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August 31, 2012

Prospectus Hit and Run

Fat Elvis' Swan Song

by Jay Jaffe

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Last week, Lance Berkman suggested that the end was nigh. "I don't want to rule anything out," he told the St. Louis Post-Dispatch's Joe Strauss while in the midst of a rehab assignment. "But if you asked me right now I'm leaning toward not playing next year."

The 36-year-old Cardinals first baseman has had a trying season, serving three separate stints on the disabled list for a strained left calf, surgery to repair a torn meniscus in his right knee, and subsequent inflammation in the same knee. In all, he has played just 28 game for the Redbirds, that in a season where his ability to return to first base upon the departure of Albert Pujols was supposed to save him wear and tear relative to a 2011 campaign spent mostly in the outfield. With Allen Craig hitting a searing .313/.371/.572 since taking over his position, Berkman doesn't even sound as though he expects to contribute much upon returning: "I'm here (on rehab) largely out of a sense of obligation to be available to help the team and to help the organization," he told Strauss.

Berkman hasn't made a final decision on retirement, but he does sound at peace with the idea that his playing days are numbered. So the inevitable question asked here is, "Is he a Hall of Famer?" Unlike former teammates Jeff Bagwell and Craig Biggio—the other two "Killer B's" in Astros lore—Berkman didn't have to overcome the steep offensive handicap of playing a significant chunk of his career in the Astrodome, which ranked among the league's most pitcher-friendly parks of its time. A 1997 first-round pick out of nearby Rice University, he debuted in 1999, the 'Dome's final season, and became a regular during the team's first year at what was then known as Enron Field (now Minute Maid Park).

From 2000 until the middle of 2010, the switch-hitting slugger was a lineup mainstay for a team that reached the playoffs three times and won the NL pennant in 2005, the only one in franchise history. Where Bagwell and Biggio often seemed overly serious, Berkman was the self-effacing Killer B, with not one but two of the era's better nicknames in "Fat Elvis" and "Big Puma." Aside from leading the NL in doubles twice and RBI once, Berkman never led the league in any key category during that span, but he finished in the top 10 with some regularity: on-base percentage (eight times), slugging percentage (four times), home runs (three times), RBI (five times) and walks (nine times). Even so, leg problems—a torn ACL in his right knee in 2005, a strained left calf in 2009, loose bodies in his left knee in 2010—cost him playing time and gradually eroded his mobility and his batting average on balls in play.

On July 31, 2010, with the Astros finally facing the need to begin their long-overdue overhaul, Berkman was traded to the Yankees. By that point, his leg problems had eroded his power as well; hampered even further by an ankle sprain, he hit just .255/.358/.349 in 123 plate appearances for the Yanks, though he did hit .313/.368/.688 in 16 postseason PA. Signed to a one-year deal by the Cardinals and moved back to right field for 2011, he surprised the baseball world with a prime Berkman season, .301/.412/.547 with 31 homers and 92 walks. His OBP ranked third in the league, his walks fourth, his slugging percentage fifth, his home runs ninth. He capped his season with a phenomenal 11-for-26 showing in the World Series against the Rangers, finally winning his first championship, and eventually taking home NL Comeback Player of the Year honors. But any hopes for a sequel began to dissipate as he battled calf and knee problems during spring training; by April 19, he was on the disabled list.

On the traditional merits, Berkman's key counting stats—1,842 hits and 360 home runs—appear a bit light for a Hall of Famer, particularly a corner outfielder/first baseman playing in a hitter-friendly ballpark during a high-offense era. Baseball-Reference's AIR stat, which uses park and league scoring as an index in a manner similar to OPS+, with 100 being average, places his environment at 110, meaning that he played under conditions where scoring was 10 percent higher than average. That's hardly unprecedented among Hall of Famers; the likes of 1930s players such as Charlie Gehringer and Jimmie Foxx benefited from even more favorable conditions, and even Ted Williams was at 108.

