Lance Berkman: A Cheaper Josh Hamilton?

After watching Josh Hamilton sign with their division rival, the Rangers made a move this weekend to replace his bat in their line-up, signing Lance Berkman to take over as their DH for 2013. Much is being made of the fact that Berkman got $11 million after spending basically the entire 2012 season on the disabled list, but Major League teams have begun to make the correct shift towards paying for future production rather than past performance. That Berkman was injured for essentially all of 2012 only matters to the extent that it informs our understanding of his likely health and performance in 2013, and the reality is that projecting future playing time is still something of a black box.

Healthy guys get hurt. Injury prone guys stay healthy. Some guys are more likely to end up on the DL than others, but there’s still an awful lot of randomness in playing time distributions. It is much easier to project a player’s performance than it is to project his health, and Berkman hasn’t yet established a track record of injuries that should make us view him like we do Travis Hafner. At 37, we shouldn’t expect Berkman to be an everyday player, but as a DH with big platoon splits, he doesn’t need to be. He plays the easiest position on the field to run a platoon at, and with the Rangers depth, they can afford to have Berkman spend a few weeks on the sidelines if the aches and pains start to add up. For their roster, performance is more important than durability.

And if we just look at expected performance for 2013, there’s a decent chance that Berkman will put up offensive numbers that are not too different from what Hamilton would have produced.

If you didn’t already see them, the Angels ZIPS projections were released this morning, and ZIPS is not a very big fan of Josh Hamilton. The system expects Hamilton’s plate discipline to remain steady, but his power to take a large step backwards, dropping his wOBA down to .335, or just two points ahead of where it projects Mark Trumbo next year. Because of park effects, that’s still about 25% better than a league average hitter in Anaheim, but it’s a real step backwards from what he did last year.

In fact, even with Berkman’s aging, a 125 wRC+ isn’t at all that unlikely given his overall skills. Over the last three years, he’s posted a 139 mark, and he was at 125 last year even in limited playing time. Berkman’s secondary skills dwarf Hamilton’s, and moving to Texas isn’t a bad idea for a guy whose power isn’t what it used to be. Especially if he’s platooned and spends most of his time hitting against right-handers, Berkman could easily outpace Hamilton’s offensive levels on a per at-bat basis.

And, of course, it’s not like you’re getting a lot of extra health certainty with Hamilton as opposed to Berkman. He was healthier last year, but his injury track record is longer than Berkman’s, and the best we can say is that both are likely to play less than a full season in 2013. If there’s a big expected difference in playing time, it probably has more to do with Berkman being a potential platoon guy than huge differences in durability.

So, what does the extra $114 million get the Angels with Hamilton that the Rangers are punting with Berkman? Defense, basically. Berkman is likely to be a DH who might occasionally play first base during interleague match-ups, while Hamilton is likely to be an above average defender in right field. There’s no question that makes Hamilton the better player, and certainly worth more in salary. I’m not suggesting that Berkman and Hamilton are equally valuable, or that Hamilton and Berkman should have signed the same contracts this winter.

However, I am suggesting that perhaps the overall net effect of the moves on the Rangers and Angels won’t be as big as they might appear on the surface. For one, Hamilton’s defensive value was a bit limited to the Rangers, in that keeping him in the outfield would have likely forced a decent defender (say, Nelson Cruz) to occupy the DH spot, creating some inefficiencies for the team overall. The Rangers just don’t have any classic DH types on their roster, so retaining Hamilton would have led to them playing a decent bat/decent glove guy at a position where the decent glove would have been mostly wasted.

The combination of Berkman’s bat and Cruz’s glove in right field is not so dissimilar to the total contribution one could have expected from having Hamilton’s bat and glove in right field with Cruz serving as the DH. And, as a bonus, going this direction still allows the Rangers to swing a trade for Justin Upton at some point if they can find a match with Arizona, and an Upton/Berkman combination is almost certainly an improvement over a Hamilton/Cruz duo.

While Berkman isn’t as good of a player as Hamilton, I think the overall impact of having one or the other on the Rangers roster isn’t too dramatically different. By going this direction, the Rangers have replaced a decent chunk of Hamilton’s value without absorbing the long term risks of matching the five year deal he got from Anaheim, and they’ve given themselves the option to still acquire a right field upgrade should the opportunity present itself.

