Remembering Lance Berkman’s Biggest Hits

Lance Berkman announced his retirement last week. While a week may seem like an eternity in the world of baseball blogs (especially during the seemingly endless off-season), a player of Berkman’s stature cannot be allowed to slip quietly into the night. If for no other reason, Berkman would deserve recognition on the basis of not one, but two of the best nicknames (judged on originality and appropriateness to the subject) in contemporary baseball in “Big Puma” and “Fat Elvis.” But he was also, as one would hope FanGraphs readers know, a tremendous player. As we so often do, let’s look back on some of Lance Berkman’s biggest hits from the perspective on their impact on individual games.

Berkman played with a number of obvious “should be” Hall of Famers in Houston like Jeff Bagwell, Craig Biggio, and later, Roger Clemens. Berkman’s star shines less brightly in comparison, but he does have a reasonable Hall of Fame case. Without getting into specifics, I am not sure whether I would vote for him (leaving aside the issue of the current ballot mess), but I would have to consider it, and would not be angry if he got in to the Hall.

Berkman was one of the best switch-hitters in major league history. His career regular-season wRC+ (144) was better than a player some think is a Hall of Famer in David Ortiz‘s (138). Berkman’s wRC+ (150 to 148) is also better than Big Papi’s. His peak as a hitter was about as good and perhaps better that that of Ortiz, and though that alone does not qualify either for the Hall), Berkman contributed on defense, as well. Berkman may not have been brilliant in the field, but in his prime he wasn’t terrible. Due mostly to Bagwell’s presence early on, Berkman actually played over 8000 innings in the outfield, and his 955 innings in center field during the 2002 season were amazing on a number of levels (including comedic).

Hall of Fame debates are fun, but that is not the point of this post. Let’s move on to some of Berkman’s greatest hits according to Win Probability Added (WPA). Instead of a straight ranking I HAVE CHOSEN A CERTAIN NUMBER

In 2010, neither the Astros nor Nationals covered themselves in glory. On June 1, though, they had a tremendous seesaw match. The Astros got out to a 4-0 lead after three innings, but in the fifth the Nationals put together four runs on a combination of singles, walks, an error, and a sacrifice. The Astros pulled head again to make the score 6-4, but the Nationals came back and took the lead in the top of the ninth inning. Down 7-6 in the bottom of the ninth, the Astros were facing Nationals closer Matt Capps. Houston loaded the bases after Ryan Zimmerman committed an error that let Pedro Feliz on a Kevin Cash sacrifice, a Cory Sullivan double, and an intentional walk of Michael Bourn. After getting Jeff Keppinger to ground out, the bases were loaded with two outs. Capps had two strikes on Berkman, and seemingly got him to go for strike three, but it was called a check swing. Berkman then singled in two runs for the 8-7 Astros win and .743 WPA, his biggest hit ever according to WPA.


In 2006, the Astros came off their run to the 2005 World Series with a mediocre 82-80 season that should have indicated a need to think about rebuilding. It was not to be, and, well, you know the rest — they tried to hang around, made some bad free agent decisions, let their farm system decline, and slid into oblivion. Lance Berkman was having one of his best seasons, though, and finished with an impressive .315/.420/.621 (158 wRC+) line, including a career-high 45 home runs. This season also saw him hit his biggest home run according to WPA on September 21 versus his future employers, the Cardinals.

The game did feature two excellent starters in Chris Carpenter and Andy Pettitte, although neither exactly blew opposing hitters away. Pettitte lasted just five innings and gave up five runs. Carpenter did pitch all eight innings the Astros came to the plate, but was not exactly unhittable. The Cardinals went up 3-0, but in the fourth inning Berkman hit a two-run homer (according to Elias, it was the sixth season in a row Berkman had homered on September 21). Berkman was not done yet. The Cardinals kept scoring, but the Astros managed to keep it close. In the bottom of the eighth with the score 5-4 Cardinals, Carpenter faced Berkman with two outs and a runner on second. Berkman hit one into the Astros’ bullpen to give them the winning run and .582 WPA.


Berkman played in two World Series, once with the Astros in 2005 when they lost to the White Sox, and once in 2011 with the Cardinals. His biggest playoff hit according to WPA actually happened in his last great season, his 2011 with the Cardinals. After a mediocre 2010 during which the Astros (finally) traded him to New York, Berkman signed with the Cardinals, and, incredibly given his age, he moved back the outfield since the Cardinals had some guy named Pujols playing first. Berkman did not exactly make anyone forget Clemente out there, but since he managed to have one of his best seasons ever at the plate (.301/.412/.547, 163 wRC+), people understandably did not care. Berkman delivered in the playoffs, as well.

