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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