Lance Berkman: Hall of Famer?

When Lance Berkman had to be helped off the field on Saturday, he feared his knee issue was serious. Today’s MRI will give an official confirmation, but early word is that he’s suffered a torn ACL and is done for the season. His comments about that possibility yesterday indicated that this might be a career ending injury for Berkman:

“If I’ve re-torn my ACL or something like that, I’d certainly get it fixed but you don’t know how psychologically you’re going to come back from something like that,” Berkman said. “I’m not talking from the standpoint of being scared of hurting it again. I’m talking about doing everything it takes to come back and play again at an elite level. I think that’s a legitimate question I’m going to have to answer if, in fact, it turns out to be something more serious than we hope that it is.

If this really is the end for Berkman, then the next question about his career becomes whether or not he accomplished enough to be worthy of induction into the Baseball Hall of Fame.

There are 25 players enshrined in Cooperstown that have a listed position of first base on the Hall’s official website, and while Berkman split his time between 1B and the outfield, he was never a defensive wizard and will likely be compared with others who accumulated their value at the plate.

The last player to be inducted (rather than elected by the Negro League’s committee) was Eddie Murray back in 2003. Despite the proliferation of quality hitters at the position, the voters haven’t looked too kindly on most modern day first baseman, keeping out Rafael Palmeiro and Mark McGwire due to their ties to performance enhancing drugs and keeping out Jeff Bagwell because they think that he might have used despite a lack of evidence, which is an embarrassment to the HOF and especially the voters who have kept him out.

However, Berkman is unlikely to face the same hurdles that those three have encountered, as he’s never been linked to PEDs, and he doesn’t have Bagwell’s physique or career arc. Hopefully, Berkman will be evaluated on the merits of what he did on the field, and not some guilty-until-proven-innocent self-righteous witch hunt. So, if Berkman’s numbers are assumed to be “clean”, are they enough to get him in?

He’s not getting in on counting stats, that’s for sure. With just 7,472 plate appearances, Berkman’s career simply hasn’t been long enough to accumulate the big round numbers that often get you HOF consideration. He has just 1,836 hits, 359 home runs, 1,115 runs scored, and 1,197 RBIs, so for voters who make their decision based on those career counting, Berkman’s going to look more like Tino Martinez or Derrek Lee than a guy who belongs in Cooperstown. Berkman just doesn’t have the career totals to sway that voting bloc, so his only chance at getting the necessary votes is to show that he was as dominant in his time as other short career guys who got elected.

And despite flying under the radar for a significant portion of his career, Berkman was a dominant force during his time. Among first baseman with at least 7,000 career plate appearances, Berkman’s 146 wRC+ ranks 11th all-time, just behind Bagwell’s 149, just ahead of guys like Willie McCovey and Willie Stargell. Unfortunately for his chances, a large chunk of his value came from drawing walks and hitting doubles, both under-appreciated skills in HOF voting. But, as the voting populations gets smarter, the value of walks and doubles should increase, and in five or six years, Berkman’s offensive contributions may be seen in a more positive light. A 146 wRC+ over 7,500 plate appearances is at least worthy of consideration.

However, that’s essentially the same argument that people have been making in favor of Edgar Martinez, and he’s stalled out between 30-40 percent of the vote in his first three chances at induction. Martinez and Berkman were actually very similar hitters (.312/.418/.515 for Edgar, .296/.409/.546 for Berkman) and have similar arguments for induction – Berkman will get credit for playing the field that Martinez did not, but he’s also 1,200 plate appearances shy of his Edgar’s total, so his offensive line essentially includes two fewer seasons worth of value. Berkman may pick up some of the voters who are leaving Edgar out because they don’t like the DH, but he’ll likely lose some who see the playing time difference as being too large to put Berkman in before Edgar.

Berkman is something of a classic bubble candidate. His career lines up very well with Orlando Cepeda, who got inducted, and he’s better than the low-hanging fruit of guys who shouldn’t have gotten in (insert Jim Rice comment here), but there are also quite a few guys with better career numbers still on the outside looking in. The 60-70 career WAR range holds a number of players who have garnered support, but also includes a lot of players who have had enough warts on their resume to end up sticking around on the ballot but never actually getting inducted.

For a voter mostly concerned about how good a player was in his prime, Berkman is a legitimate candidate. From age 25-34, he accumulated +52.0 WAR, a mark only matched by 16 other first baseman in baseball history. He had a 10 year stretch where he played at a HOF level, then added one more fantastic year at age 36. However, this knee injury is likely going to prevent him from getting to numbers like 400 home runs or 2,000 hits, so he’d have to get overwhelming support from the voters willing to elect short career guys.

Given his numbers and his peers, my guess is that Berkman ends up with guys like Martinez and Todd Helton – hitters who specialized in the wrong skills. Had he stayed healthy and put together a couple more strong seasons, Berkman would have been a really solid candidate for induction. If this is really it for him, however, he probably doesn’t have the numbers to get in.



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Dave is the Managing Editor of FanGraphs.


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