"League strength is an irrelevance!" "I do not concur!" - Mike McGinnis
Lance Berkman will have at least one more year to impress future Hall of Fame voters, but a sabermetric analysis of his case depends in part on which website you land on first.
We talked on Friday about two previous veteran adjuncts to the Cardinals' Albert Pujols-era nucleus—Larry Walker and Reggie Sanders—and their place on the Hall of Fame ballot. Lance Berkman is an all-time-great hitter, and an interesting Hall of Fame fringe case, but he was a somewhat more interesting fringe case before he missed almost all of last year.
At the time, he was about a season-and-a-half away from 2000 hits and 400 home runs. Now he still is, and those seem more than ever like the last counting-stat milestones he'll be able to threaten. Another World Series run, to go with his series-saving Game 6 performance in 2011, is the most he can hope for to impress traditionalists in 2013.
Sabermetrically inclined voters have something else entirely to deal with—their first-glance opinion of his Hall of Fame case will depend in large part on which online baseball encyclopedia is better able to search-engine optimize its player pages. That's because Baseball-Reference puts him at 49 wins above replacement, while FanGraphs has him at 60.
An 11-win difference spread out over 1800 games would not normally be that meaningful, even though it's a much-larger-than-usual rWAR/fWAR spread. But that gap between 50 and 60 is huge in Hall of Fame talk—as standards have evolved so far, it's the approximate distance between a guy who deserves some votes and a guy who probably deserves to be elected.
What's causing the gap? My grasp of WAR calculation is pretty flimsy, but here's my best guess:
Some of it's easy to spot. FanGraphs thinks he was about one win better in the field than B-R does, and another half-a-win less terrible as a baserunner. But the bulk of the changes come in two unlikely places: The league replacement level and the usually uncontentious offensive metrics.
FanGraphs adds 251 runs for a replacement-level player during Berkman's career; B-R hands out just 205, a difference of almost five wins. This might be the result of a league adjustment—the NL has been the weaker league for some time now, and Berkman's spent nearly all his career in the NL Central. In the AL East, Derek Jeter and David Ortiz's replacement level runs are almost identical on both sites; Albert Pujols, another NL Central stalwart, gets 225 runs in rWAR and 270 in fWAR.
The rest of the gap is in his career batting runs above average—425 in rWAR, 475 in fWAR. This looks like another league-based adjustment, because it filters out pitchers hitting in the National League numbers.
For Albert Pujols, those NL penalties are academic; he falls from 91 fWAR, which makes him an inner-circle Hall of Famer already, to 80-ish, which makes him basically an inner-circle Hall of Famer already. (Baseball-Reference's defensive runs saved metric likes his play at first base much more than FanGraphs's ultimate zone rating, so the gap in replacement level and offense is obscured; his real rWAR total is 88.)
For Berkman, though, already on the borderline, it makes things difficult—and it could precipitate a much larger discussion about WAR than any of us intended to have. Here's hoping he has a big year or two in the AL to mitigate the inevitable Civil WAR puns.