JAWS and the 2019 Hall of Fame Ballot: Lance Berkman

The following article is part of Jay Jaffe’s ongoing look at the candidates on the BBWAA 2019 Hall of Fame ballot. For a detailed introduction to this year’s ballot, and other candidates in the series, use the tool above; an introduction to JAWS can be found here. For a tentative schedule and a chance to fill out a Hall of Fame ballot for our crowdsourcing project, see here. All WAR figures refer to the Baseball-Reference version unless otherwise indicated.

Lance Berkman could mash with the best of ’em. In a 15-year career spent primarily with the Astros, the native Texan and Rice University product arrived in the majors in time to become not just the next “Killer B” alongside Jeff Bagwell and Craig Biggio, but the centerpiece of the Houston offense as the iconic future Hall of Famers aged. Helped by the team’s move from the pitcher-friendly Astrodome to the more hitter-friendly Enron Field (later Minute Maid Park), he quickly established himself as one of the league’s elite hitters, and made five All-Star teams while helping the team win its first playoff series and its first pennant in franchise history.

The 6-foot-1, 220-pound Berkman did not fit the stereotypical image for a switch-hitting slugger of his prowess. “[H]e’s less Mr. Universe, more Mr. Kruk,” wrote Sports Illustrated’s Jeff Pearlman in 2001, referring to the lumpy ex-slugger whose famous quip — “I ain’t an athlete, lady. I’m a ballplayer” — later became a book title. Quotable and self-deprecating, he once said after pulling a leg muscle, “I guess I’m going to have to shut down the speed game,” and over the years, he acquired a pair of memorable nicknames, Fat Elvis and Big Puma. He conceded the former and embraced the latter, saying, “Pumas are fast and lean and deadly. That’s me.”

Though he may have looked the part of a DH, Berkman worked hard to turn himself into a competent runner and defender, and he primarily played the outfield corners on two World Series teams, one in Houston and one in St. Louis; his heroics with the latter were key in helping the Cardinals win a championship. Not that it doesn’t happen to even the most well-conditioned players, but injuries, particularly bad knees, eventually caught up to Berkman. After averaging 153 games a year from 2001-2008, he slipped to 102 per year from 2009-2013. His retirement at age 37 left him short in the one counting stat — hits, of which he compiled 1,905 — that seems to matter to modern day voters most of all. That alone means he faces an uphill battle for election.

2019 BBWAA Candidate: Lance Berkman
Player Career WAR Peak WAR JAWS
Lance Berkman 52.1 39.3 45.7
Avg. HOF LF 65.4 41.6 53.5
1,905 366 .293/.406/.537 144
SOURCE: Baseball-Reference

Berkman was born on February 10, 1976 in Waco, Texas. His father, Larry, who played the outfield for the University of Texas as a walk-on in the 1960s, began playing catch with his only son as soon as he was old enough to wear a mitt, and noticed that young Lance threw left-handed but preferred batting right-handed. The family moved to Austin when Lance was six, and Larry hung a tire from a tree in the back yard, instructing his son to take 50 swings a day both righty and lefty. When Berkman began playing in a youth league the following year, he alternated at bats from each side of the plate, regardless of the pitcher or game situation, per his father’s instruction. “When things were tight and my team needed a run, my teammates used to beg me to hit righthanded,” Berkman told Pearlman.

The alternating sides mandate remained in place until Berkman reached high school. “Call it foresight or call it being a baseball psycho dad, but he decided I should be a switch hitter,” he explained in 2010. At 16, Berkman’s family moved to New Braunfels, a suburb of San Antonio. Berkman read Ted WilliamsThe Science of Hitting “about 500 times” and starred at Canyon High School, but went largely unnoticed by college and pro scouts because of his chubby, unathletic appearance.

On the strength of an outstanding senior season, Berkman received a partial scholarship offer from Houston’s Rice University, a program on the rise under the legendary Wayne Graham. As a freshman (1995), he started in an outfield alongside future major leaguers Jose Cruz Jr. and Mark Quinn, and helped the school reach the NCAA Regionals for the first time. As a junior, he hit .431 with 41 homers and 134 RBIs as the Owls made their first trip to the College World Series. He made multiple All-American teams, and the Astros chose him with the 16th pick in the 1997 draft; teammate Matt Anderson, a hard-throwing righty, was taken first by the Tigers.