$11 million might seem like a lot for a guy coming off a lost season, but Berkman is still a good hitter, and the Rangers needed a good hitter from the left side of the plate. Like with Edwin Jackson, this kind of contract might be surprising in light of what previous markets for his services have brought him, but that speaks more to the fact that he was undervalued in previous winters. Berkman is an injury risk, but everyone is an injury risk, and Berkman’s performances justify this kind of price tag.




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Dave is a co-founder of USSMariner.com and contributes to the Wall Street Journal.


43 Responses to “Lance Berkman: A Cheaper Josh Hamilton?”

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  1. Well-Beered Englishman says:

    Great article, and the bargain Berkman represents is pretty remarkable to my mind, but it must be said: Nelson Cruz’s right field defense is one of the primary reasons he does not wear a World Series ring.

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  2. Mike Schneider says:

    While I have no issues with the Berkman and Hamilton analysis, I do have to take issue with calling Nelson Cruz a decent defender. Nelson definitely has a strong and somewhat accurate arm but beyond that he is practically a butcher in right field. He was never a really good defender and his defense seems to have digressed over the past couple of years.

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  3. chuckb says:

    I tend to agree here but, of course, the real wild card is how much Berkman will play. He’s been breaking down for the last few years and, while it was a surprise how little he played last year, it was probably equally surprising how much he played in 2011. Over the last 2 years, he has 684 PAs, averaging 342 each season. That’s probably the right number of PAs to expect for him this year.

    But when he plays, he’s likely to be very good. A pretty solid signing, IMO, though I’d have thought he’d have gotten closer to $7 – $8 million rather than $11. Still, he’s probably a 2 win or so DH this season so $11 M is probably close to the right number.

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  4. TX Ball Scout says:

    Cruz is a decent outfielder.

    Strong coming in on the ball. Weak going back. Plus arm.

    One play will haunt him (and fan perspective) forever.

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    • Phantom Stranger says:

      He was a decent outfielder, “was” being the key word. He still has a strong arm, but his proper role on a winning team now is DH. And he did cost the Rangers a World Series with that horrible miss-play.

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  5. Joel says:

    While I’d like the guaranteed salary to be more 5-7 mil than 10, I like this signing as a Rangers fan because of the reasons you illustrated above. This lets the team get Olt some time at AAA next year, which he probably needs. A good couple months at AAA gets Olt’s value higher than ever. Another part of the signing I like – Berkman is the kind of patient, high OBP, power hitter the Rangers really haven’t ever had. Maybe his approach rubs off a bit on hyper aggressive hitters like Cruz and Beltre (another perpetrator of that aggressive approach, Young, has already been shipped out).

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  6. The place I think ZiPS is getting wrong on Hamilton is the BABIP. He is hovering around .320 for the last two seasons and his career BABIP is .335. I think he is actually due for a bounce back somewhere closer to his mean. Either way, it doesn’t seem all that likely he ends up with a .303 BABIP.

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    • ben_cartmell says:

      agreed that a .303 BABIP is too low to project on hamilton, but his .335 career mark is buoyed significantly by his .390 season – which looks very much like an outlier at this point. i think .320 is fair, and might even be a touch high.

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  7. Andy says:

    Good read. I’m liking this Berkman signing, but not loving it. Yet. But I do like it substantially more than I would have liked the Rangers paying $125m+ to Josh.

    Also, Cruz is at best an average defender but, if the last couple years are any indication, he’s declining, and not slowly. He’ll almost certainly be the worst defender on the Rangers, who otherwise will probably have a pretty solid defense.

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  8. Murphy3 says:

    What I like is that you’re replacing an undisciplined hitter with a guy that can contribute even when he’s not racking up hits. Plus, the young kids on the Rangers team (Profar, Olt, and Martin) all have shown the ability to work the count. As a Rangers fan, it’s something that we haven’t always seen alot of.. I’m looking forward to seeing more of it.

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  9. CircleChange11 says:

    This is where a “WAR/650″ type stat would be useful to compare talent.

    How valuable either of these two guys are depends on how much they play (obviously). That goes for everyone in the league, but it’s discussed more with these two guys because of the games missed over the last 4 seasons.