There have been a number of exciting World Series games in the last few years, and Game Six of 2011 the World Series between the Cardinals and Rangers is up there with the best of them. It was a back-and-forth affair and tied at 4-4 until the seventh, when Adrian Beltre and Nelson Cruz hit back-to-back home runs off of Lance Lynn to start the inning. Ian Kinsler drove in another run later that same inning to make the score 7-4 Rangers. The Cardinals clawed their way back, and David Freese tripled in Pujols and Berkman in the bottom of the ninth to tie the score at 7 and send the game into extra innings. In the top of the tenth, Josh Hamilton hit a two-run homer to put the Rangers up again, 9-7. In the bottom of the inning, the Cardinals got two on against Darren Oliver, who was then pulled for Scott Feldman. Ryan Theriot grounded out to score one run, and Feldman intentionally walked Pujols. Pujols might have been hot, but Berkman was clearly no slouch (he already had a homer during the game), and he delivered, singling in Pujols to tie the game again. The game is rightly remembered for David Freese’s heroics and his game-winning walk off blast in the bottom of the eleventh, but to get there they needed Berkman’s big RBI in the tenth for .468 WPA.




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Matt Klaassen reads and writes obituaries in the Greater Toronto Area. If you can't get enough of him, follow him on Twitter.


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triple_r
Member
2 years 6 months ago

Berkman certainly had a nice career, but a Hall of Famer he is not. His case is similar to Vladimir Guerrero or Todd Helton — very good, just not quite good enough.
Also, I’m confused by the third paragraph. Was Berkman’s wRC+ 144, or 150?

Stanatee the Manatee
Guest
Stanatee the Manatee
2 years 6 months ago

I believe 144 was his regular season wRC+, while 150 was regular season and playoffs. At least, that’s how I read it.

Table
Guest
Table
2 years 6 months ago

I’d put those three in.

KCDaveInLA
Guest
KCDaveInLA
2 years 6 months ago

Each of the three are dragged down by defensive metrics on WAR, but all three retired with more value than Jim Rice. (That will probably always be my lazy Hall of Fame arguement: “Well, if Jim Rice is in, then X should be in, too.”)

A commenter
Guest
A commenter
2 years 6 months ago

Similar Career to Miguel Cabrera up to this point, though Miguel’s been a better hitter overall.

Ian R.
Guest
2 years 6 months ago

Guerrero has 59.9 rWAR and 56.5 fWAR, both of which are right around the Hall of Fame median. JAWS has him as the 20th-best right fielder of all time (technically 21st if you look it up on baseball-reference, but that list counts Stan Musial as a right fielder), which seems pretty low, but that’s because right field has some of the greatest players of all time, and his peak was comparable to Tony Gwynn’s and Dave Winfield’s. He’s also very similar to Ichiro, who will sail in no problem, though to be fair that’s not counting Ichiro’s dominance in Japan.

He’s borderline, but I think Guerrero gets in and deservedly so. Of course, that raises the question of why a slew of comparable right fielders (Dwight Evans, Bobby Bonds and probably Bobby Abreu soon) are left on the outside looking in.

SocraticGadfly
Guest
2 years 6 months ago

Indeed, not even close.

Nash
Guest
Nash
2 years 6 months ago

I guess this one is a ways off numerically (at just .158), but the biggest hit I remember was the three-run homer he hit in the bottom of the 8th in the 2005 NLDS. It pulled the Astros back to within one run in a game that ultimately went to 18 innings. It was overshadowed by Ausmus’ game-tying homer in the bottom of the 9th (.490) and Chris Burke’s game winner in the 18th, but none of that would have happened if Berkman hadn’t brought them back from 6-1 in the 8th.

Dood McBro
Guest
Dood McBro
2 years 6 months ago

This was the one I thought of immediately too (it was a grand slam, btw).

Felt like a huge deal at the time, especially since as an Astros fan, I was used to being on the crushed end post-season losses, not the other way around.

I can’t wait for 2016!

JCCfromDC
Guest
JCCfromDC
2 years 6 months ago

It’s funny that the #1 event in this article is that at bat from 2010, because it’s my #1 memory whenever I hear Berkman’s name, and probably will be until the day I die. Because oh, boy, did he ever swing on that pitch. This picture doesn’t even do it justice:

“Seemingly got him to go.” Horse nostrils. HE WENT!!!

John Elway
Member
2 years 6 months ago

..{SNORT!}…

Justin
Member
Justin
2 years 6 months ago

I’m glad to see the 2011 World Series hits in there. A lot of people forget that Berkman had two big hits to extend the game and, watching the video, both were great hits on tough pitches.

frivoflava29
Member
frivoflava29
2 years 6 months ago

Can I just say, he’s great. Knew how to drive the ball really well. He was my first favorite player. He hit surprisingly few fly balls but carried great plate discipline through both a high walk rate and very high hr/fb ratio. He was an intelligent power hitter in part of the steroid era, didn’t need juice to smash baseballs. I still don’t know about HOF because he was a mediocre baserunner and not a memorable fielder, those statements both may be a tad generous. Lots of respect for him anyway.

Ignatius
Guest
Ignatius
2 years 6 months ago

I remember him blasting the idea of clutch hitters after World Series Game 6 in 2011. He said that no player gets better under pressure. You don’t suddenly improve when the game is on the line. The best “clutch hitters” are the ones who stay calm and remain at their normal level of performance. As a Cardinal fan I always respected him with the Astros, but when I think about Lance Berkman, it’s all about 2011 for me. A great player.

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