When St. Louis signed Lance Berkman this offseason, it raised a lot of questions:
“Don’t the Cardinals still have Pujols?”
“Wait, he’s going to play outfield?”
“Can he even hit anymore?”
Through the first two weeks of the season, the Cardinals’ gamble on the man called “The Big Puma” is paying off.
Through 14 games, Berkman is hitting .308/.368/.692. He leads the team with six home runs and 13 RBIs. Thus far, he looks more like the perennial All-Star from his Houston days than the over-the-hill slugger who posted a .314 wOBA with the Yankees last season.
Berkman, a switch-hitter, has always been better against right-handers, but his splits have been trending farther apart over the last several years.
Given, the 2011 datapoints are based on 14 games, but Berkman has shown no evidence that the gap between his splits is going to narrow this season. At this point in the 35-year-old’s career, his ability to hit lefties is basically gone.
Against righties, Berkman is having a fantastic start to the season, posting a .506 wOBA. This level of production is completely unsustainable, as his .385 ISO is more than 100 points higher than his career average. Still, it suggests that Berkman can still be a productive hitter as long as his exposure to left-handers is limited.
As a pure hitter, Berkman was a fairly low-risk signing. What really made him a gamble for St. Louis is that they needed him to play outfield. Berkman had not played even one game in the outfield since 2007, a year where he logged a -8.0 UZR in only 32 games.
From a completely qualitative standpoint, Berkman has looked very Berkmanesque so far in right field. His range is very limited, but he has not looked completely lost such as, say, Aubrey Huff.
Although the season is very young, the new weekly-updating UZR statistics show that Berkman has a -0.6 UZR so far in 2011, on pace for -12.3 UZR/150. At that pace, he will probably be one of the worst everyday fielders in the league, but probably won’t be the worst.
The other big concern about moving Berkman to the outfield is durability. Over the course of a full season, it remains to be seen how the veteran — who has battled injury issues in his career — will handle the physical demands of playing the outfield. This can only truly be answered as the year plays out.
The Cardinals have been been strategically resting Berkman, giving Allen Craig starts against lefties Barry Zito on April 10th and Clayton Kershaw on April 16th. This plan is the best way to get the most out of Berkman this year. He needs plenty of days off to make sure he’s not over-taxed in the outfield, and he does not contribute much against left-handers anyway, so it stands to reason that he rides the pine nearly every time the Cards face a lefty.
He’s got a long season ahead of him, but it looks like Fat Elvis is not ready to leave the building quite yet. He will fall far short of his 60 home run pace, but as long as he keeps smashing righties, he gives St. Louis a valuable threat to hit behind Colby Rasmus, Pujols and Matt Holiday.