So Far, So Good for The Big Puma Experiment

When St. Louis signed Lance Berkman this offseason, it raised a lot of questions:

“Don’t the Cardinals still have Pujols?”

“Wait, he’s going to play outfield?”

“Can he even hit anymore?”

Through the first two weeks of the season, the Cardinals’ gamble on the man called “The Big Puma” is paying off.

Through 14 games, Berkman is hitting .308/.368/.692. He leads the team with six home runs and 13 RBIs. Thus far, he looks more like the perennial All-Star from his Houston days than the over-the-hill slugger who posted a .314 wOBA with the Yankees last season.

Berkman, a switch-hitter, has always been better against right-handers, but his splits have been trending farther apart over the last several years.

Given, the 2011 datapoints are based on 14 games, but Berkman has shown no evidence that the gap between his splits is going to narrow this season. At this point in the 35-year-old’s career, his ability to hit lefties is basically gone.

Against righties, Berkman is having a fantastic start to the season, posting a .506 wOBA. This level of production is completely unsustainable, as his .385 ISO is more than 100 points higher than his career average. Still, it suggests that Berkman can still be a productive hitter as long as his exposure to left-handers is limited.

As a pure hitter, Berkman was a fairly low-risk signing. What really made him a gamble for St. Louis is that they needed him to play outfield. Berkman had not played even one game in the outfield since 2007, a year where he logged a -8.0 UZR in only 32 games.

From a completely qualitative standpoint, Berkman has looked very Berkmanesque so far in right field. His range is very limited, but he has not looked completely lost such as, say, Aubrey Huff.

Although the season is very young, the new weekly-updating UZR statistics show that Berkman has a -0.6 UZR so far in 2011, on pace for -12.3 UZR/150. At that pace, he will probably be one of the worst everyday fielders in the league, but probably won’t be the worst.

The other big concern about moving Berkman to the outfield is durability. Over the course of a full season, it remains to be seen how the veteran — who has battled injury issues in his career — will handle the physical demands of playing the outfield. This can only truly be answered as the year plays out.

The Cardinals have been been strategically resting Berkman, giving Allen Craig starts against lefties  Barry Zito on April 10th and Clayton Kershaw on April 16th. This plan is the best way to get the most out of Berkman this year. He needs plenty of days off to make sure he’s not over-taxed in the outfield, and he does not contribute much against left-handers anyway, so it stands to reason that he rides the pine nearly every time the Cards face a lefty.

He’s got a long season ahead of him, but it looks like Fat Elvis is not ready to leave the building quite yet. He will fall far short of his 60 home run pace, but as long as he keeps smashing righties, he gives St. Louis a valuable threat to hit behind Colby Rasmus, Pujols and Matt Holiday.





Jesse has been writing for FanGraphs since 2010. He is the director of Consumer Insights at GroupM Next, the innovation unit of GroupM, the world’s largest global media investment management operation. Follow him on Twitter @jesseberger.

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Wavaw
11 years ago

This probably is not the best thread to defend Huff, but after two different posts mocking his OF defense. He was pressed into his OF role with just a few days left of spring training. It’s no surprise that he looked so bad out there, especially in opening week, he’d been taking reps for less than a week. SSS, but he looked much more comfortable in the OF last year and UZR bears that out. On a much more related note, I had a similar wtf reaction when I heard that the cards had picked up the puma. Good for him that he’s proven almost everybody wrong

Terencemember
11 years ago
Reply to  Wavaw

“Good for him that he’s proven almost everybody wrong.” ??? Proven everyone wrong? Lance Berkman did something this offseason that he’s never done before: work out hard and prepare for the season. The Astros and the city of Houston loved Berkman well, supported him, and most importantly paid him. Once they couldn’t possibly justify paying him anymore he went out and learned some work ethic and then signed with in-division rivals. What about that makes Lance Berkman look good?

Chair
11 years ago
Reply to  Terence

Oh…poor Astro fan is bitter.

joser
11 years ago
Reply to  Terence

Leave him be. For an Astros fan, bitterness is all he has.

Chair
11 years ago
Reply to  Terence

But seriously dude, It is pathetic that you are dissing a player that gave your team so many years of amazing production. He left because the team is rebuilding and had no chance of contention, he is performing better perhaps due to better health, not because he is trying for the first time in his career, that makes zero sense. He wanted to stay close to home, he wanted to stay in a familiar division, and he wanted to be on a contender, so he chose the Cardinals. Because the Astros had no chance at the post season, him being on a division rival should not matter.

Be happy for him.

Seattleite
11 years ago
Reply to  Terence

…. Yeah. Exactly what Chair said. And, uh, didn’t the Asstros (you see what I did there?) trade him away? It’s not like they made him a competitive offer to rejoin the suckiness (caveat: at least not that I know of).

