Wednesday, January 8, 2014

Lance Berkman: Stealth October Superstar

As promised, here is the breakdown of the overpowering, overlooked postseason career of the third-ranked hitter in Championship Probability Added:

Lance Berkman
2001 NLDS
2004 NLDS
2004 NLCS
2005 NLDS
2005 NLCS
2005 WS
2010 ALDS
2010 ALCS
2011 NLDS
2011 NLCS
2011 WS

The 2001 opening act of Berkman's postseason run was highly inauspicious – a 2 for 12 NLDS in which he was largely responsible for his team’s Game 2 defeat (0 for 4, hit into two double plays in a 1-0 loss).

2004 was a marked improvement – Berkman had four multi-hit games in Houston’s 5-game NLDS victory over the Braves, scored five runs, and drove in three. In the subsequent NLCS against the Cardinals, Berkman homered three times, drove in nine, scored seven, and slugged .750. He had a particularly notable day in Game 4 of that series, with a two-run double in the third and a solo homer in the sixth of a game that the Astros would win by a run. His efforts went largely unnoticed, however, partly because he was hitless over the last three games of the series (though with three walks and a sacrifice fly), but mostly due to the fact the Cards and Astros were putting on a classic contest, highlighted primarily by Albert Pujols and Carlos Beltran hitting the cover off of every ball in sight. (Beltran co-opted Berkman’s Game 4 thunder with the go-ahead homer in the seventh, for instance.)

Despite his excellent batting line (.348/.436/.674), Berkman’s ’04 postseason didn’t quite cancel out the negative weight of his debut year. 2005, however, was another story. It began with a second consecutive fine performance against the Braves in the NLDS, capped by an eighth-inning grand slam that brought Houston within a run in Game 4. They would tie it in the ninth, and Berkman hit a two-out double in the tenth to put the winning run in scoring position – and was removed for pinch runner Chris Burke. The Astros failed to bring Burke home, and the game persisted for another eight innings, the last three of them famously pitched by Roger Clemens. It finally ended in the eighteenth on a walkoff homer by Burke.

The NLCS started slower for the Big Puma, with four hits (including two doubles), one run and no RBI through the first four games. In Game 5, with Houston ahead 3-1 in the series, the Cardinals held a 2-1 lead going into the bottom of the seventh. Two Astros reached with one out, bringing Berkman to the plate.

This is the kind of situation that can absolutely cement a hitter’s October reputation. In fact, 25 years earlier in a near-identical at bat (trailing 2-1 with two runners on in the seventh of a potential pennant-clinching game for a franchise that had yet to reach the World Series), George Brett hit a home run off of Goose Gossage which has achieved at least moderately legendary status.

Berkman wasn’t up against a future Hall of Famer, but he was facing the next-best thing: NL Cy Young winner Chris Carpenter. Just like Brett, he launched a 3-run homer to give his team a potentially series-sealing 4-2 lead. And yet, Berkman gets nowhere near the credit that Brett does, because two innings later, Albert Pujols crushed a titanic home run against Brad Lidge that cost the Astros the game. Viewers will generally remember the ninth-inning go-ahead homer over the seventh-inning go-ahead homer, especially when the ninth-inning homer travels a jaw-droppingly long distance.

With history having been stolen out from under him, Berkman went 0 for 4 as Houston wrapped up the pennant two days later. That sent them to the World Series against the White Sox, which ended up being a pretty noteworthy one.

In Game 1, the Astros came from behind twice in the early going; the second rally was capped by Berkman’s game-tying 2-run double in the top of the third. Berkman also singled in the eighth, moving the tying run to third with nobody out; it would advance no further, and the Sox held on for the win.

Game 2 saw the Astros take their first lead of the Series on a Morgan Ensberg homer in the second, but the Sox came back with two runs in the bottom of the inning. Berkman tied it with a sac fly in the third, then gave his team the lead with a two-run double in the fifth; the lead endured until Paul Konerko’s seventh-inning grand slam. The Astros would tie the game on a two-run single by Jose Vizcaino in the ninth before Scott Podsednik walked off with a homer against Lidge (who really did not have a banner postseason).

