Lance Berkman is off to a monster start to the 2011 season, hitting .406/.467/.781 for the Cardinals. He’s one of only a handful of players to already accumulate +2 WAR for the year, and he’s nearly matched his 2010 total in that regard. Whatever stories were getting written about his demise last year have been put on hold indefinitely, as Berkman is showing that he’s not even close to washed up at age 35.
In looking at his career batting line, I began to realize that Berkman has some Hall-Of-Fame marks in the rate statistics. His .297/.410/.549 mark over the last decade is good for a 146 wRC+, the same level of offensive performance that Mike Schmidt had over his career. Other players in that same mid-140s wRC+ range include Willie Stargell, Willie McCovey, Chipper Jones, Jim Thome, Eddie Matthews, and Ralph Kiner- lots of Hall-Of-Fame names in that area.
But guys generally don’t get into Cooperstown on rate statistics; they get in on counting numbers: 3,000 hits, 500 home runs, 300 wins – these have been the markers that voters have used to identify players who have been great for long periods of time. Berkman isn’t going to get to any of those numbers, as he has only 1,714 hits and 336 home runs. If he hangs around long enough, he might get to 400 home runs, but given the glut of sluggers who are coming up for consideration, that number doesn’t seem all that impressive anymore.
The reason why Berkman’s counting numbers are a bit unimpressive is because he didn’t get a real call to the Majors until he was 24 and didn’t become an everyday player until he was 25, so his career to date has basically only amounted to 11 seasons and change. For six of those seasons, he absolutely played like a Hall-Of-Famer, putting up 6+ WAR in each year between 2001-2004, then again in 2006 and 2008. He was a good solid player in 2005, 2007, and 2009, and then had a couple of average years in 2000 and 2010. Obviously, 2011 is off to a good start, but we’ll have to see whether he can put up a full elite season while also playing the outfield. Even if he does, though, that will still only give him seven Cooperstown quality seasons, and the baseball writers have spent the last couple of years rejecting a candidate with a similar resume.
In terms of rate stats, Berkman and Edgar Martinez are pretty darn similar. Martinez also had a delayed start to his career, so his counting numbers aren’t what many voters are looking for, but his 148 wRC+ is actually a tick better than Berkman’s career mark. Martinez played until he was 41, so he has 1,600 more plate appearances in his career than Berkman does, but it’s reasonable to think that Berkman could play another two years after this one and end his career with similar career longevity.
If Berkman does hold on for several more seasons and generates another 400 hits or so, his final career numbers will be awfully similar to that of Edgar’s. So, then, the question will simply come down to whether voters really are keeping Martinez out of the hall because of the DH stigma, or if it’s a length of sustained greatness issue.
We’ve seen voters raise the issue of length of peak with Martinez, and Berkman is going to have the same problem. Martinez also only had six seasons with 6+ WAR, but he had another four seasons between 4-6 WAR, while Berkman doesn’t have any as of yet. The WARGraph shows the drop really well, and the lack of high quality non-peak seasons is probably going to be an issue for Berkman.
Berkman, however, is not going to have to deal with the voters who believe the DH is not a position, or that it should require some insanely great numbers in order to put a DH in the Hall. If Berkman ends up with similar career offensive numbers, but he can also point to a career in the field that included some legitimate defensive value at first base, he’s going to look like a better candidate to a good number of voters.
Around 60+ WAR seems to be where most of the bubble candidates for Cooperstown reside, and at +58.2 through this point of his career, Berkman looks to be headed right for that gray area. His rate stats will be Hall-Of-Fame worthy, but his counting stats will be deemed less impressive. Will he get into Cooperstown when all is said and done?
You tell me.