FanPost

The Big Puma: A Ballplayer Through and Through

Lance Berkman does appear to have torn his ACL. If this is indeed the case, Berkman’s season would be over and the extensive rehabilitation required to fully recover may preclude the Big Puma from ever playing in the majors again. His retirement is not absolutely certain – perhaps the surgery goes well, he goes to Germany for some knee magic, he dominates his rehab, and is back in business for some time next year. But Berkman, always described as intelligent, candid, and mindful of the bigger picture, seems to realize more than most what time is the right time to walk away. He has been plagued by intermittent injuries the last few years, and has already spoken honestly with the Post-Dispatch’s Joe Strauss about his expected diagnosis and what this means for his ball-playing future.

The loss of Berkman, permanently or not, is a dramatic development not just for Cardinals fans, but for baseball fans everywhere. Berkman was outstanding last year; for his career to be taken from him so soon after that sensational 2011 seems potentially tragic. It shouldn’t be. Berkman has had one hell of a career: a .296/.409/.546 line, 359 homeruns, 1,197 RBIs, 1,836 hits, 1,115 runs, and an OPS+ of 146. Among players with at least 5,000 plate appearances during the span of his career (thus far), Berkman ranks 6th in wOBA (.403) and 5th in wRC+ (146). His 60.5 fWAR accrued from 1999-2012 is 9th among all batters in that time frame.

However, Lance Berkman is so much more than the numbers. This is a cliché that is always used to describe the great players during their swan songs – Chipper Jones is more than the numbers, just as Derek Jeter, Jim Thome, and Mariano Rivera are more than the numbers – but in Berkman’s case the phrase does not seem misused. You’d be hard-pressed to find a ballplayer who does more to rally a clubhouse, who is more willing to speak gregariously and charmingly with reporters, who is more revered among his big league peers. Lance Berkman is the model ballplayer: humble and team-oriented, while still successful and competitive. Berkman reminds me in this way of Sean Casey, the former Reds first baseman whom was similarly revered, quotable, and chatty. Casey couldn’t hit like the Big Puma though.

To be clear, this post is not a case for or against Berkman’s eventual Hall of Fame candidacy. For one, Berkman has not retired – it’s much too early to be discussing such things. Secondly, Dave Cameron of FanGraphs already broached that topic, and I’ll leave that debate to the baseball men and sportswriters who are supposed to debate that sort of thing. (In my meaningless opinion, Berkman is in the discussion the same way that Jim Edmonds, Edgar Martinez, and, one day, David “Big Papi” Ortiz and Jason Giambi will be in the discussion). Quickly, though, take a look at this list I've compiled of players with career offensive numbers in the same general ballpark as Berkman, sorted by OBP (Berkman’s single greatest statistical quality).

Player

BA

OBP

SLG

H

R

HR

RBI

OPS+

Todd Helton

0.321

0.420

0.548

2388

1344

351

1329

136

Edgar Martinez

0.312

0.418

0.515

2247

1219

309

1261

147

Lance Berkman

0.296

0.409

0.546

1836

1115

359

1197

146

Jason Giambi

0.281

0.404

0.525

1957

1201

429

1403

142

Larry Walker

0.313

0.400

0.565

2160

1355

383

1311

141

Will Clark

0.303

0.384

0.497

2176

1186

284

1205

137

David Ortiz

0.284

0.379

0.546

1812

1088

387

1295

137

Jack Clark

0.267

0.379

0.476

1826

1118

340

1180

137

Dick Allen

0.292

0.378

0.534

1848

1099

351

1119

156

Jim Edmonds

0.284

0.376

0.527

1949

1251

393

1199

132

(In the comment section below, feel free to mention any comparable players that I’ve forgotten in my hasty analysis -- and let the debate begin.)

* I love the ridiculous statistical similarity between Jack and Will Clark. I must admit to often getting the two of them confused, what with both of them being first basemen whom will be remembered as San Francisco Giants first and foremost but whom also donned Cardinals red at some point. And I have an excuse for doing so: Jack Clark played before the dawn of my baseball consciousness, and I overlooked Will Clark in my childhood Big Mac / Slammin’ Sammy / Junior Griffey euphoria.