Carlos Baerga
11 years ago
Reply to  Terence

For the record in response to Chair, he didn’t exactly leave because the team is rebuilding and had no chance at contention. He waived his no-trade clause so Houston could acquire some players in exchange for his services elsewhere in 2010 while he had the intention of returning to Houston in 2011. The Astros let him believe that they would be interested in bringing him back when in fact that ship had sailed for Ed Wade. He had no intention of resigning him, eventhough Berkman’s first choice was to return.

CJ
11 years ago
Reply to  Terence

I am an Astros fan with a different view. I don’t think that Berkman’s offensive performance is due to an improved “work ethic.” It’s true that he embarked on an off-season conditioning program, but that was so he could play the outfield. Berkman was injured last year. Even after he came back from knee surgery, his swing was negatively affected. His offensive improvement was predictable because sufficient time elapsed after the knee surgery and he made corrections in his swing to get rid of bad habits caused by his weakened knee.

Terencemember
11 years ago
Reply to  Terence

Let me be honest, Bitterness is all I have because I am an Astros fan. I would love to be happy for Lance Berkman and go and celebrate him every time he comes to town and thank him for 12 good years. But then I read articles like this one, that talk about how previous to this offseason, Berkman has NEVER worked 1-on-1 with an athletic trainer, and NEVER been on a diet. http://www.stltoday.com/sports/baseball/professional/article_21dd4195-2a5a-526b-a659-f9c9efe3c9c5.html

The Astros didn’t trade Lance Berkman because they wanted to get rid of an Icon and let him go win championships for an in division rival. The Astros didn’t want to rebuild. But they had no choice. At the point where they traded him last season he was hitting .245/.370/.430 (and when I say traded the Astros payed a lot of money for the Yankees to take him and give us a middle reliever). Those numbers all represent career lows for Berkman disregarding his 34 game cup of coffee as a rookie. By dealing Berkman the Astros saved both sides the embaressment of not picking his option for this season. That number is double what the Cardinals are paying him this season.

If Berkman had done last offseason what he did this offseason, He would still be an Astro and would probably be signing an extension right now to remain an Astro for life. He was the team leader, well paid, well respected, and he didn’t think he needed to work out or follow a diet. So I ask again, what about this situation makes Lance Berkman look like a professional? Give me one reason to appreciate his effort.

B N
11 years ago
Reply to  Terence

“Berkman has NEVER worked 1-on-1 with an athletic trainer, and NEVER been on a diet.”

No offense, but whatever he was doing over his tenure with the Astros worked REALLY well. His worst full season still rang in at 3.5 WAR, and he was typically over 6 WAR. His worst batting performance was 130 wRC+ (Hint: That’s really good). It’s quite possible that he needed to diet and work with a trainer as the RESULT of his injuries. I see no evidence that says that because he worked with one that he somehow magically “wouldn’t get injured.” Nobody can say that, because we all know it’s not true. Guys get injured.

Berkman was old and he got injured, with worse performance as a result. It happens. Despite being injured, did he say he had to spend 2010 on the DL? Nope, he went out and played. Could he have gotten a worse injury as a result, and been unable to sign a contract worth millions of dollars as a result? Yep. Sure could. JD Drew wouldn’t play under those conditions, let me tell you. Bet you A-Rod wouldn’t either. Berkman played hurt.

Did he use his no-trade clause so he could spend more time with his family? Nope, he let the Astros trade him for part of a season- which I bet was pretty darn inconvenient. How would you like to get transferred from your job to somewhere else for half a year? What if you got no extra pay for it? What if you could reject getting transferred, with literally ZERO consequences for yourself? I bet you’d reject it. Berkman allowed the Astros to ship him out. If you want to finger point at someone, point your finger are Carlos Lee- who has openly said he’ll reject any trade.

I literally cannot fathom why someone would throw Berkman under the bus. The dude played hurt, he allowed a trade that offered him very little personal benefit, and he smashed the ball every year he was on the squad. Heck, even injured he was the best or second best hitter on the squad. What more do you want from a 34 year old first baseman?

B N
11 years ago
Reply to  Terence

Additionally, I love your misrepresentation of his slash line with the Astros last year: .245/.370/.430

That is actually a quite respectable slash line. He had a wOBA of 356 and his BABIP was only .279. Heck, any player with an OBP of 0.370 that slugs over 0.400 is nothing to scoff at. If you regress that BABIP to around 0.300 (his later career norms), you’re talking a guy with a wOBA in the 0.360’s.

That is on par with guys like Tex (.367), Ryan Howard (.367), and Billy Butler (.372) It’s better than pretty much anybody than the elite 1B players in the league.

So… basically you’re complaining that because of an injury and age, he played slightly worse than some of the best 1B-men in the league while he was with the Astros in 2010? Boo-f-in-hoo. Get over it.

Adios Pelota
11 years ago
Reply to  Wavaw

well, he’s proven almost everyone wrong for 3 weeks anway…yeehaw…