Keeper Question: Lance Berkman

A classic “which player would you rather have?” scenario:

Player A: .299/.366/.541 with 37 HR, 105 R, 99 RBI, and 9 SB
Player B: .301/.412/.547 with 31 HR, 90 R, 94 RBI, and 2 SB

From a fantasy perspective, these two players are pretty close. B has a better slash line, while A has better counting stats and doesn’t lose the slash categories by a meaningful amount. If we’re looking at AVG instead of OBP, I’d rather have A, but if I’m stuck with B, I’m hardly rending my clothes in mourning. If we introduce opportunity cost into the equation, my preference is stronger: Player A likely wasn’t available to you unless you had the first overall pick in your draft, while Player B was probably on the wire until about mid-April. Give me B and a first-round pick.

The title of this post ruins some of the suspense, but Player B is Lance Berkman, while Player A is teammate Albert Pujols. While the Cardinals have already chosen to keep Berkman for 2012, their calculus is just a bit different from the average fantasy owner’s.

Interestingly, staying in St. Louis won’t be a particular boon for Berkman. He hit well enough at home — .295/.405/.473 with 9 HR — but was still a fair bit better on the road, hitting .307/.418/.610 with the remaining 22 HR. Any value he derived from being a Cardinal came from working with Mark McGwireMatt Holliday, or Pujols far more than from any quirk of Busch Stadium. We can rule out park factors as a cause of Berkman’s success, which is somewhat unfortunate, as that will remain constant next year.

Part of Berkman’s success, especially in the early part of the season, could be related to batting behind Pujols and Holliday. Holliday will be back to bat ahead of Berkman, but Berkman’s ability to play first base if Pujols doesn’t return surely played into the Cardinals’ decision to offer him a contract before he could escape in free agency. Being on the leeward side of Holliday is good, but if that’s part of what helped Berkman succeed this year, then Pujols’ status becomes a definite part of the keeper equation.

The last two seasons could hardly have been more dissimilar for Berkman, while 2011 was his second best year in terms of wRC+, 2010 was his worst season. Neither is a perfect reflection of his real value at this point, but figuring out which is closer to reality is the key to making the final call.

There aren’t any glaring red flags with Berkman’s performance this year. His BABIP was almost exactly at his career levels — .315 in 2011 versus .317 for his career — his HR/FB was higher than it had been since 2007 at 19.9 percent, but wasn’t far out of line with his career level of 18.9 percent. Looking his career numbers, 2011 doesn’t jump out as being odd, it just doesn’t match the recent trends. If this were 2008, keeping Berkman would be a no-brainer since it wouldn’t seem out of place at all. As it is, three years of declining performance between peaks is worrisome, especially at Berkman’s age. If he starts to valley again, he may not play long enough to bring out one last peak.

One concern I do have with Berkman is health. It is a credit to the Cardinals’ Trainers that Berkman didn’t miss any concerted amount of time this year, but this is a player who was once placed on the DL with a cranky left knee. He battled right arm injuries throughout the year and while I don’t see those being particularly problematic — especially if he does spend much of next year at first base — the point is that, over the last few seasons, there’s always seems to be something nagging at him. Obviously this year’s dings and dents weren’t a big deal, but there’s no way to say that next year’s won’t be.

Berkman’s an interesting case. 2011 feels so out of place that it seems like a regression back to his previous career arc is a given, yet there isn’t one hard and fast piece of peripheral data to suggest that he’s suddenly going to be next year’s version of Adam Dunn. If you can, shop around to see if you can trade him to fill a need elsewhere, capitalize on his great year and let someone else take the gamble with him. If you need a first baseman or outfielder, unless the absolute worst case scenario hits, Berkman is going to give you above-average production — even in his worst year, his wRC+ was above 100 — so plan to keep him, but do be wary of potential disappointment.

Dan enjoys black tea, imperial IPAs, and any competition that can be loosely judged a sport. Follow him on Twitter.

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10 years ago

Player A needs 10 more homers.