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January 30, 2014

Skewed Left

Saying Goodbye to Lance Berkman

by Zachary Levine

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My favorite baseball player informed the world of his retirement yesterday, if I’m allowed to say that sort of thing and keep my BBWAA card. Lance Berkman had all the qualities of a favorite player before I started covering the game, when I was allowed to have a real favorite. He was a personality. He played on really good and interesting teams. He was a saber-appreciated player given his skill set. He hit left-handed. (OK, he nominally switch-hit, but really, he hit left-handed.)

But I didn’t really have favorites when I was just a fan, and so my favorite players were the ones who were fun to talk with as a reporter, and Berkman was absolutely that. I didn’t have the pleasure of covering him for long—I started covering the Astros something resembling full-time in 2010, the year it all started going bad and he was traded to the Yankees. But he was without a doubt the most interesting and outspoken ballplayer—on topics from drugs to the state of his or any other franchise to Bud Selig—I’ve ever dealt with. He had the best grasp of the business of baseball and his role as a player in that business. And the fact that he was pleasant never hurt and won’t hurt when Hall of Fame ballots are due in five years.

The testimonials are all over Twitter from writers, broadcasters, and fans. Mine will be mostly a little different—a testimonial to Lance Berkman’s career through trivia, anecdotes, and musings. An appreciation:

1. He should have been the last link to the Astrodome.
Berkman served a unique role in Astros history. He was the only true link between the primes of Jeff Bagwell and Craig Biggio, whose teams went to six postseasons in nine years from 1997-2005, to the laughingstock of the 2010s.Nobody else in franchise history came close to surviving both this hideousness and this hideousness with continuous service.

He should have been the last link to another piece of Astros history, but because of recent events, he will not be the last active player to have played his home games at the Astrodome, which shut its doors after Berkman’s debut season of 1999.

That honor will belong to a forgotten Houston Astro, Bobby Abreu, who was on the team in 1996 and 1997 before the Devil Rays took him in the expansion draft and traded him to the Phillies.

2. It’s not often you can hit a grand slam in one of the five or 10 best playoff games of all time and have it be mostly forgotten outside the home market, but that’s Berkman’s fate for arguably his biggest hit.

Brad Ausmus would tie it at six on another home run you never see, and then Chris Burke would win it a few hours later in the 18th inning, sending the Astros to the NLCS.

3. If you want to make Berkman sound really impressive, the most common play has been to start citing his switch-hitting ranks.

He trails only Mickey Mantle in on-base percentage and in slugging percentage. Only Mantle, Eddie Murray, and Chipper Jones in home runs. The rate stats tend to look better than the raw stats for a player whose career was cut relatively short (5,000 fewer plate appearances than Murray, almost 3,000 fewer than Jones).

As presumably the world’s foremost consumer of Astros media guides in Berkman’s final years with the team, I’ve had to look at a lot of these stats and always sort of wondered what they meant.

Are we supposed to give him extra credit for being so good compared to switch-hitters because switch-hitting is super-hard? I mean, you basically have to be a major league hitter two different ways. Or are we supposed to devalue it slightly because you always have the platoon advantage and never have to face that LOOGY or that brutal right-on-right guy in an increasingly specialized game?

Or is it just a piece of trivia, in which case, bring it on.

4. There was nothing Berkman liked better than Texas.

(Aside: I understand that he’s not dead, just roll with it.)

Born in Waco, raised in New Braunfels, educated at Rice, Berkman debuted with the Astros, finished with the Rangers, and could never see himself anywhere else after the game.

As most important baseball events do, Berkman’s retirement sent me into something of a Baseball-Reference vortex. I wanted to see where his career with the Astros ranked among hitters from the same state as the team. Turns out he was not even in the top 10 by WAR, which went like this, with Berkman 11th at 48.2 with the Astros:

Player

Team

Hometown

WAR

Honus Wagner

Pirates

Chartiers

113.3

Lou Gehrig

Yankees

New York

112.6

Barry Bonds

Giants

Riverside

112.5

Cal Ripken Jr.

Orioles

Havre de Grace

95.5

Charlie Gehringer

Tigers

Fowlerville

80.8

Pete Rose

Reds

Cincinnati

78.3

Barry Larkin

Reds

Cincinnati

70.3

Tony Gwynn

Padres

Los Angeles

68.9

Ken Boyer

Cardinals

Liberty

58.2

Alex Rodriguez

Yankees

New York

52.5

5. The beginning of Berkman’s 2008 season was the best I’ve ever seen a position player play (non-Bonds division), and I watched pretty much every home game from Ryan Howard’s 58-149 MVP year.

In May, he had a stretch of 28 times on base in 35 plate appearances but cooled off to hit .471/.553/.856 that month. Almost as impressive was his April, in which he compiled a 1.030 OPS while anchored to a .272 BABIP. He would finish the first 81 games at .366/.447/.697 in his last run as a really dominant player until his ride to the World Series with the 2011 Cardinals.

6. A minus-15-run fielder for his career, Berkman sure inspired a lot of confidence. When the Astros needed to find ways to get him to play with Jeff Bagwell cemented at first and Daryle Ward and Richard Hidalgo in the corners, Berkman tried his hand in center field. He was bad at it: a -9.3 FRAA defender in 2002, playing mostly center, just like he was bad in the whole outfield, with huge negatives coming there and only somewhat offset by his pretty good first base performance.

This play in his one majority center field season of 2002 might have made it all worthwhile, though.

Hey, at least he can laugh at himself.

Berkman finished his career one of 11 players in baseball history to play 162 games or more at each of the outfield positions and at first base.

7. Retirements are usually treated with some sadness, especially in the case of a player like Berkman who could have been so much more in his last few years if it hadn’t been for his decaying body. But I and I think a lot of people are actually happy about this one.

"I think I'm actually glad about it," Berkman told Richard Justice of MLB.com. "I'm excited about the next chapter in my life. I'm looking forward to spending more time with my family, and at some point, I'll definitely coach somewhere."

Put simply if not crudely, Berkman can do more for us in retirement than he could have done as a half-ambulatory baseball player. He could walk into pretty much any television booth he wanted right now, but coaching is indeed the likelier route. While an alumnus of Rice, Berkman often talked even during his career of his desire to coach at the University of Texas, whose program has fallen on very hard times as part of a wider athletic slump from the Big 12’s flagship school.

There have been few players whom the baseball world at large has been more excited to see transition into something else.

8. I have no idea if he’ll ever make the Hall of Fame. I’m sure we’ll talk about that once or twice before the vote.

Zachary Levine is an author of Baseball Prospectus. 
Click here to see Zachary's other articles. You can contact Zachary by clicking here

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