    Berkman is definitely cheaper than Hamilton, but that doesn’t make him a cheaper Hamilton.

    I like Berkman, and despite his age, he can carry the club for shortish periods of time. He can no longer do it for full seasons, but can do it enough to remind of you of what a tremendous player he has been.

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  10. Robbie G. says:

    The issue I have with this standard Fangraphs analysis of a player’s projected value and whether or not he will truly earn the money that has been paid to him is that it somewhat ignores the actual market itself. More specifically, it assumes that there was at least one other team out there willing to pay a 37-year-old coming off of a season lost to injury, and who was not especially impressive as recently as 2010, about as much as what Texas has agreed to pay him. I have kind of a tough time believing that there was a very strong market for Mr. Berkman. In other words, I have kind of a tough time believing that Texas would not have been able to secure his services for 2013 at closer to $4-$6 mil, rather than $10-$11 mil. Therefore, it appears to me that this is an overpay, not because he won’t earn his keep (if relatively healthy, he probably will), but because of the simple reason that Texas seemingly paid more than what the market had determined he was worth. Although I suppose the counterargument here is that Texas is behaving rationally and HAS paid him what was necessary in order to secure his services, i.e., that there WAS at least one other team willing to pay Berkman at or near what Texas has agreed to pay him. I’m skeptical, though.

    Regarding Mike Olt: It appears to me that the likely plan in Texas is to keep Olt in AAA and ultimately trade him prior to the July trade deadline for whatever Texas decides it needs, most likely a starting pitcher, maybe an outfielder.

    Regardless, the Rangers front office does an awfully good job, and I like their chances of exceeding expectations and making the playoffs once again in 2013. I don’t think they’re going to regret allowing other teams to hand out massive contracts to the likes of Zack Greinke and Josh Hamilton.

    Question: Will both AL wild card teams come from the AL West this season? My guess is that it has been a long time since there wasn’t at least one AL East wild card team.

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    • wobatus says:

      I don’t think it was a question of whether there was another team willing to pay Berkman, say, $10.5 million and Texas won the bidding by paying $11. It was more a question of whether Berkman was willing to pay at all for less than “fair value.” He’s earned his millions. He wasn’t going to play for $5 million and go through the effort of rehabbing the knee at his age to get paid less than he was likely worth. If no one else was willing to pony up, the Rangers still had to pay otherwise he wasn’t signing anywhere.

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    • El Vigilante says:

      The market value for Berkman is what the Rangers signed him for. Why do you have any reason to believe otherwise?

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      • Choo says:

        First and foremost, the market value for for Berkman is what Robbie G assumes is true. If Robbie G has a tough time believing $11 mil is market value and that I don’t have enough deli ham in my fridge for a sandwich, then Berkman is an overpay and I am having PB&J. Why argue with Robbie G?

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      • BJsWorld says:

        Isn’t there a real difference between market value and what some idiot team pays someone? By your definition, every signing is at market value.

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      • TanPadreFan says:

        “Everything is worth what its purchaser will pay for it.” – Publilius Syrus

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      • wobatus says:

        BJs, I do think there come a time when a team has overpaid, obviously, like with the Vernon Wells contract, perhaps. I’m not talking about with hindsight. In hindsight lots of deals end up being overpays, of course.

        In this case, though, i don’t think this isn’t a “market value” deal simply because the Rangers may not have had someone else biding against them. You have a willing buyer and a seller. It may simply be a market of one buyer (I don’t know), but I think Dave’s analysis is right. It doesn’t seem like an overpay based on the replacement cost of the expected production. But certainly, i think you are right. if they paid him $20 million for one year, I don’t think I’d call that “market value”.

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      • mike says:

        Unfortunately absent in this discussion of the Rangers’ accurate appraisal is any dsicussion of the opportunity cost of oberpaying him. Even in the worst case scenario that Berkman doesn’t play a single game this year, it’s not like there are any purchases left to make.
        What the Rangers have done here fits in nicely with their MO for the last few years: low risk/high reward investing. Best case is that Berkman repeats 2011, in which case it’s a steal. Worst case is he doesn’t play, in which case those 10 million probably weren’t going to better use anyway.
        More than likely, he’ll draw walks and add some much-needed power to the line-up.