With Bagwell a fixture at first base, Berkman spent virtually all of his minor league career playing left field. He began his professional career at High-A Kissimmee, where he hit a Berkmanesque .293/.417/.543 with 12 homers in 53 games. He followed up by hitting .302/.422/.566 with 30 homers in 1998, spending most of the season at Double-A Jackson followed by a 17-game stint at Triple-A New Orleans. That showing vaulted him from 64th on Baseball America’s Top 100 Prospects list to 13th, and after a strong half-season at New Orleans in 1999, the 23-year-old switch-hitter was called to the majors when Astros’ center fielder Carl Everett strained a hamstring.

He debuted on July 16, inauspiciously grounding into a double play against the Tigers’ Justin Thompson, and needed until his 10th at-bat before collecting his first hit, a single off the Indians’ Bartolo Colon on July 20. Everett returned at the beginning of August, but between a subsequent groin strain and injuries to Richard Hidalgo and Derek Bell — all on top of Moises Alou having torn his ACL in spring training — Berkman found enough playing time at both outfield corners to make 106 plate appearances for the 97-win team, though his .237/.321/.387 line with four homers was nothing to write home about.

The Astros sent Berkman back to New Orleans to start 2000. After spending a couple weeks in late April and early May in the majors, he was in Houston to stay by the end of the month, securing the starting right field job. He hit well (.297/.388/.561, 21 homers, 130 OPS+) and even received a down-ballot vote in the NL Rookie of the Year race, though he had exceeded the service time limit (Rafael Furcal won). Alas, the Astros’ streak of seven straight seasons above .500 and three as NL Central champions came to an end with a resounding thud. Brand new Enron Field initially proved to be the most hitter-friendly park this side of Coors Field, and the pitching staff was pounded for a 5.42 ERA as the team went 72-90.

Thanks to the emergence of starters Roy Oswalt and Wade Miller, the Astros were back to their winning ways in 2001, and Berkman did his share, hitting .331/.430/.620 with 34 homers; his slash stat stats ranked fourth, fifth, and sixth in the NL, respectively, his 161 OPS+ fifth, his 6.5 WAR 10th. He made his first All-Star team, and finished fifth in the NL MVP voting, but he stopped hitting in the Division Series against the Braves, going just 2-for-12 without a walk or an RBI as the Astros were swept.

After Berkman held his own while playing 40 games in center field in 2001, he became the team’s regular there in 2002, though he often shifted to a corner in the late innings. While he was 11 runs below average (by Total Zone) overall in the outfield, he drove in far more than he let in, as they say — a league-high 128 RBI via 42 homers (third in the league) and a .292/.405/.578 line. His OBP and SLG ranked fifth and sixth, respectively, he made his second All-Star team, and placed third in the MVP voting behind Barry Bonds and Albert Pujols. He was worth 4.9 WAR that year, and 5.3 in 2003 despite slipping to 25 homers. The Astros slipped as well; despite finishing second in the NL Central in both seasons, they missed the postseason, with a season-ending 3-6 skid costing them the division title in 2003.

With Bagwell and Biggio now in their mid-30s, and having gone 0-for-4 in the Division Series — the franchise itself was 0-for-7 dating back to 1980 — owner Drayton McLane and general manager Gerry Hunsicker grew more aggressive in the free agent market. They signed Jeff Kent to a two-year, $18.2 million contract in December 2002 (bumping Biggio to center field) and Andy Pettitte to a three-year, $31.5 million deal in December 2003. A month later, Pettitte’s Yankees teammate, Roger Clemens — who had retired at the end of the 2003 season, receiving a farewell tour of sorts — signed with Houston as well. In March, Berkman himself signed a six-year, $85 million extension with a full no-trade clause.