Despite his low counting stats and his favorable environment, it's difficult to dismiss a player with a career .296/409/.545 line without further investigation, particularly when it's accompanied by six All-Star appearances, four top-five MVP finishes, and a .317/.417/.532 line in 223 post-season plate appearances spread out over five seasons. To paraphrase Pedro Guerrero and call upon a line I've deployed elsewhere in the JAWS contexts, Lance Berkman could fucking hit. Among players with at least 7,500 plate appearances (again, a low total for a Hall candidate), his career True Average of .317 ranks 38th, with 29 of the players ahead of him and 12 of the 20 immediately below him in the Hall. Of the players on either side of him in the rankings—Mike Schmidt (.321), Jim Thome (.319), Duke Snider (.319), Harmon Killebrew (.318), Jason Giambi (.318) Eddie Collins (.316), Alex Rodriguez (.316), Al Simmons (.315), Paul Waner (.315), "Indian Bob" Johnson (.315), Jim O'Rourke (.315) and Joe Kelley (.315)—all are in the Hall of Fame except Johnson and the active Thome, Giambi, and Rodriguez. All of them have at least 535 more plate appearances than Berkman, with Johnson the lowest; an outfielder from 1933-1945 for the A's, Senators and Red Sox, he accumulated seven All-Star appearances in 13 years while hitting .296/.393/.506 with 288 homers, a vaguely Berkmanesque career.

Regarding his classification: Berkman's 760 games played at first are his most at any single position, but he has 997 career games in the outfield, with 549 in left, 373 in right, and 166 in center. The JAWS custom is to classify him by the position where he accumulated the most value, with a first cut outfield-versus-infield calculation. Thus his primary set of comps is other left fielders, which hurts him a bit, as the Hall of Fame standards are higher there than at first:

Position

#

TAv

Career

Peak

JAWS

1B

18

.320

61.1

40.8

51.4

2B

19

.294

64.7

43.2

53.8

3B

12

.271

68.6

45.3

55.0

SS

21

.279

60.6

40.3

50.7

LF

20

.314

65.1

42.0

53.5

CF

18

.315

72.8

46.8

58.3

RF

23

.315

66.2

40.9

53.6

C

13

.292

51.7

33.9

42.6

The JAWS set that I've been using since last November pegs Berkman at 56.4 career WARP, 42.0 peak WARP, and a 49.2 JAWS. He has added just 0.3 WARP this season, though his player card shows him only with 55.4 career WARP; the discrepancy is mainly attributable to defense, and specifically the experimental Arm rating that Colin Wyers has yet to roll out onto the player cards. For the purposes of this exercise, we'll consider him at 56.7 career WARP. Considered strictly as a left fielder, that leaves him 8.4 WARP shy of the career Hall standard but dead even on peak; considering him against all first base and corner outfield Hall of Famers—a hybrid standard I just made up, with a 64.3/41.3/52.8 line—renders basically the same verdict.

By equally weighting career and peak values, the JAWS system was constructed in a way to handle such cases as Berkman's, with a sort of sliding scale mentality: "If your peak was this high, your career must be this big to ride the Cooperstown Express." Even so, I've always advocated further consideration before dismissing the high-peak/short-career types as simply below the standard, because being deprived of the often undignified denouements to otherwise impressive careers can be a blessing. I've often wondered how often players who exceed the peak standards but are short on the career ones actually gain entry to the Hall, but it's been a long time since I had the patience to sit down and count them. So let's do that.

Catcher: 14 players exceed the peak score of 33.9, only five of whom have career scores lower than 51.7, namely Roy Campanella, Jason Kendall, Thurman Munson, Gene Tenace, and Joe Mauer. Surprisingly, it's Kendall who is the only one among them with a JAWS above the standard, though Tenace is just 0.1 shy. Campanella, whose career was curtailed by the color line on one end and the paralysis he incurred in a car crash on the other, is the only one in the Hall, though neither Kendall (who briefly attempted a comeback this year) or Mauer (who's still active) are eligible yet. 

First base: 13 players exceed peak score of 40.8, only four of whom have career scores lower than 61.1, namely George Sisler, Hank Greenberg, Todd Helton, and Jason Giambi. The first two, both of whom have JAWS scores above the bar, are in the Hall. The latter two are still active, with Helton coming into the year above the bar (58.1/44.8/51.5) but falling slightly below it via a −1.1 WARP season. Additionally, one player has career and peak scores above the standard but isn't active, ineligible, on the ballot or already enshrined: Dick Allen (61.9/48.2/55.0).

Second base: 10 players exceed the peak score of 43.2, only three of whom have career scores lower than 64.7: Jackie Robinson, Bobby Doerr, and Joe Gordon. All have substandard JAWS scores due to lost time—Robinson due to the color line, the other two due to World War II—but are in the Hall of Fame. There is no equivalent of Allen here, at least not since the changes to BP's defensive system drove Bobby Grich below the bar on both career and peak measures.