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    • pdowdy83 says:

      This actually does seem to be market value. David Ortiz signed a 2 year $26 million contract coming of a solid DH season a one year $11 million deal for Berkman doesn’t sound that outrageous comparatively. At this stage Berkman is a step below Ortiz probably which sums up the difference in contract length and Ortiz got more per season as well.

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      • Rufus T. Firefly says:

        Plus, it’s a one year deal. Berkman likely wanted more for signing a 1 yr deal than for each yr of a 2 yr deal, eh?

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      • YanksFanInBeantown says:

        Ortiz played 3 times as many games as Berkman last season and his wRC+ is 40 points higher. I don’t see how Ortiz is a valid comp at all to Berkman.

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    • CheeseWhiz says:

      As a Mariner’s fan I’d have been pleased to get Berkman on a one year deal at that price to DH. I don’t see why it’s so outrageous.

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  11. akalhar says:

    I do think $11 million might have been a small overpay, but it is better than greatly overpaying a guy over 5-6 years.

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  12. pft says:

    The key to the deal is does Berkman come to camp in shape like he did in 2011, or does he come to camp looking like the pillbury dough boy like in 2010. The fact he was not sure he wanted to play this year suggests the latter.

    But if Berkman is healthy and in shape its a nice short term move for the Rangers at DH. I think Berkman is more of a replacement for Napoli than Hamilton though.

    I don’t think you can accurately measure the importance of Hamilton without considering his impact on the lineup as pitchers tried to pitch around him.
    He is also a good defender and good baserunner. Health of course is always the question with Hamilton.

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  13. Gleb says:

    “And if we just look at expected performance for 2013, there’s a decent chance that Berkman will put up offensive numbers that are not too different from what Hamilton would have produced.”

    Funny joke. Good luck with that one..

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  14. Gleb says:

    “For one, Hamilton’s defensive value was a bit limited to the Rangers, in that keeping him in the outfield would have likely forced a decent defender (say, Nelson Cruz)”

    Decent defender…? Cruz?
    Facepalm*

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  15. YanksFanInBeantown says:

    It’s great that you wave aside the fact that Berkman will have significantly less PA than Hamilton because it will be due to platooning. The fact that Hamilton isn’t a platoon player is part of what makes him much more valuable than Berkman.

    It’s definitely better for the Rangers to pay Berkman $11 million this year than to pay Hamilton $125 million over the next five, but claiming that it won’t significantly hurt them in the short run is just fishing for page views.

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  16. snoop LION says:

    Really, its a solid sign. I don’t see how you could really argue against that fact rationally. I see this panning out like the Vlad siginging and I bet the Puma dominates this year.

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  17. Baltar says:

    I don’t see anything to praise here–a slight overpay for a decent DH.

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  18. sneakyflute says:

    i love that people are completely ignoring the fact that the angels are paying 25 million a year for a 4-WAR player. there is absolutely no way hamilton comes close to his 2010 numbers. berkman could potentially outhit him at half the cost.

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    • Although if you set his anomalous defense to league average, you get about 5.7 WAR. I highly doubt his UZR will be that bad in 2013. ZiPS is giving him 5 runs above average. That would be about 6.3 WAR last year.

      ZiPS is also extremely conservative with his BABIP giving him a BABIP not very close to any year he’s ever had. If we just do some basic average of his above average runs from batting, we get 23.6 runs weighted for a 525 PA season, which is his average. That decrease would bring him back to 5.4 WAR.

      Your estimate of 4 just seems a little low in the range of possibilities. He doesn’t have to return to his 2010 form to be worth his contract, but that doesn’t mean you can just put him at the other extreme end of his bell curve.

      Even then, team WAR-dollar valuation is really more about margins then it is about addition and linear ratios. If they win enough, they may go to the playoffs and make a whole bunch more money. Win just a little bit less and miss the playoffs and they may see a decrease in revenues.

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  19. Randy says:

    Berkman is a consumate pro. He will not only provide quality ABs, but will be a veteran leader in the clubhouse. He kept Pujols and Holliday loose with the Cards and was a steadying influence on players such as Freese and A. Craig. The Rangers lost a lot in the unpredicatable Hamilton, but gained valuable leadership in Berkman.

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