Q&A: Lance Berkman, Humble OPS Legacy

Lance Berkman has numbers worthy of the Hall of Fame. The longtime Houston Astro — and current Texas Ranger — boasts a career slash line of .295/.408/.540. His post-season rate stats — accumulated in 52 games — are even better.

Berkman isn’t the boastful type. The 37-year-old switch-hitter acknowledges his accomplishments, but in a humble and understated manner that mirrors his legacy. Had he spent his career in a large media market — and not been overshadowed by Jeff Bagwell and Craig Biggio — his fame would be far greater. As for a plaque in Cooperstown, he will merit serious consideration once his playing days are over.

Berkman talked about his evolution as a hitter — and the relative value of OPS and RBIs — when the Rangers visited Fenway Park earlier this month.


David Laurila: Veteran pitchers often point to a time they went from thrower to pitcher. Does that happen with hitters?

Lance Berkman: To a certain extent it does, although for me it was more of a gradual evolution as I gained experience and knowledge. You learn more about your swing and approach as you compete at this level over the years. I can’t point to one particular moment — or even year — where I thought, “Now I’ve made the transition from a swinger to a hitter.”

Every year is so different. Heck, I’m still learning things about hitting. I still have to battle. Offensive baseball is fickle at best. Sometimes you’re on and everything is clicking well, and you’re not even thinking about it. Other times, you’re fighting yourself and your swing. That’s something that hasn’t changed throughout my career.

Some years have been relatively easy from a mechanical standpoint. There are also years you go the entire season without feeling fully comfortable. You just try to grind out good at bats, and you’re constantly tinkering with your swing, trying to get it into some semblance of shape that will allow you to be successful.

DL: If I looked at video of your first year in the big leagues and compared it to now, how different would you look mechanically?

LB: It wouldn’t look hardly any different at all. For me, the adjustments have been miniscule. To the lay eye, you probably wouldn’t be able to tell the difference between a good swing and a bad swing. They’re often very similar. You’re dealing with something where a fraction of an inch can be the difference between success and making an out.

DL: Who made you into a good hitter?

LB: You kind of get shaped along the way by different people. My dad is the one who started me out; he taught me the basic mechanics of a swing. My college coach was really helpful in teaching me mental toughness, which is a big part of being a baseball player in general, but a hitter specifically. I had a coach in the Cape Cod League, Don Reed, who worked with me and helped me understand swing mechanics. Kevin Long, with the Yankees, is another guy. Dave Magadan, this year. I’ve had some really good hitting instructors over the years, and learned a little something from each of them.

DL: Is plate discipline innate, or something that can be learned?

LB: I don’t think you learn plate discipline. It’s something where you just kind of have the ability to recognize pitches early. I’m not saying you can’t improve your plate discipline, but it’s certainly something where… it seems some guys have it and some guys don’t.

I don’t go up to the plate to take pitches. I’m looking for one pitch in a spot where I want to hit it, and if it’s not there, I try to take it. If the situation calls for it, I’ll purposely take a pitch, but for the most part I’m ready to hit when I step into the box.

When things are going well… there’s a difference when you’re feeling good at the plate. When your swing is working the way you want it to, you seem to be more selective. In the times you’re searching for something, you might go out of your zone a little more — not on purpose; you’re just not seeing the ball as well, for whatever reason.

DL; Are you ever so locked in you feel you can square up anything near the zone?

LB: In the times you’re hitting the ball really well, that’s what happens. There’s no conscious thought about swinging at pitches or taking pitches. You’re up there reacting, and at times you’re hitting pitches that are outside the area you handle well. If it’s a little up, you can still hit it; if it’s a little down, or a little away, you can still hit it. There are times the ball comes up there and before you know it, you’ve made a good swing and gotten a base hit.

DL: Can you elaborate on what you said earlier about toughness?

LB: There’s so much failure involved in hitting a baseball. Even the guys who are very successful at it are going to make an out 60 percent of the time. You have to be able to handle that failure, and you have be able to analyze it and say, “The pitcher make a great pitch to get me out,” or “I got myself out.” You have to recognize if you got yourself out on a bad swing or if you put yourself in a bad situation. Those are types of things you need to learn to dissect, mentally, while at the same time maintaining a level of confidence. When you go up to the plate with a bat in your hand, you need to feel something good might happen.

