The Big Puma is now a Bronx Bomber — the New York Yankees acquired Lance Berkman from the Houston Astros in exchange for RHP Mark Melancon and INF Jimmy Paredes. Berkman, 34, will take over as the Yankees’ DH. The switch-hitter is owed a little more than $7 million for the rest of the 2010 season, and the Astros will pick up $4 million of that salary. Berkman has a $15 million club option for 2011, with a $2 million buyout.
The Astros’ first-round pick in the 1997 draft began the year on the DL following surgery to remove loose cartilage from his left knee. With a .242/.372/.436 line and a .356 wOBA in 358 plate appearances, Berkman has fallen short of his pre-season projections — a .381 wOBA from CHONE and a .397 wOBA from ZiPS. Lance is still working the count exceptionally well, drawing a walk 16.8% of the time and swinging at just 21.2% of pitches thrown outside of the strike zone (28.9% MLB average). However, his BABIP (.279) and power (.191 ISO) are down.
Berkman’s line drive rate (16.7%) is three percentage points below his average since the 2002 season, though it’s hard to say whether that’s an actual change or a scoring issue. His 14.6% infield fly rate is higher than his 11.2% average since ’02 and the 7-8% MLB average. But even with those figures, Berkman’s expected BABIP (xBABIP) is .316. That’s awfully close to his career .318 average. The chances that he remains a .240ish hitter are low.
As for the power, Berkman’s hitting more ground balls than usual. His GB% is 47.4%, his highest mark dating back to ’02 (42.2% average over that time period). Lance’s 15.9% home run/fly ball rate is his lowest mark since 2003. When he has gone yard, it hasn’t gone as far as usual.
Hit Tracker Online keeps track of a players’ average speed off the bat on homers, as well as the “Standard Distance” of dingers. Standard distance “factors out the influence of wind, temperature and altitude, and is thus the best way of comparing home runs hit under a variety of different conditions.” According to Hit Tracker, Lance’s speed off the bat on HR in 2010 is 100.7 MPH (103.5 MPH average for major leaguers), and his standard distance is 380.5 feet (393.8 MLB average). In 2009, Berkman’s speed of the bat was 104.5 MPH and his standard distance was 403. In ’08, those figures were 103.7 MPH and 397.2 feet.
Lance Berkman’s days as a .400+ wOBA force are probably over, but he’s still a highly useful hitter. ZiPS projects him to bat .267/384/.489 with a .383 wOBA from here on out. He’ll see regular ABs in New York, though there’s some thought that he’ll occasionally sit vs. lefties in favor of Marcus Thames — Berkman has a .343 wOBA against LHP in 1,344 PA since ’02, while Thames has a .361 mark in 755 PA. If Berkman’s available in your league (his ownership rate is 74% in Yahoo leagues), he’s worth a roster spot. The Puma’s performance should pick up, though not to the level of his glory days.