[Over at The Crawfish Boxes, I was tasked with presenting the case for Lance Berkman in their March Madness poll. Of course, this article is also posted over there.]
The finals of TCB’s March Madness are here, with Lance Berkman entering the final round after blowing out Billy Wagner and Jose Altuve narrowly beating out Craig Biggio on the other side of the bracket. I’m not sure that Berkman will be able to stop Altuve’s runaway momentum given that he beat out a 3000-hit player and one of the Astros’s two Hall of Famers, but Lance’s case absolutely still deserve to be heard.
The Astros’ first round pick in 1997, and a local product out of Rice University, Berkman would go on to be the player that would define the 2000s for the Astros, giving Houston another Killer B to go with Biggio and Bagwell. He led all rookies that year in OPS (.949) and wRC+ (132), although it took him a little while to get his due: Berkman would finish sixth in NL Rookie of the Year voting that season, second place on his own team (catcher Mitch Meluskey finished a spot ahead of him).
However, his recognitions increased rapidly from there, with him earning his first All-Star selection the next season and finishing fifth in MVP voting. He also led the NL in doubles with 55, tied for 21st in single season history and just one shy of Biggio’s team record set two years earlier. He did set the team record for extra base hits at 94, though, which still stands.
His age 26 season the next year would be a repeat, as Berkman earned his second of six All-Star selections, improved to third in MVP voting, and led the league in RBI. That’s arguably his best season, although it has stiff competition from 2006, which saw him again finish third in MVP voting while picking up another All-Star appearance, setting the team record in RBI (136), finishing two behind Jeff Bagwell’s home run record (45), and posting a 163 OPS+.
Of course, his 2004 and 2005 seasons weren’t bad, either, and those featured another of his strengths: strong postseason performances. Going by Win Probability Added, 2004 saw Bagwell contribute nearly half a win to the playoff campaign that ended in the NLCS in seven games. The next year, he more than doubled that, with his 1.16 Wins Added helping Houston to their first pennant in team history.
When he was finally traded at the deadline in 2010, the final year on his contract, he even contributed to the Astros’ successful rebuild, bringing back Mark Melancon and kicking off a pretty successful trade tree (one that even includes Brad Peacock). His twelve year run in Houston could only be seen as a massive success. And of course, since then, he’s even started a successful secondary career as a part-time member of the Astros’ booth.
Baseball-Reference’s franchise leaderboard sees Berkman appear in the top ten of 36 of the 43 offensive stats they have listed. That includes finishing first in on-base percentage, second in home runs to Jeff Bagwell, second in slugging and OPS, third in OPS+, and fifth in Wins Above Replacement. He had the type of the career that should have drawn more of a look from Hall of Fame voters, and he defined a decade of baseball in Houston.