Third base: Six players exceed the peak score of 45.3, two of whom have career scores lower than 68.6: Ron Santo and Frank Baker. Both are in the Hall, though the recently enshrined Santo is the only one of the two above the JAWS standard.

Shortstop: 14 players exceed or meet the peak score of 40.3, six of whom have career scores lower than 60.6: Ernie Banks, Lou Boudreau, Nomar Garciaparra, Vern Stephens, Joe Sewell and Monte Ward. All but Garciaparra (who won't be eligible until 2015) and Stephens are in the Hall. Banks and Stephens are the only ones among this group with JAWS scores that exceed the standard.

Left field: 12 players (including Berkman) exceed or meet the peak score of 42.0, four of whom have career scores below 65.1, namely Minnie Minoso, Shoeless Joe Jackson, Roy White and Berkman. None of them are in the Hall; Jackson isn't even eligible due to his involvement with the Black Sox scandal, while Minoso, for whom I advocated last November, fell short on the most recent Golden Era ballot. He's the only one of those four with a JAWS score above the standard.

Center field: 10 players exceed the peak score of 46.8, three of whom have career scores below 72.8: Jimmy Wynn, Duke Snider, and Sliding Billy Hamilton (the original, not the reincarnation). Wynn is the only one who's not in the Hall, but like the other two, he's above the JAWS standard.

Right field: 14 players exceed the peak score of 40.9, four of whom have career scores of 66.2: Bobby Bonds, Sammy Sosa (who misses the latter by 0.1), Tony Oliva and Vladimir Guerrero. Bonds is the only one with a JAWS score above the standard, and none of them are in the Hall, with Sosa hitting the ballot this winter but unlikely to get there due to his connection to performance-enhancing drugs, and Guerrero having fizzled with a Blue Jays farm club earlier this year; he may be done, but in any case, he's not eligible yet.

By that tally, 22 Hall-eligible hitters—eligible is the key word here—are above the peak standards at their positions but below the career standards. Fourteen of the 22 are actually enshrined, but just six of those enshrinees exceed the JAWS standard at their positions. To a great degree, their high peaks tended to outweigh their career shortcomings in the minds of the voters.

(If you're asking about pitchers, suffice it to say that at first glance the pattern is different enough that I'll save their story for another day.)

Here I should note that most of the 22 did have relatively short careers, with Banks (19 seasons), Snider (18), Minoso (17) and Ward (17) the only ones to stick around longer than 15 seasons, where a season means appearing in at least one game, which is the case for Hall eligibility purposes). Minoso had three "seasons" (1949, 1976 and 1980) totaling 14 games, the latter two of which he was confined to DH and pinch-hitting duty. For the sake of comparison, the average Hall of Famer comes in at 17.8 seasons. Looking at it in a more exacting way, the 22 hitters in question averaged 7,674 plate appearances—about 85 percent of the average Hall of Fame hitter—with Banks the only one to exceed 10,000, and Santo and Sisler the only others above 8,500; all three exceeded the JAWS standards at their position.

On the other hand, 15 Hall-eligible hitters are above the career standard at their position but below the peak standard, 10 of whom are actually enshrined. Two others, Tim Raines and Edgar Martinez, are on the ballot and gaining momentum, even if it's not quickly enough for some of our tastes. Seven of those 10 enshrinees exceed the JAWS standards at their positions.

Taken together, roughly two-thirds of the eligible hitters (24 out of 37) who exceed either the career or peak standards but not both are in the Hall, with players from the two groups gaining entry with similar frequencies. Even so, just over half of those enshrined (13 out of 24) actually exceed the JAWS standard. Of the 13 eligible players who aren't in but exceeded either the career or peak standards but not both, seven exceed the JAWS standard, most of them familiar names from my so-called Keltner All-Stars: Bonds, Bill Dahlen, Darrell Evans, Minoso, Raines, Stephens, and Wynn.

All of which is a rather long-winded digression when it comes to Berkman, albeit one that suggests there's home for him with regards to the Hall if this is indeed it. Not a great deal of hope, mind you, given that no hitter from the post-1960 Expansion Era with less than 2,000 hits has gained entry yet, but somebody is going to have to be the first, and thus far Berkman has remained unconnected to the steroid scandal that has wrecked Mark McGwire's candidacy. I don't think he'll wind up in, but he deserves to be remembered among the best hitters of his generation.

Jay Jaffe is an author of Baseball Prospectus. 
Click here to see Jay's other articles. You can contact Jay by clicking here

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