Though Pettitte was limited to 15 starts in 2004 due to elbow woes, Clemens went through the NL like a hot knife through butter en route to his seventh and final Cy Young. Berkman, who began the year in left field, shifted to right in late June after the team traded for Carlos Beltran, pushing Biggio to left. Further spurred by a midseason managerial change, from Jimy Williams (44-44) to Phil Garner (48-26), the upgraded Killer B’s won 92 games and claimed the NL Wild Card spot. Berkman had another All-Star season, hitting .316/.450/.566; his OBP ranked third, his 160 OPS+ sixth, his 6.0 WAR 10th. He went 9-for-22 with a Game 1 homer off the Braves’ Jaret Wright while helping Houston win its first Division Series. He stayed hot enough to homer three times in the first four games of the NLCS against the Cardinals, but went 0-for-9 over the final three games. While Kent homered three times and Beltran four, the Astros fell in seven games.

Two weeks after the Astros’ elimination, Berkman tore the ACL in his right knee playing flag football, causing him to miss the first 27 games of the 2005 season. By the time he returned, the team — which had lost Beltran and Kent in free agency — was without Bagwell as well; the 37-year-old slugger’s career as a first baseman was effectively ended by chronic right shoulder woes that required surgery. Berkman took over first base duties in June and turned in a comparatively disappointing season by his high standards (24 homers, 130 OPS+, 3.2 WAR), though he did hit 11 homers and slug .645 during the team’s 21-11 closing run, which enabled them to claim yet another Wild Card berth.

Berkman carried his hot bat into the postseason (.333/.468/.563 in 62 PA). His eighth-inning grand slam off Kyle Farnsworth in Game 4 of the Division Series helped the Astros rally from a 6-1 deficit to beat — and eliminate — the Braves in an 18-inning epic. His three-run homer off the Cardinals’ Chris Carpenter in the seventh inning of Game 5 of the NLCS looked as though it might stand as the shot that launched the Astros into their first-ever World Series, but Pujols’ three-run ninth-inning homer off Brad Lidge (yeah, that one) put the champagne on hold until two nights later. While Berkman went 5-for-13 with two doubles and six RBI in the World Series, the Astros were swept by the White Sox.

Berkman spent four more seasons in Houston as the Astros’ core aged and the team’s fortunes waned; in 2007 and 2009, the Astros slipped into the mid-70s in wins. Now in his 30s and gradually absorbing an increasing share of playing time at first base, he remained among the league’s most productive hitters, batting a combined .296/.406/.553 (148 OPS+) while averaging 33 homers in that span. In 2006, he made his fourth All-Star team and set new career highs with 45 homers (fourth in the NL), 136 RBI and 163 OPS+ (both third); his 6.0 WAR ranked fifth. In 2008, finally free of outfield duty, he set a new career high in WAR (6.9, fifth in the NL) thanks to +15 DRS at first base and a 160 OPS+ (again third).

During spring training in 2010, Berkman injured his left knee during a base running drill and soon underwent surgery to remove cartilage debris, sidelining him until April 20. Now in the final guaranteed year of his contract, he slumped to .245/.372/.436 (120 OPS+) in 85 games through the end of July. With the team 44-59, and increasing buzz surrounding the possibility of the 74-year-old McLane selling the Astros, the 34-year-old Berkman agreed to waive his no-trade clause and was dealt to the Yankees in exchange for prospects Mark Melancon and Jimmy Paredes as well as an agreement that New York would decline his $15 million option for 2011.

The gamble did not pay off for anybody but the Astros, given Melancon’s subsequent development (though he was traded again, to the Red Sox for Jed Lowrie, in December 2011). Berkman hit just .255/.358/.349 with one homer in 123 plate appearances as a part-time DH and backup first baseman, missing additional time with a sprained right ankle. He did add a solo homer and an RBI double in the Yankees’ Division Series Game 2 win over the Twins. A free agent that winter, he agreed to a one-year, $8 million deal with the Cardinals, bypassing more lucrative opportunities for the chance to play for a contender. With Pujols about to enter his final year as the Cardinals’ first baseman, Berkman was initially slated to head to left field, but wound up in right.