What stands out most about this list (besides the number of players on it that have at some point worn the Cardinals jersey) is that the bulk of the players on it are baseball cornerstones, guys that other players loved to play with, Jason Giambi notwithstanding. And more than anything – more than the All-Star games, the Top-5 / Top-10 MVP finishes, the Hall of Fame speculation – this is how we should remember Lance Berkman when he does ultimately decide to hang up the spikes.

** If, however, David Ortiz someday makes the Hall of Fame and Lance has not yet been inducted, I will be the first one screaming (via lanceberkmanhof.com, or something) at this preposterous outrage – because, really, Big Papi and Big Puma are two in the same. Similar numbers, similar build, similar spirit, similar I-will-talk-to-anybody-and-everybody life approach. David Ortiz will have at least two World Series championships to his name, while Berkman has only one (thus far). Ortiz will also have the “clutch” label solidly affixed to his name, though that label is more a product of Red Sox / East Coast media nuts fondling than of any statistical legitimacy – via Fangraphs, Berkman has a .410 wOBA in “high leverage” situations since 2002; Ortiz has a .383 wOBA in the same situations. Cardinals fans might remember certain episodes of Lance “clutch-ness,” namely the 10th inning of Game Six and this past Friday night’s ninth-inning, game-tying solo homerun against Dodgers closer and cutter aficionado, Kenley Jansen. Don’t get me wrong, though – I love me some Big Papi Ortiz.

**************************************************************************************************************************

If you had told me six or seven years ago that I would be writing a lengthy post appreciating Lance Berkman, I would have slapped you. Outside of all Yankees and Red Sox teams, there are only two teams that I have vehemently hated: the 2011 Brewers and the Killer B 2004-2005 Astros. The Killer B Astros – the really good Killer B Astros (Bagwell, Beltran, Berkman, Biggio, Clemens, Oswalt, Pettitte) – ruined the two best Cardinals teams of my lifetime, first by tiring us out (players, fans, media, all of us) in 2004 by taking us seven highly-contested games so that we laid an egg in the World Series, and then by somehow recovering in 2005 after the famous “Pujols-meets-hanging-Brad-Lidge-slider” ordeal. I was obsessed with Killer B hatred, and why not; while I don't know the actual head-to-head numbers, it felt like the Killer B Astros always battered, bludgeoned, brutalized, and beat down the Cardinals. It got to my head. I would scour the Astros roster and start hating players that didn’t deserve my hatred: Brandon Backe, Chris Burke, Eric Bruntlett. I was in 8th grade the year (2004) that we first played the Astros in the NLCS. My Social Studies teacher at Brittany Woods Middle School was a Houston export, and his overt Astros support simply did not fly. My friends and I, all middle schoolers who loved to make quick and emotionally charged judgments, engaged in a war of wills with this man. We disrupted his class, refused to do his work, and wore as much red as was physically possible. He, of course, shot back: Astros hats, Astros shirts, Cardinals jokes – he was vicious. When we won that NLCS game seven we waltzed into class radiating waves of snarky jackassery, confident with pride of our city and our team. His ploy to gain control, taking his Astros fandom to a somewhat unprofessional level, damaged his credibility. He never regained control of that classroom, and he left our school for good the following spring. Yes, we were awful to him, but man we hated those Killer B’s.

I’ve matured since then, and because the Cardinals seem to be recycling all the old Astros (first Berkman, then Beltran, and perhaps Oswalt will be on the Busch Stadium mound come July), I will do my duty and embrace all of them. But I will enjoy none more than Berkman. It’s been a very short Cardinals stint, but I will forever remember his first-class batting eye, his power from both sides, and his old-school left-handed swing that reminds me of the choppy film I’ve seen of legends Ted Williams and Stan Musial. Engrained in my memory are his mini-mullet, his awkward struts around the bases, his nonstop chatting, and his unwavering smile. I appreciate Berkman and his quotes for making even the worst baseball journalism worth reading, and of course his optimism and charisma (and clutch hitting) were an immeasurable part of the miraculous 2011 World Series run. Indeed, in a year that so many of the baseball names I grew up with are breaking down, retiring, or on their way out – Mariano Rivera, Chipper Jones, Kerry Wood, Scott Rolen, Jim Thome – I will remember the Big Puma most of all.

I only hope that he is not quite done yet.

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