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    Friday, November 29, 2019

    Revisiting Lance Berkman’s Hall of Fame Case, and How It Relates to Larry Walker’s Candidacy


    Hall of Fame season is well underway following last week's announcement of the 2020 BBWAA ballot. Last year's election, which culminated with the writers electing first-year candidates Mariano Rivera and Roy Halladay as well as backlog stars Mike Mussina and Edgar Martinez (the latter in his tenth and final year before aging off), cleared off a lot of space. However, this year's crop of ballot newcomers wasn't deep enough to immediately fill the gap left by the class of 2019 (plus Fred McGriff, who actually did age off), which is a big change from the past few years.

    In fact, I would be shocked if any of the new players was still on the ballot come 2021. Derek Jeter will obviously be a first-ballot choice, and I don't believe any of the others will hit the 5% needed to stick around for a second season. Bobby Abreu was good enough that he probably deserves at least that 5% and a second year of discussion, but I would be surprised if he makes. But Jason Giambi and Cliff Lee don't even reach that status, and things get even weaker after them.

    Compare that with the last two years, for example. The three-man class of 2017 was followed up in 2018 with ballot newcomers Jim Thome, Chipper Jones (both first ballot picks), Omar Vizquel, Scott Rolen, and Andruw Jones (all of whom remain on the ballot, with the former two looking to be in the early stages of an eventual election trajectory). When Thome, Jones, second-year Vladimir Guerrero, and third-year Trevor Hoffman went in that year, they were replaced with Rivera, Halladay, Todd Helton, and Andy Pettitte (the latter two are again returning this winter), among several others.

    That crowding is part of what forced Lance Berkman, one of two subjects today, off the ballot. Joining what was already a fifteen-man ballot with those four, plus longtime teammate Roy Oswalt, former MVP Miguel Tejada, writer-favorite Michael Young*... there was a lot of competition to stand out, and he kind of got lost in the shuffle.

    *As an aside: Young finished in the top ten in MVP voting twice, yet somehow got as many votes as Berkman and Oswalt combined despite Berkman having twice as many *top five* MVP finishes and Oswalt making the top five in Cy Young voting five times. I must be missing something.

    But he absolutely deserved better than that, and I kind of wish he had managed even a short appearance in 2014 to delay his ballot debut to this year, where he would have had a better chance at picking up votes. Even if it didn't change his stats at all, between being in the conversation for best not-Jeter player among the newcomers and the overall thinner ballot (I just don't see nineteen players on this year's ballot topping 5%, as was the case last year), he probably would have picked up a few more votes, maybe even enough to make it to a second ballot. Berkman's case wasn't anywhere near a slam-dunk, but I do think it was worth discussing, and I want to revisit his resume a little more.

    Berkman’s counting totals looked a little low, with under 2000 career games and only 1905 hits (less than 2000 hits is a death sentence with Hall voters, historically), but he still managed some good numbers. His career mark of 366 homers is still sixth all-time among switch hitters, and his 1234 RBI are respectable.

    Even stronger, though, are his rate numbers; for instance, Lance is one of just twenty-eight players in history with a career slash line above .290/.400/.500, at .293/.406/.537. While some of that is the era he played in, that doesn’t cover nearly all of it: his OPS+ is an incredible 144, tied for forty-eighth all-time among batters with 3000 career plate appearances. And if you up that to a 7000 PA minimum (Berkman is at 7814), he moves all the way up to thirty-sixth.

    His postseason heroics serve as another compelling piece of evidence. I don’t think a lack of postseason heroics should count against anyone’s Hall of Fame case, but having them should be a definite point in favor of candidates that do, and boy does Lance Berkman have that. After a rough first time in 2001, he turned things around in a big way, posting an OPS above 1.000 in four of the five series he played in between 2004 and 2005, with his 2005 NLCS bringing up the rear at “only” .924.

    With a net Win Probability Added in 2005 of 1.16, that would be a career high-mark for most players. But Berkman topped that in 2011, when he helped the Cardinals to the title over the Rangers. He posted an OPS above 1.000 once again against Texas, picking up some memorable hits along the way. His 2011 postseason WPA of 1.35 remains the seventh-best mark for a single season (with David Freese from that year number one), and added all together, Berkman has more postseason Win Probability Added than all but three players in history (David Ortiz, Albert Pujols, and Justin Turner).

