August 31, 2012
Prospectus Hit and Run
Fat Elvis' Swan Song
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.