The point is that both were great players, and the Astros were lucky to have them.

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