15-year veteran Lance Berkman announced Wednesday that he was retiring from the game of baseball. Over his 15 years in Major League Baseball, Berkman suited up for the Houston Astros, New York Yankees, St. Louis Cardinals and most recently the Texas Rangers. He posted a .293/.406/.537 triple slash with 366 home runs, 1,234 RBI, 1,905 hits, 1,146 runs, 422 doubles and a 144 OPS+ in 1,879 career games. He was a six-time All-Star and finished in the top 10 of MVP voting six times in his career.
There’s no denying the man known as Big Puma was an accomplished veteran. But, is he deserving of a plaque in the Baseball Hall of Fame?
When you look hard at his career numbers, the answer becomes more and more obvious. And that answer is yes.
A lot of the hesitation about Berkman’s Hall of Fame credentials come back to how often he was injured towards the tail end of his career. He was injured so frequently that it’s easy to forget the type of player Berkman was at his peak. I think a lot of voters will see the 1,905 career hits Berkman had and come away unimpressed. However, when you count the 1,201 walks Berkman drew in his career, and you have someone that found their way on base either by hit or walk over 3,000 times in his career. He also hit better than .300 five times in his career, twice led the league in doubles and never posted an OPS+ lower than 112 before his final year last year with the Rangers.
It’s also important to remember that Berkman was a switch-hitter. It is rare to have a switch-hitter be as successful as Berkman was for as long as he was, and even more rare for a switch-hitter to show true power numbers. Berkman’s 366 home runs rank him 76th all-time among all MLB players, but you might not have known that those same 366 home runs are good enough for fourth all-time among switch-hitters. The three above him, two are already in the Hall of Fame (Mickey Mantle and Eddie Murray) and one will be in there soon (Chipper Jones). Right behind Berkman is Carlos Beltran, also (in my opinion) a sure fire Hall of Famer, and the only other two switch-hitters in the top 100 home run leaders of all time are Chili Davis and Mark Teixeira. The majority of switch-hitters don’t exhibit the sustainability or clear weakness against a specific side pitcher to put up the numbers throughout a career. Even though Berkman posted a much lower OPS against left-handed pitching, his .770+ career metric is, at worst, league average for other players of his era.
When you analyze Berkman by JAWS, which views Berkman as a left fielder, he’s viewed as the 20th-best left fielder to play the game. His 45.3 rating places him below the Hall of Fame average of 53.2. However, 17 of the 19 players rated higher than Berkman are either Hall of Famers, or should be Hall of Famers (Barry Bonds, Pete Rose and Tim Raines all rank higher and in the top 10, yet aren’t in the Hall of Fame for various reasons). Berkman does rank better than Hall of Famers Joe Kelley, Jim Rice and Heinie Manush, but there aren’t a ton of comparable outfielders to Berkman that aren’t already HOFers.
To me, what puts Berkman over the top and in the Hall is his tremendous success while hitting from both sides of the plate and his consistency throughout his career (we mentioned his OPS+ ratings never dipping below 112, but he also posted WARs of 3.0 or better nine times in his 15 years).
Players like Lance Berkman are incredibly rare, and even more rare when you consider that what he did at the plate came from both sides. He was consistently one of the best during his era, and one of the all-time greats when compared to other switch-hitters. He deserves his place in Cooperstown.
All we can hope is that the voters feel the same way about it.