    Returning to regular season numbers, if you go by value stats, he still holds up. Baseball-Reference’s version of WAR puts him at 52.1, with four different seasons above 6.0, good for twentieth all-time at left field. Fangraphs holds him in even higher regard, at 55.9 WAR and six different seasons above 6.0. He drops down twenty-fourth in their left field rankings, but that’s due to Fangraphs including corner outfielders with substantial time in left and right field on both lists. Either way, considering there are already twenty left fielders and twenty-six right fielders in the Hall, and several of the players ahead of him are either banned from induction (Pete Rose, Joe Jackson) or still in ballot purgatory (Barry Bonds, Manny Ramirez), it’s pretty clear that Lance would not look at all out of place in Cooperstown.

    Unfortunately, since he got only 1.2% of the vote and fell off the ballot, he not only won’t be returning this winter, he won’t even be eligible for consideration again until the Veterans Committee gets around to him in 2029 (since they need to wait until after his ten-year window would have ended had he stuck around). So the question becomes: what effect does all of that have on this year’s voting?

    Not much for Berkman, but I was looking over the ballot some and noticed his strong similarities with another candidate who does still have a chance at induction: Larry Walker. The longtime Rockie* and Expo is on his tenth and final ballot this year, having reached a new personal best in last year’s voting. After being stuck in the 10 to 20% range for years, he’s seen his totals rapidly increase, from 21.9% in 2017 to 34.1% in 2018 to 54.6% last time. Another jump like that and he’s just over the line for induction.

    *Fun fact: if selected, Walker would still be the first player in Colorado Rockies history to make the Hall of Fame. He’d also be just the second Canadian in Cooperstown, after Fergie Jenkins.

    In a lot of ways, Walker just narrowly edged out Berkman. Larry reached the .300/.400/.500 career batting line instead of having to settle for an average above .290. He also actually topped 2000 hits, settling at 2160, and edges out Lance in both homers (383) and RBI (1311). Really, their lines were so close that I feel like it’s doing a disservice to not just lay them out, side-to-side.

    Larry Walker 1988 8030 2160 1244 471 62 383 1355 1311 913 1231 230 76 0.313 0.400 0.565 141
    Lance Berkman 1879 7814 1905 1087 422 30 366 1146 1234 1201 1300 86 48 0.293 0.406 0.537 144

    So, you might be saying, Berkman has a pretty good case and deserved better on the Hall voting, but why is Larry Walker doing so much better? What makes him so much more deserving of induction? And, if you’re the type of person who took this opportunity to investigate their WARs, why is Berkman sitting in the mid-50s while Walker is right round 70 (72.7 bWAR, 68.7 fWAR)?

    That stolen base column I included is a pretty good hint. I think Berkman’s hitting was good enough for Cooperstown, but there’s a reason I only focused on his hitting earlier. Walker, meanwhile, was the complete package. It’s not just that Walker was a better baserunner, although he absolutely was. Berkman was passable as a fielder, but there’s a reason he was moved to first base after about 1000 games in the outfield.

    Walker, meanwhile, stayed in right field his whole career, and even won 7 Gold Gloves while doing it (and advanced metrics have more or less backed up the view that Walker was a good fielder). Walker was just an all-around good player. It lines up logically, too; given the lengths of their careers, Walker’s fielding and baserunning would work out to about an extra win every year over Berkman. That doesn’t seem at all like an unreasonable assumption, and over the course of their career, it would certainly add up like we see.

    I think Lance Berkman is a borderline Hall of Famer with enough extra credit to put him over the line, despite the obvious shortcomings in his game, and he at least deserved an extended hearing on his merits. If that’s the case, though, a Lance Berkman whose biggest shortcomings were turned into a strength would be a no-doubt, slam-dunk Hall of Famer, and that’s effectively what we have in Larry Walker.

    I’m hoping enough writers have finally come over to his side this year to get him over the line in 2020, making him just the seventh Hall of Famer to get inducted on his final ballot, and the third in the last three years (after Tim Raines and Edgar Martinez). He’s already picked up two new votes from among the first seven voters to reveal their ballots, which is a promising sign. Maybe we’ll see Walker on the stage in Cooperstown next July after all. And maybe one day, Lance Berkman will get that second look his candidacy deserves as well.


    1. People should at home-road splits too when looking at HoF cases.

      1. OPS+ and wRC+ are both park-adjusted, and both have Walker and Berkman as comparable (144 vs 141 for OPS+, 144 vs 140 for wRC+).