As of a few days ago, Reds pitching felt a giant relief lifted from their shoulders. No longer would they be subject to the 6’1”, 220-pound, switch-hitting slugger that massacred ERA’s and demoralized confidence.
Lance Berkman has announced after 15 big league seasons that he is shutting it down and retiring. The man nicknamed “The Big Puma,” conducted his reign of terror for over a decade against Reds pitching, continuing after he left the Astros and signed with division foe St. Louis. One cannot help but gawk at the numbers that Berkman put up when facing Cincinnati pitching.
In 167 starts, which is just above the length of a normal season, Berkman clubbed 52 home runs, drove in 144 runs, and had a ridiculously high OPS of 1.087. He also holds the record for most home runs hit by an opposing player at Great American Ball Park with 23. If Lance Berkman could suit up against the Reds every day, he would be on his way to Cooperstown on the first ballot.
That is the first question that will be asked about Lance Berkman in his retirement stage. It is not a matter of what he will do with his newly found spare time, but rather whether he is worthy to be amongst the game’s all-time elite. Each individual’s concept of what makes a Hall of Famer is vastly different; some believe that it is a simple matter of the numbers game, while others trust the eye test. In Berkman’s case, if you took the former, you would say that he doesn’t get in; if you take the latter, you may be inclined to check yes on his ballot.
For what it is worth, take a peek at the final career statistics:
.293/.406/.537 – 366 HR’s – 1,234 RBI’s – 1,905 hits – 6x All-Star – 4 Top-5 MVP
Just by looking at the pure numbers, Berkman’s case appears to be a little short. Not to be forgotten though, is the fact that he (along with his cast of teammates) took the Astros to their first ever World Series appearance in 2005 before ultimately falling short. In addition, Berkman’s career OPS (on-base percentage + slugging percentage) falls short of being the best ever for a switch hitter behind only the incomparable Mickey Mantle.
Some may understandably be hung up on the fact that he played during an era where steroid and human growth hormone use were prominent. As recent as this past ballot, voters have abstained of voting in anyone who even played in the era as a way to sort out the cheaters from those who were clean. Assuming Berkman is clean (he has never been implied in any sort of speculation), it is difficult to not think of what could have been. He finished third in the MVP race in 2002 when Barry Bonds ran away the award. He finished fifth in 2001 when Bonds, Sammy Sosa and Luis Gonzalez all finished in front of him. He finished fifth in 2008 with Ryan Braun and Manny Ramirez placing in front of him. Berkman was profoundly affected by the steroid era simply by association.
The only other club that Berkman laid the lumber nearly as much against, was the St. Louis Cardinals and he eventually became a member of their dynamic lineup in 2011 when he channeled his self of old for one last gasp of Berkman-style greatness.
Injuries derailed his final two seasons, 2012 with the Cardinals, and last year with the Rangers, but the former first round pick still had himself quite the serviceable career regardless. Had he not been as banged up as he was, or even had the crutch of the designated hitter, we may be keeping our eyes peeled for Lance Berkman and the 75% necessary to elect him to the palace of the immortals.