Statistically, Lance Berkman (who recently announced his retirement after a 15-year career) might be as borderline as a Hall of Fame case can get. His rate statistics are fantastic — he finished his 1,879 game career with a .293/.406/.537 career batting line, good for a 144 OPS+, 48th best of all time. However, Berkman missed out on a number of counting stat milestones — notably 2,000 hits and 400 home runs (he finished with 1,905 and 366 respectively) — typically needed for serious Hall of Fame consideration from a corner outfielder/first baseman, like Berkman.
As such, whether or not you think Lance Berkman belongs in the Hall of Fame essentially depends on how big you think the Hall of Fame should be. Since too much discussion on the Hall of Fame surrounds what these players did wrong — their few missteps over decades of greatness — I prefer to focus on what the Hall of Fame should be about in the first place: a celebration of Berkman’s many accomplishments throughout 15 years on the field.
Berkman was a visible figure on the baseball landscape from the first time he received major playing time as a 24-year-old in 2000. He hit 21 home runs in 114 games that year and started to turn the Astros’ Killer B duo of Craig Biggio and Jeff Bagwell into a trio. The next year, 2001, Berkman finished fifth in the MVP voting and reached his first All-Star game, and he remained at or near that level for almost all of the next decade.
Even after his career looked dead in a brief post-deadline stint with the Yankees in 2010 — his only full season with a sub-.900 OPS — Berkman rose for one last vintage run with the Cardinals. In St. Louis, he reached his sixth All-Star team, finished in the top ten of MVP voting for the sixth time in 11 seasons, and helped carry the Cardinals to a thrilling World Series victory, the first of his career.
But there was something more to Berkman than just a steady presence on the diamond. He played the game in a unique way, from his switch-hitting prowess to his surprising fielding ability. It can be hard to imagine now, as our freshest memories of Berkman are as a plodding first baseman or even designated hitter, but Berkman once patrolled Minute Maid Park’s center field and made one of the best catches that absurd stadium has ever seen:
Of course, Berkman will be remembered much more for his bat. That bat produced 10 consecutive seasons with at least a 130 OPS+ and came four points in 2007 away from 10 consecutive .900 OPS seasons. Berkman generated substantial power with a quiet swing from both sides of the plate — enough to finish fourth in home runs by a switch-hitter, behind just Mickey Mantle, Eddie Murray and Chipper Jones (although Carlos Beltran trails by just eight and will likely pass him next season).
Here it is from the left side:
Berkman rarely did it in the most graceful way, but that only added to his charm. Maybe he won’t end up making the Hall of Fame. But it is impossible to tell the full story of baseball in the early 2000s without Lance Berkman, consistently one of the game’s best hitters and a unique switch-hitting talent. His accomplishments and style will be remembered regardless of Hall of Fame election results.