Lance Berkman retires, leaving legacy as a great player but not a Hall of Famer
Lance Berkman almost retired last January before signing a one-year, $10 million deal with the Rangers. He finally did so this January, following an age-37 season in which he hit just .242/.340/.359 for Texas and barely played after being sidelined in early July by a hip injury. Berkman leaves behind a legacy as one of the game’s true nice guys and as one of its most dangerous switch-hitters.
Berkman ranks second in baseball history among switch hitters with at least 3,000 plate appearances in OPS+, behind only Mickey Mantle, and fourth among switch-hitters in home runs (behind Mantle, Eddie Murray and Chipper Jones, though Carlos Beltran will likely pass him this year). However, he doesn’t fare quite as well in the other cumulative stats (which covers everything from hits to wins above replacement), and that reveals the soft underbelly of his Hall of Fame case. For the bulk of his career, Berkman was a tremendously productive hitter, but not only did he play just 15 seasons, he only played in 140 or more games in eight of them.
That doesn’t diminish how good Berkman was when he did play, however. Drafted out of Rice University by the Astros with the 16th overall pick of the 1997 draft, Berkman slammed into the pros like a wrecking ball, hitting .293/.417/.543 in 53 games in High A in his professional debut later that year. He reached Triple A by the end of his first full professional season and made his major league debut on July 16, 1999, barely more than two years and one month after the day he was drafted. When Berkman stepped in against the Tigers’ Justin Thompson as a pinch-hitter in the bottom of the seventh that day, he did so having hit .305/.420/.549 in the minor leagues. He retired having hit .293/.406/.537 in the major leagues.
Berkman grounded into a double play in that first at-bat and didn’t hit much in his rookie year at all, but after spending April of 2000 back in the minors, he returned to Houston and immediately found his stroke. From 2000 through 2009, he hit .300/.413/.559 (148 OPS+), averaging 31 home runs and 103 runs batted in, made five All-Star teams and finished in the top five in the National League MVP voting four times.
Picking Berkman’s best season out of that decade is nearly impossible. In 2001, he hit .331/.430/.620, led the league with 55 doubles, hit 34 home runs, drove in 126 runs and scored 110 times. In 2004, he set a career high with a .450 on-base percentage, drew an unintentional walk a dozen more times than he struck out and reached the 30-homer, 40-double, 100-RBI and 100-runs plateaus. In 2006, he set career-highs in slugging (.621), home runs (45), RBIs (136) and OPS+ (163). In 2008, he led the league with 46 doubles, hit .312 with a .420 on-base percentage and, inexplicably given that he was 32 and never particularly athletic outside of the batter’s box, stole 18 bases at an 82 percent success rate. In each of those three seasons Berkman posted an OPS+ of at least 160, a grouping that doesn’t even include 2002, the year he hit 42 home runs and led the National League with 128 RBIs.
Berkman had an on-base percentage above .400 in each of his first six qualified seasons (average over that span: .422 OBP). And, including 2000, when he missed April, he slugged over .500 in each of his first 10 full seasons (average SLG: .559). During those years, he helped the Astros reach the playoffs three times and win what remains their only pennant in 2005, the year that he effectively replaced Jeff Bagwell at first base. In that pennant-winning postseason, Berkman hit .333/.468/.563, including an opposite-field grand slam in Game 4 of the Division Series against the Braves, helping to set up what turned out to be an 18-inning, series-clinching Houston win.
The beginning of the end for Berkman came in 2010. He injured his left knee running the bases in spring training that year, had pre-season surgery on the joint and wasn’t right all year, the last of a six-year, $85 million extension he had signed with the Astros in early 2005.
Berkman slugged just .436 in 85 games for Houston in 2010 and was traded to the Yankees at the non-waiver deadline. Reduced to being a lefthanded designated hitter with New York, Berkman managed just one home run in 123 plate appearances over the remainder of the regular season, though he showed that there was still life in his bat with three of his five hits in that year’s postseason going for extra bases.
