After 15 seasons in the major leagues, Lance Berkman announced on Wednesday that he's decided to retire.
Knee, hip and back injuries have just become too much to overcome for the slugger, who will turn 38 years old next month. Last season, Berkman was limited to 73 games and 294 plate appearances with the Rangers. Though he was signed primarily to be a designated hitter and part-time outfielder, hoping to supply some of the left-handed power Josh Hamilton took to the Angels, Berkman's body just didn't allow him to be a significant contributor for Texas.
Whenever a player of some significance says he's calling it a career, the reflexive instinct is to ask whether or not he's a Hall of Famer. (The instinct is so reflexive that it's really a cliché now. Or a joke, when applied to a player who clearly won't be getting a plaque in Cooperstown.) But Berkman played 15 years in MLB, and was arguably one of the best hitters in baseball for several of those seasons. Looking at his career in through a Hall-of-Fame lens is not being snarky or facetious.
Yet the discussion can only go so far with Berkman. On first glance, he falls short in the milestone categories. Berkman didn't get 2,000 hits, finishing with 1,905. The debate over Berkman may actually end there. As Jay Jaffe pointed out when evaluating Berkman's Hall of Fame candidacy, no one with fewer than 2,000 hits who played since the 1960s expansion era has been elected to Cooperstown.
Berkman didn't slug 500 home runs, finishing with 366. He didn't hit .300 for his career, but came very close at .293. Compare that to the newly inducted Frank Thomas, who checked off all three of those categories, compiling nearly 2,500 hits, more than 500 homers and a .301 career batting average.
However, in light of the PED cloud hanging over current and future Hall of Fame eligibles, such milestones have to be viewed differently. Do 2,500 hits or 500 home runs mean what they once did, if voters are suspicious of how players achieved those numbers? Under those circumstances, perhaps Berkman's totals end up looking better. Fortunately for him, Berkman was also never associated — even by rumor and innuendo — with PEDs.
Over an eight-year stretch — let's say from 2001 to 2008 — Berkman could be considered one of the best hitters in MLB and an MVP-caliber player. During that span, Berkman ranked fifth among all MLB hitters with a WAR of 44.1. The players above him were Albert Pujols, Alex Rodriguez, Barry Bonds and Carlos Beltran. Berkman never finished higher than third in MVP voting over those eight seasons. He just wasn't going to leapfrog Pujols and Bonds when those two players were at their best and dominating MLB.
No MVP awards and six All-Star appearances presents a tough hurdle for Berkman's Hall of Fame chances too. Can the argument really be made that he was among the best at his position when he was never voted to such status by journalists or fans?
Going back to that last sentence, the words "at his position" also present something of a dilemma when looking at Berkman's career. What is he best known as? An outfielder? A first baseman? Is it possible that his versatility actually hurts his candidacy?
Can Berkman be measured against other first basemen of his era when he played 43 percent of his games in the field at that position? Should he instead be judged against the best outfielders who played during his career? Fifty-seven percent of his games in the field were in the outfield. But even that total has to be broken down because Berkman played all three outfield spots. The majority of his appearances (549) were in left field.
Berkman could also be hurt by playing the majority of his career with the Astros. Two of the best hitters in franchise history are currently on the outside looking in when it comes to the Hall of Fame because of PED suspicions.
Craig Biggio is virtually certain to be elected next year after coming so close (74.8 percent!) in the 2014 balloting. But whether it's because of unfounded PED rumors or a limit of 10 players on the Hall of Fame ballot, Biggio's been squeezed out in his first two years of eligibility. Jeff Bagwell actually saw his voting percentage drop this year, from 59.6 percent (the third-highest among players on the ballot) to 54.3 percent, placing him seventh. The PED whispers are much louder with Bagwell, though he never tested positive nor was suspected of use during his career.
If Biggio and Bagwell — two players many believe should be in the Hall of Fame — have yet to be elected, does Berkman stand a chance? Wouldn't those two have to get in first, unless the belief is that Berkman was among the elite of a clean class of players untainted by PED suspicion?
Ultimately, however, Berkman's durability could also affect his perception among Hall of Fame voters and analysts. He played 1,879 games during his 15-year career. Comparing him to Thomas probably isn't fair here, since he played so much as a designated hitter. But Thomas played in 2,322 games. Others who haven't been elected played more. Tim Raines appeared in 2,502 games. Edgar Martinez played in 2,055. Even Larry Walker, who many feel missed far too many games in his career, played in 1,988 games.
For Berkman, 1,879 games averages out to 125 per season. He averaged 153 during his eight-year prime, but missed so many games toward the end of his career (a combined 105 in 2012 and 2013, for example) that it's difficult to say he was a player of much consequence by then.
Perhaps Berkman would've been viewed more favorably had he called it a career after his resurgent 2011 season, during which he hit .301 with a .959 OPS, 31 homers and 94 RBI. He also appeared in 145 games, with all but two of them played in the field. Prior to that, Berkman looked done as a major league ballplayer, slogging through 122 games with the Astros and Yankees, hitting .248 and playing as a first baseman and DH. He showed he still had something left in his first year with the Cardinals. Who could blame him for coming back after that? Yet what if he'd ended on that high note?
The same questions and concerns that are being asked now would probably have been asked two years ago. Writing this article feels like it's diminishing Berkman as a player. Unfortunately, the Hall of Fame debate applies a punishing standard. But that certainly doesn't mean Berkman wasn't an excellent MLB player. The fact that the question is even being asked — prompting articles like this to be written — means he was a significant talent, especially in his prime. And Berkman will be remembered that way.