PHOENIX, AZ - APRIL 12: Lance Berkman #12 of the St. Louis Cardinals hits a single against the Arizona Diamondbacks during the third inning of the Major League Baseball game at Chase Field on April 12, 2011 in Phoenix, Arizona. (Photo by Christian Petersen/Getty Images)
In recent times, the fragmentation of the front office and ultimate exit of Walt Jocketty has led some in the media to attempt to divide Cardinal Nation into two similarly rivalrous camps. By and large, it is a false division, an "either...or" that does not exist outside the mind of he who attempts to construct this false narrative. No season has so completely shattered this false narrative construct as this one, a season in which the contributions of proven veterans have combined with those of young products of the organization's farm system to produce a team in the thick of a developing pennant race despite a crush of injuries and a near bullpen implosion. One of the most important players for this competitive Cardinals club has been free agent signee Lance Berkman.
Berkman needed no introduction to St. Louis fans. The last of the feared "Killer B's," the former Astro played a key role in many a National League Central battle over the last decade. Berkman seemed to always mash Cardinals pitching; in fact, he did mash it to the line of .313 BA / .415 OBP / .601 SLG / 1.016 OPS. Other than offering a window into a fan base's collective perception, a ballplayer's splits against a particular club are worthless. So it was heartening indeed was the fact that the man who labeled himself "Puma" hits no matter what cap the opposing pitcher is wearing. His career line of .296 BA / .409 OBP / .548 SLG / .957 OPS / .405 wOBA suggested that, if healthy, he could constitute one-third of a new MV3.
Health was really the glaring question about the signing this offseason, Prior to the 2010 season and excluding his debut season which consisted of just 106 PA, Berkman had never posted an OPS below .896 or a wOBA below .383. Slowed and weakened by offseason knee surgery, Berkman had put up an OPS .808 and a wOBA .356 for Houston before the only club he had ever taken a major-league at-bat for traded him to the New York Yankees. In the bandbox that is the New Yankee Stadium, Berkman's production decreased. He posted a mere .707 OPS and .314 wOBA.When John Mozeliak inked Berkman to a one-year contract worth $8 million, the reaction was not overly enthusiastic or negative. A passionate stance in favor or against the deal was difficult due to the "if's" involved. If Berkman is healthy...If Berkman has not aged into a decline phase...If Berkman can play defense at a Chris Duncan level...If Berkman can hit enough to justify playing the outfield everyday...If. If. If.
DanUp was excited about the deal while wonderfully musing that he "would have liked this move a little more in the Baseball Prospectus 2003 days, when defense was something we all laughed about while excoriating Derek Jeter." Under the best nickname/pun headline of the year, "Puma eats Fat Elvis and everyone Riots," gave the sober analysis we as the VEB community have come to expect from our robot-in-residence, applying Marcel and ballparking the signing as that of a 2.0-WAR player with 3.0-4.0-WAR upside.
There is a reason that projection systems typically give more weight to a player's most-recent season and it is not because that is the season most fresh in the minds of fans and scribes and even in the wake of a poor performance, the projection systems expected Berkman to be an excellent offensive talent. But, the projection systems cannot project for the human body's ability to heal or a player's offseason workout regimen working his body into a shape that it has not been in since his twenties, if ever. And so, when we were confronted with a Lance Berkman that was difficult to pick out as Lance Berkman in photographs from Spring Training, the upside for a Puma in "the best of shape of his life" seemed like a safer $8 million bet than it did during the holiday season.
During Berkman's first couple of weeks in The Birds On The Bat, business in the box was slow for the veteran. When the club visited Arizona as part of a particularly early west-coast roadtrip, Berkman found his offensive groove and has not looked back. Heading into the Arizona series, Berkman owned a line of .214/.290/.286/.576; when the Cards left Diamondbacks' ballpark for Chavez Ravine, his line sat at .311/.367.622/.990. Perhaps there is something in the aquaducts which carry water to the artificial desert oasis of Phoenix. Whatever it was, Berkman started hitting like Berkman and has continued hitting like Berkman. As of this writing, the Cardinal right fielder has been worth 2.8 fWAR, has hit 22 home runs, driven in 61 runs, and has accumulated a slash line of:
.297 BA / .409 OBP / .610 SLG / .429 wOBA
The enjoyment of Berkman, however, is found in something more than his numbers, although the numbers give weight to Berkman-going experience. There is the way Berkman makes a plate appearance, taking close pitches for balls, fouling off close pitches he deems to be perhaps strikes, and finding his way on base by either a walk or a hit. Berkman's 16.2% walk rate ranks in MLB's top ten. A little while back, Matthew Carruth took a look at "What Battling at the Plate Actually Means." Carruth defined battling at the plate as involving "either taking a ball or fouling pitches off while in a two-strike count" and was kind enough to put his spreadsheet for "Prolonging Ratio" up for us to see; Berkman ranked seventh in baseball at prolonging a plate appearance. Berkman in a batter's box is a joy to watch, both for his process and his results.
There is Berkman's personality, evidenced by his jawing at opposing players on the basepaths, inspiring puma paw gestures and a flurry of celebratory curse words from his teammates in the dugout, and giving wonderful quotes to the media. I also greatly enjoy Berkman lumbering around the bases. And while I may describe the right fielder as a lumberer, I must give credit where credit is due. While not blessed with the fleet-footedness of a cheetah, Berkman has proven himself a heady base-runner. For whatever it's worth, the Bsr component of WAR has Berkman at 0.9. (For his career, Berkman is a -11.9 baserunner.) He has been a good baserunner this season, from what I have noticed, and, despite Miguel Batista's best attempts to wash away any and all positive memories of a game in D.C., I most recently noticed this absolutely brilliant slide into home plate against the Nationals in which Berkman preserved his own health, plated a run for the Redbirds, and was the "run" in Andrew Brown's first career Run Batted In.
Yesterday, during an interview that aired on KMOX, Tony La Russa was asked where the Cardinals would be if they did not have Berkman, and La Russa replied that the team would be in trouble. Back in the dead of winter, few foresaw that Berkman would be the one constant for a Cardinals club that has suffered many an injury. Berkman as the constant for this club makes him a deserving All-Star and also puts him in the MVP conversation going forward. May this ode to watching Lance Berkman play baseball serve as a confession from a Panting Veteran Nerd.