Key Stats: Lance Berkman was in the process of dying a slow death after three straight years in decline and seeming incapable of even playing a DH role for the Yankees at the end of the 2010 season. The Cardinals took a low-risk chance at a guy that had tormented them for nine plus years, and it turned out to be the best find of the entire off-season. Berkman came out of the gates flying as the second best player in the month of April and finished the season ranked 32nd overall according to the Yahoo rankings. The key to his Comeback Player of the Year Award when comparing 2011 to 2010 was probably in the line drive rate and infield fly rate. The line drive rate went up by about 6% while the pop ups came down 7%.
Skeptics Say: Who does this at age 35 in a post-steroid era? How do the Cardinals replace the loss of the best hitter in the game? Two tough answers, and I’m not sure there is a positive answer to either. That’s why Berkman is ranked 3 times lower than where he ultimately finished last season. From a statistical perspective it is also important to note that Berkman had only 23 doubles last season. That’s the same amount that he had in that abysmal 2010 season. One of Berkman’s greatest strengths throughout his career has been getting doubles. He led the league twice in the category (at age 25 and 32). Given the jump in his home run to fly ball rate last year and the decrease in doubles relative to that increase, I would assume that the home runs are going to drop close to 25 this season.
Peer Comparison: Michael Young, Ryan Howard, Eric Hosmer, Michael Morse, Adam Lind, and Michael Cuddyer are all ranked ahead of Berkman by Tristan Cockcroft of ESPN.com, but ranked behind Berkman by CBS. The two I a disagree with Cockcroft on are Lind and Cuddyer.
Lind is not the player that he appeared he could be in 2009. He does not hit for average. Hitting .243 over his last 1000 at-bats is enough evidence to make that conclusion. The upside with his power is certainly greater than that of Berkman, but I think the two will only be about 4 home runs apart this season. Not enough to swallow the difference in about 40 points in batting average.
Then there’s Cuddyer. He’s coming off of a contract year and also a year in which he had a career high in steals at age 32. Highly unlikely that he can repeat that number. And other than that, Cuddyer has gotten over 30 home runs only once and over 20 only twice in his career. Berkman has made a career of getting over 20, into 30, and flirting wtih 40 home runs.
In a 5×5 league, OPS league, or OBP league I believe Berkman is a better player regardless of their ages.
Lineup Outlook: It’s sort of nice that Berkman is the first guy that gets a crack at first after Albert Pujols leaves. Berkman helped the team win last year (there’s no way they do it without him) and so the fan base will be greatful to him. He’s also had a season to get his feet wet, so while he is a good player nobody expects him to truly replace Albert. Pujols obviously helped his numbers, but he might not have helped him get pitches to hit. Berkman was always hitting behind Pujols last year, so he should see the same quality of pitches again this year. If he hits third for the Cards this season, Pujols’ departure actually might not hurt as much as some might have thought.
Projection: Last season Berkman was aided by an increase in BABIP that wasn’t an accident as we alluded to earlier with the changes in his rate stats. That should keep his average hovering around .290 even with expected decline in skills. The runs and RBI could fluctuate depending on where he hits in the lineup and upon the contributions from wild card players like David Freese.
81 R 25 HR 86 RBI 5 SB .291 AVG .398 OBP .913 OPS