In a season more notable for star players off to slow starts and a league-wide offensive malaise, the way Lance Berkman has scalded the ball at the outset of his Cardinals career is nothing less than shocking. Not only was he hitting .390/.461/.750 through Tuesday in a league averaging only .250/.320/.388, but he was doing so after a 2010 season that saw him reduced from perennial All-Star status to ineffectual part-time work with the Yankees.
There was plenty of reason to think that Berkman’s posterior was ready to have the proverbial fork stuck in it. Thirty-four years old last year, Berkman lost the beginning of the season to knee surgery, and when he returned his bat didn’t have the life that had produced career .299/.412/.555 rates through the end of 2009. He endured painful slumps such as a mid-June stretch of 10 games in which he went 6-for-36 with 13 strikeouts, his problems hitting left-handers, a career-long problem for this switch-hitter, became extreme, and a power stroke that had produced as many as 55 doubles and 45 home runs in a season seemed to have weakened.
The Berkman acquired by the Yankees was bloated, slow, and indecisive both at the plate and in the field, a far cry from the athlete who was capable of taking regular turns in center field in his mid-20s. Hitters tend to have a fairly linear evolution to their careers—normally, when they start to go, they don’t come back. Berkman’s physical deterioration, combined with his miserable results in New York (.255/.358/.349, one home run in 123 plate appearances) seemed to suggest that the Cardinals’ plan to sign him and give him regular playing time in an outfield corner ranked somewhere between foolishly optimistic and delusional.
And yet, there are some examples of players having late-career encores. Consider the great third baseman Darrell Evans. Evans had just hit .277/.378/.516 with 30 home runs for the Giants as a 36-year-old when he signed a free-agent contract with the Detroit Tigers. He might have been expected to benefit from trading windy Candlestick for friendly Tiger Stadium, but instead he slumped to .232/.353/.384 with 16 home runs. It could have been a sign that the curtain was about to drop on a near-Hall of Fame career, but instead, Evans came back in 1985 with .248/.355/.519 rates and a league-leading 40 home runs. He had two more strong seasons for the Tigers before finally fading at 41 and exiting the majors at 42.
Another third-base great, George Brett, had his worst season in five years when he hit .282/.362/.431 as a 36-year-old in 1989, throwing in what had become an all-too frequent visit to the disabled list with a knee injury. Brett had hit .314/.396/.530 for the decade through 1988, so this was a huge fall-off. At that moment, Brett had only 2,528 hits, and his quest for 3,000 seemed a stretch, but he greatly improved his chances by rebounding to .329/.387/.515 in 1990, winning his first batting title since 1980 in the process. He lasted through 1993, his age-40 season, but he had exhausted his magic getting that last splash of black ink on his encyclopedia page, hitting just .270/.323/.411 over his final three seasons.
A third example, and another player who spent a good chunk of his career at third base before, like Evans and Brett, finishing as a designated hitter, is Paul Molitor. For most of his career, Molitor was known as an extremely fragile player, a designation that must seem ironic to anyone who has lived through the age of Nick Johnson. Nonetheless, Molitor did spend more than his share of time on the DL, almost 500 days. As such, it was easy to believe that when he followed up his age-37, .341/.410/.518 season of 1994 with a .270/.350/.423 season in 1995 that he was heading for the last round-up. He was old, all those injuries had to have taken a toll, and, seemingly like Berkman, as a pure DH who risked spontaneous combustion every time he put on a glove, he had no other attributes to keep him employed once his bat had wilted. Yet, Molitor had one last comeback in him, a .341/.390/.468 1996 season in which his batting average ranked third in the league. That campaign wasn’t quite as good as it looks on paper—he was buoyed by a majors-wide offensive surge—and like Brett and Evans he had little time left before permanent decline and retirement.
The real lesson here is not that we can’t generalize about a hitter’s career arc, but that we shouldn’t get carried away by small samples. Berkman’s Yankees phase was undeniably miserable, but it also represented a fraction of both his career and the 2010 seasons—his time with the Astros was poor by his own standards but not in any sense bad; a .372 on-base percentage and .436 slugging may be bland, but they are solid, particularly in a league where offensive levels were sinking. Inside a player debilitated by injury—transiently, as it turned out—the heart was still beating strongly.
Since Berkman did retain some skills, it was also possible for him to make some adjustments to his approach and surprise pitchers around the league. He’s been a more aggressive hitter this season, swinging at more pitches and taking fewer walks. He has already had 20 at-bats in which he has put the first pitch in play, a high rate of such early conclusions compared to his career patterns.
Berkman has also no doubt benefitted from returning to the National League Central, his home for his entire career outside of his New York sojourn. He has hit .600 in three games against the Reds, .571 in three confrontations with the Astros, and .300 against the Pirates. He has yet to see the Brewers, against whom he has hit .321/.432/.552 in his career, launching 15 home runs in 272 at-bats at Miller Park. Despite the transience of defensive lineups and pitching staffs in the age of free agency, there is something to be said for 12 years of familiarity with the general environment, from something as innocuous as hotels and restaurants to elements as key as the way the sunlight slants towards the batter’s box during day games at PNC Park.
That said, just as Berkman’s age and poor season made it all too easy to infer a permanent decline, we also can’t get too worked up about the start to his 2011, as wonderful as it is. There is no precedent in Berkman’s career for him to hit .390, or for that matter, .340. When pitchers realize he is swinging at first pitches, they will stop throwing him first-pitch strikes, and then he will have to make another adjustment, one which may not be as successful. The odds of Berkman making something of a comeback were not as bad as we thought. The odds of him winning a triple crown are astronomical, and that’s one evaluation that no one will be second-guessing come October.
None of this is to take anything away from Berkman, who looked demoralized at times last year and very easily could have taken his millions and gone home to Texas. Instead, he worked hard, getting past his knee problems to the point that he’s not an embarrassment in the outfield and has revitalized his swing. Even if he cools off dramatically as the season progresses, he has already achieved more than many players in the twilight of their careers have been capable of—just ask Berkman’s former teammate, Derek Jeter.
A version of this story originally appeared on ESPN Insider .