Lance Berkman, known as among other things Fat Elvis, retired this week ending a 15-year career in which he was for many years one of the top hitters in baseball. Berkman is a strong candidate for most overlooked great player of his generation, but is also a symbol of the problems facing the Hall of Fame. Berkman, who spent his career playing mostly corner outfield positions, first base and DH for the Astros, Yankees, Cardinals and Rangers never had much defensive value, but was a fantastic hitter. He had a career OPS+ of 144 and 51.4 WAR reflecting his significant power and rather extraordinary plate discipline.
Berkman's retirement comes after a season where he hit a disappointing .240/.340/.359 for the Texas Rangers. Berkman turns 38 on February 10th, so his retirement comes as something of a surprise, but injuries had substantially slowed him down over the last two years. Because of his retirement at this age, rather than trying to play a few more years, Berkman will not get the 34 home runs needed to have 400 or the 95 hits needed to get 2,000. His relatively low accumulation of home runs, hits and RBIs of which he had 1,234, will likely prevent Berkman from getting into the Hall of Fame. It is also likely that his candidacy will be quickly forgotten.
Berkman's Hall of Fame fate is a measure of how the Hall of Fame voters punish both steroid users, for their steroid use, as well as clean players for not being quite as good as their steroid-using opponents. The result of this will be a Hall of Fame with the excellent sluggers from previous generations, but only the very best, more accurately only some of the very best, from the last 20 years or so.
One way to see this is that every player who started his career before 1985 and posted an OPS+ of 140 or better with 7,500 or more plate appearances, Berkman had 7,814, is in the Hall of Fame. Of the 16, who have met those thresholds, but started their careers in 1986 or later, only one, Frank Thomas, has been elected to the Hall of Fame. Two of those players, Alex Rodriguez and Albert Pujols, are still active; others like Manny Ramirez and Jason Giambi will likely see their Hall of Fame candidacies thwarted due to PED use. It is likely that two from this list, Chipper Jones and Jim Thome will join Thomas in Cooperstown, but several clean sluggers whose numbers place them among the best ever, will not to make to the Hall of Fame. This includes players like Berkman, Larry Walker, Jeff Bagwell, Vladimir Guerrero and Edgar Martinez, none of whom were ever meaningfully associated with PEDs.
Berkman's numbers not only compare very favorably with recently elected sluggers from the 1970s and 1980s, like Jim Rice who had OPS+ 128 while accumulating 47.2 WAR, but of many others elected to the Hall of Fame primarily because of their run production like Tony Perez, Enos Slaughter, Jim Bottomley, Goose Goslin, Chick Hafey, Al Simmons and Orlando Cepeda. Others like Al Kaline played longer and accumulated better counting numbers, but were not the same offensive force that Berkman was.
If I had a Hall of Fame vote, I probably would not vote for Berkman despite his offensive production and very impressive post-season accomplishments, hitting .317/.417/.532 in 224 plate appearances, with even better numbers during his two World Series opportunities. His career was too short. He rarely led the league in a major offensive category, never finished better than third in MVP balloting, and provided little defensive value. Nonetheless, if he were to get elected to the Hall of Fame, Berkman would fit in fine as his career was better than that of probably a third of the outfielders or first baseman already there.
Berkman, however, is likely be one of several great sluggers of his generation, including Walker, Guerrero, Bagwell and Martinez who put up great numbers and stayed clean of PEDs, but will have a very difficult time getting into the Hall of Fame. Because they all played in a time of high offense and 26-30 teams, they rarely if ever broke through to the national baseball consciousness and are not appreciated for being as good as they were. These players are victims of the changing standards of Hall of Fame voters as well as a PED policy that, ironically, appears to punish both PED users and those that stayed clean. The result of this type of voting will be a Hall of Fame that tells an increasingly distorted and inaccurate history of the game.