DL; Have you ever doubted yourself?

LB: Oh, yeah. You doubt yourself all the time. I’ve never been a guy who has strutted around, thinking I had it made. Every time I go 0-4, I’m wondering if I’ll ever get another hit. The battle you have with that doubt is part of the mental toughness I referred to. You have to push through it and not let it effect your next series of at bats.

DL: Did you talk hitting with Jeff Bagwell and Craig Biggio?

LB: Yes, that’s part of the culture of the game. You’re always inquiring of guys you look up to, guys who have had success at this level. You ask them what their thoughts are when they’re at the plate, what they do in the cage to prepare, that kind of thing.

Their hitting styles were vastly different than mine, so there wasn’t a whole lot in terms of being able to emulate something they were doing. But in terms of a general hitting philosophy, like using the middle of the field, you definitely pick things up.

DL: What most differentiated you from Bagwell and Biggio?

LB; For one thing, most of my career I’ve been a left-handed hitter. I’m obviously a switch-hitter, but the vast majority of the at bats you get are from the left side. They were both right-handed hitters. Bagwell is a little more similar, because he was more of a power guy — an RBI guy — while Biggio was more of a set-the-table guy. But Bagwell was a pull hitter — he hit a lot of home runs to the pull side — and when I’m going good, I hit a lot of balls the other way and use the left-centerfield gap.

DL; Do you consider yourself a power hitter?

LB: I have been a power hitter at times in my career, but I don’t… my overall view of myself — or at least my overall hitting philosophy — is to try to be a tough out. I don’t worry about hitting home runs, because home runs come with good consistent contact. You try to make it tough on the pitcher to get you out, and sometimes you’re going to hit the ball well enough that it will leave the ballpark.

DL: How do you view your legacy? You rank in the Top 40 all-time in both OBP and SLG.

LB: It’s kind of hard to think about it in those terms, because hitting is such a difficult thing and I don’t think I’ve ever lost the appreciation for how tough it is to go up there and have a good at bat and be successful at the major league level. In terms of where I stack up in the history of the game — my legacy, as you call it — I think that’s something you really look at when you get done playing. It is what it is. I mean, you have to be satisfied with what you were able to accomplish. Everybody has a measure of God-given ability, and I’ve tried to do the best I can to maximize that. At the end of the day, if the numbers are good enough to be included in a discussion of the game’s elite, I’m happy with that. If not, I know I did the best I could.

DL: Which numbers are most meaningful to you?

LB: The ones I probably take the most pride in are on-base percentage and slugging percentage. OPS, I think, is a good measure of what you’re doing to give your team a chance to win from an offensive standpoint.

There are a lot of numbers in baseball that are… I mean, I’d love to get as many RBIs as I can, and I think the guys who drive in a lot of runs are generally the most productive — they are generally the high-OPS guys. Hitting in the middle of the lineup, if you have a good OPS, you’re usually going to drive in a lot of runs. They kind of go hand in hand. But there is some level of involvement [from other players] as far as opportunities. How many times do you hit with a runner on third base and less than two out? I’ve had years where it seems like every other game I had that situation, and others where it seemed to happen once a half [season] –you’re just not getting many easy RBI opportunities. Those can have a bearing on how many runs you drive in over the course of a season, so to me, it’s a nice statistic but not one I’m overly hung up on. I’m more interested in what my OPS is.

David Laurila grew up in Michigan's Upper Peninsula and now writes about baseball from his home in Cambridge, Mass. He authored the Prospectus Q&A series at Baseball Prospectus from December 2006-May 2011 before being claimed off waivers by FanGraphs. He can be followed on Twitter @DavidLaurilaQA.

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Who would have known – Lance Berkman is a stathead. Sort of.

While I’d love to see him get into the Hall, if Edgar Martinez–or Jeff Bagwell, for that matter–can’t get in neither will Berkman. Who knows, hopefully in ten years the culture will have changed and voters will realize that they can’t have Jim Rice or Tony Perez in the Hall of Fame and not Martinez, Bagwell, and Berkman.