The situation clicked. Berkman clubbed 31 homers and hit .301/.412/.547, ranking third in the league in both OBP and OPS+ (164) and fifth in SLG. Even with brutal defensive metrics (-16 DRS, -8 UZR), he posted a still-solid 3.8 WAR. His .374/.457/.484 September — during which he signed a one-year, $12 million extension for 2012 — helped the Cardinals sneak past the Braves to claim the NL Wild Card. After going 9-for-38 in the first two rounds of the playoffs against the Phillies and Brewers, he caught fire in the World Series against the Rangers, hitting .423/.516/.577 with nine runs scored (one shy of a record), five RBI, and four multi-hit games in the seven-game series. Most notably, he went 2-for-3 with a two-run single in the opener, a 3-2 victory, and 3-for-5 in the epic Game 6, with a two-run homer off Colby Lewis in the first inning and a game-tying RBI single off Scott Feldman in the 10th inning, when the Cardinals were down to their final strike.

In Game 7, Berkman got on base twice and scored both times in the Cardinals’ 6-2 victory. At age 35, in his 15th professional season, he finally won a championship.

But it was downhill from there. A left calf strain and a pair of in-season surgeries on his right knee limited Berkman to 32 games and 0.5 WAR in 2012, and while he considered retirement, he opted to return on a one-year-plus-option $11 million deal with the Rangers, which made for some awkwardness given the 2011 results. Unfortunately, he spent eight weeks on the disabled list due to left hip inflammation, and hit just .242/.340/.359 in 73 games. The Rangers declined his option, and in January, he decided to listen to his body and retire, saying, “It doesn’t make sense to play in the physical condition I’m in.”

When it comes to Cooperstown, Berkman’s biggest obstacle is his short career. He played only 15 seasons, two of which featured fewer than 35 games, and qualified for the batting title just 10 times. Among post-1960 expansion era non-catchers in the Hall of Fame, only Willie McCovey had fewer such seasons (eight); Barry Larkin and Willie Stargell had 10 apiece, like Berkman. Because he walked in 15.4% of his plate appearances, he finished with just 1,905 hits, and as I’ve noted on numerous occasions, neither the BBWAA nor the small committees have elected an expansion era player with fewer than 2,000.

What’s more, Berkman has almost no black ink to his name, having led a league in a major category just once (RBI in 2002). He had six All-Star appearances, but no Gold Gloves or MVP awards (he did finish in the top five three times, as high as third). He reached 100 RBI six times, and likewise for 30 home run seasons, but his Hall of Fame Monitor score of 98 — which factors in stuff like the aforementioned, awards, league leads, black ink, and so on — is just short of “a good possibility.”

His body of postseason work is a plus. Berkman hit a combined .317/.417/.532 — slightly better than his regular season slash line — with nine homers in 224 PA. In his two World Series appearances, he hit .410/.520/.564 in 50 PA; that OBP is second to David Ortiz among players with at least 40 World Series plate appearances.

Berkman’s best claim on a spot in Cooperstown — besides this incredible photo of him with his cat, I mean – rests with his exceptional rate stats. Among players with at least 7,000 PA in the post-1992 expansion era, his .406 on-base percentage ranks sixth, his .537 slugging percentage 17th, and his 144 OPS+ tied for eighth:

Highest OPS+, 1993 Onward
1 Barry Bonds 8351 .312/.477/.666 199
2 Manny Ramirez 9774 .312/.411/.585 154
3 Frank Thomas+ 8423 .297/.414/.557 152
4t Jeff Bagwell+ 8084 .299/.413/.557 151
4t Miguel Cabrera 9687 .316/.395/.551 151
6 Albert Pujols 11686 .302/.382/.554 149
7 Jim Thome+ 10078 .278/.405/.560 148
8t Lance Berkman 7814 .293/.406/.537 144
8t Gary Sheffield 9085 .294/.404/.529 144
10 Mike Piazza+ 7671 .309/.377/.548 143
11t David Ortiz 10091 .286/.380/.552 141
11t Chipper Jones+ 10614 .303/.401/.529 141
13t Vladimir Guerrero+ 9059 .318/.379/.553 140
13t Alex Rodriguez 12207 .295/.380/.550 140
15 Jason Giambi 8908 .277/.399/.516 139
SOURCE: Baseball-Reference
Minimum 7,000 plate appearances. + = Hall of Famer

Those guys could hit. Six of them are already enshrined, three would be if not for their connections to PEDs, and three are not yet eligible. At that same 7,000 PA cutoff, Berkman’s 144 OPS+ is tied for 35th all-time, again on a list chock full of Hall of Famers — 31 of the top 40, with Bonds, Ramirez, Cabrera, Pujols, Dick Allen, Frank Howard, Edgar Martinez, and Mark McGwire the exceptions besides Berkman.