That down year forced Berkman to settle for a one-year contract that offseason. He agreed to play rightfield for the Cardinals despite having not played there since 2007 and not having played the majority of his games in the outfield since 2004. Coming off a season in which his power was sapped by a bad knee, asking Berkman, never a strong defender at any position, to return to the outfield after six years spent primarily at first base, looked like a disaster in the making. Yet, while he was very nearly as bad as expected in the field, his bat made a full recovery. He hit .310/.412/.547 with 31 home runs, including a .374/.457/.484 line in September as St. Louis went 18-8 to surge past the Braves and into playoffs via the wild card.
The most memorable hit of Berkman’s career came in Game 6 of that year’s World Series. When he came to the plate in the bottom of the 10th, he had already had a terrific game, with a two-run homer, a single, a walk and four runs scored, including the tying tally on David Freese’s two-out triple in the bottom of the ninth. St. Louis again trailed by two after Josh Hamilton’s home run in the top half, and again there were two on and two out when Berkman stepped in to try to keep the Cardinals alive. Down to his last strike, Berkman laced an inside fastball from Scott Feldman into right-center for the game-tying hit. The next inning, Freese pushed the Series to Game 7 with a walk-off home run.
Overall, Berkman hit .423/.516/.577 in St. Louis’ World Series triumph and .317/.417/.532 over 224 career postseason plate appearances for the Astros, Yankees, and Cardinals.
Berkman was never the same after 2011, however. Extended by the Cardinals to mitigate the loss of Pujols that winter, he managed to play in just 32 games in 2012 due to more knee problems. He was similarly limited with the Rangers in 2013 despite serving primarily as a designated hitter, a position the plain-spoken Texan had previously said didn’t belong in baseball.
Thus, Berkman’s retirement doesn’t come as a great surprise, particularly given how close he was to hanging it up a year ago. It does leave us with the question of whether or not he is a Hall of Famer. Jay Jaffe’s JAWS stats say no. Berkman’s 51.8/.38.9/45.3 career/peak/JAWS scores all fall short of the standard at first base and left and rightfield, his three primary positions (he also played 166 games in center early in his career, which yielded this gem on Tal’s Hill).
It may be surprising that Berkman doesn’t at least meet the standard on peak score, but the combination of the offense-heavy era in which he played, the Astros’ move to the hitter-friendly Enron-cum-Minute Maid Park in 2000, and some brutal fielding scores undercut those impressive statistics above. That, in combination with his short career, make the Hall seem like a longshot for Berkman, though he may get some extra points from the voters for his postseason performance, being a switch-hitter, and for his personality and honesty with the press.
In terms of a comparable candidate, one player that jumps to mind is Edgar Martinez. The legendary Mariners DH was also an undeniably great hitter who also had a memorable postseason moment, made essentially no contribution on defense by virtue of having been a designated hitter for the bulk of his career and had a similarly short career (just 12 qualifying seasons). Martinez hit .312/.418/.515 (147 OPS+) in his career to Berkman’s .293/.406/.537 (144 OPS+). Berkman hit more home runs (366 to doubles-hitter Martinez’s 309), but Martinez, perhaps crucially, surpassed 2,000 hits while Berkman did not (2,247 to 1,905). Martinez also played in more games (2,055 to 1,879) made more plate appearances (8,674 to 7,814), and had superior WAR (68.3 to 51.8) and JAWS scores (55.9 to 45.3). Martinez can also stake claim to being the greatest ever at his position, even if that position was designated hitter. Despite all of that, after five years on the ballot, he has yet to surpass 36.5 percent of the vote.
That’s a pretty strong indicator that Berkman isn’t likely to get into the Hall. Still, the lack of a plaque in Cooperstown shouldn’t diminish his legacy as both a true impact player on baseball’s biggest stages and a genuinely likable superstar.