In terms of batting runs, the primary offensive component of WAR, Berkman’s 421 runs ranks 62nd, one run and one spot ahead of Larry Walker, who did surpass 2,000 hits (2,160) but nonetheless gets dinged by some voters for his short career. But where Walker added another 50 runs above average thanks to baserunning and double play avoidance, and 94 for his fielding, Berkman was 21 runs below average in the former, and 15 below average in the latter — a total gap of 180 runs. Per 1,200 innings, Berkman was slightly above average in both left field (+2 DRS) and first base (+3 DRS), dead even in center field, but dreadful in right (-14 DRS).

While he played more games at first base (765) than in either left field (549) or right (373), Berkman is classified as a left fielder for the purposes of JAWS. Two of his four top-10 finishes in WAR were in seasons where he was primarily a first baseman (2006 and 2008) but in five of the seven seasons that make up his peak score, he was primarily an outfielder, with more time in left than at either of the other two spots. His 39.3 peak WAR isn’t far off the standard at the position (41.6); it ranks 15th, ahead of 10 of the 20 enshrined left fielders, though only Stargell (38.0), Jim Rice (36.4), and Lou Brock (32.1) were elected by the BBWAA. His 52.1 career WAR is 14.4 a hefty wins below the standard, ranking 20th, ahead of just seven enshrined left fielders including the BBWA-honored Rice, Brock, and Ralph Kiner. Likewise, Berkman is 20th in JAWS among left fielders, nearly eight full points below the standard. He’s ahead of just six of the 20 enshrined, including Rice and Brock.

While Berkman would hardly be the worst left fielder in the Hall of Fame if he were elected, he doesn’t look like a strong pick, as he’s below all three standards, two of them by a significant margin. Between the numbers and the crowded ballot, voters don’t appear to be particularly convinced, either. Just two of the first 36 ballots (5.6%) published at the @NotMrTibbs Ballot Tracker have included him, suggesting that it could be a close call as to whether he even makes the cut for 2020. Even if he does, he’s a long ways from 75%.

Brooklyn-based Jay Jaffe is a senior writer for FanGraphs, the author of The Cooperstown Casebook (Thomas Dunne Books, 2017) and the creator of the JAWS (Jaffe WAR Score) metric for Hall of Fame analysis. He founded the Futility Infielder website (2001), was a columnist for Baseball Prospectus (2005-2012) and a contributing writer for Sports Illustrated (2012-2018). He has been a recurring guest on MLB Network and a member of the BBWAA since 2011, and a Hall of Fame voter since 2021. Follow him on Twitter @jay_jaffe... and BlueSky @jayjaffe.bsky.social.

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5 years ago

That’s an incredible story about Berkman alternating at bats, and his teammates begging him to hit right-handed. I haven’t heard that one before, but I love it.

Considering that he actually played more games at 1st base, I don’t think it’s a stretch to compare him to Todd Helton. And he does compare pretty well to Helton; shorter career, similar overall value, similar overall batting value for that matter. Helton has a pointy-er (pointier?) peak, with a couple of seven-win seasons and an eight-win season; Berkman topped six wins 6 times, only one of which was a mega-season (in 2008…thanks to positive defensive value and baserunning. 18 stolen bases! He must have felt good playing 1st.)

I don’t necessarily think Berkman is a Hall of Famer, but I also think that there are good reasons to think he’s at the same level as Helton. But I bet you anything Helton gets at least 5 times as many votes.

5 years ago
Reply to  sadtrombone

Big fan of both of those guys, and I think that is an apt comparison.

5 years ago
Reply to  sadtrombone

I’ve been making this exact comparison for weeks now, and can’t understand why Helton is getting so many votes vs. Berkman.