The third contest was one of the wildest (and longest) in Series history. Berkman started it with an RBI single in the first, and the Astros extended the advantage to 4-0 (with Lance contributing a mid-rally single in the third as well) before the Sox exploded for five runs in the fifth. The Astros clawed back to even on Jason Lane’s eighth-inning double, and loaded the bases in the ninth (including an intentional walk to Berkman) before Ensberg struck out to send the game to extras. The teams both left several runners on through the extra frames (including Berkman once after he walked again in the eleventh) before Geoff Blum homered in the fourteenth to break the tie; the Astros put the tying runs on in the bottom of the inning before succumbing.

Chicago finished off the sweep in Game 4 with a 1-0 shutout win. They walked Berkman three times in the game, which was decided by Jermaine Dye’s eighth-inning RBI single.

Berkman’s overall line in the Series was 5 for 13 with two doubles, five walks, and six RBI. It’s a fine performance made better by the fact that the four plays that produced those six RBI all either tied the game or gave the Astros the lead. On balance, Berkman’s +.184 CPA in the ’05 Series is the best ever by a player whose team was swept.

Of course, since his team was swept (albeit in easily the most exciting sweep ever), few people noticed (and fewer cared) how well he played. Giving him the Series MVP he likely deserved would have made the trophy presentation undeniably awkward.

Berkman was a part-time player for the Yankees in 2010. Despite his limited role, he had a big day in Game 2 of the ALDS against the Twins, with a go-ahead solo homer in the fifth and a go-ahead RBI double in the seventh. He played more frequently but less noteworthily in the ALCS, going 3 for 12 with a triple and a pair of walks in New York’s defeat.

That brings us to 2011, which is both Berkman’s last postseason and his best (so far). It started with a Division Series in which Berkman’s raw numbers were unimpressive (.167/.286/.389) but his production was fairly well-timed – a first-inning 3-run homer in Game 1 (off of Roy Halladay), and a first-inning RBI double in Game 2 to counteract a 2-run Phillie rally in the top of the inning. That double set the stage for the Cards to come back on the bat of David Freese, who doubled, homered, and drove in four in the game, effectively removing Berkman’s RBI double and later run scored from the public consciousness.

This is a classic example of what people in the literary analysis industry refer to as "foreshadowing."

The Cards finished off Philly with a Chris Carpenter shutout in Game 5, then vanquished the Brewers in a 6-game NLCS in which Berkman hit respectably, if not powerfully (6 for 20, two RBI and four runs, two walks, one time hit by pitch, and no extra-base hits). That put them in the World Series against the Texas Rangers, a Fall Classic that ranks among the best ever played.

In Game 1, Berkman opened the scoring with a two-run single in the fourth, propelling the Cards to a 3-2 win. In Game 2, he singled and reached on an error, neither event playing much of a role in the 2-1 defeat absorbed by his team. Game 3 included two hits, a walk, and two runs for Berkman, which would have been considerably more newsworthy if Pujols hadn’t hit 3 homers to lead St. Louis to a 16-7 win.

Game 4 saw Texas’s Derek Holland shut down the entire Cardinal lineup, save one man: Berkman’s second-inning double and fifth-inning leadoff single averted a no-hitter and gave his team a pair of legitimate scoring chances. Those opportunities went unconverted, as did the one in the ninth that ended with two runners on and Berkman on deck as the potential tying run. Lance walked and scored in the second inning of Game 5, helping St. Louis to a 2-0 lead, but his later appearances included three strikeouts, the third of which ended the game.

That sent the Series to a sixth game, with the Cardinals facing elimination. We'll look only at Berkman's plate appearances in an effort to isolate his performance from the general lunacy of one of the all-time classics.

First PA: Cardinals trailing 1-0 in the bottom of the first, runner on first and two outs. Berkman homered to provide his team a 2-1 lead, which would be the last one they'd enjoy for quite some time.

Second PA: Cardinals trailing 3-2 in the bottom of the fourth. Berkman led off the inning by reaching on an error, and came around to tie the game on a textbook manufactured run: walk, forceout, groundout.

Third PA: Cardinals trailing 4-3 in the bottom of the sixth, one out. Berkman singled, and scored the tying run thanks to an error and a pair of walks.

Fourth PA: Cardinals trailing 7-4 in the bottom of the eighth. Berkman flied out to lead off the inning.

Fifth PA: Cardinals trailing 7-5 in the bottom of the ninth, Pujols on second and one out. Berkman took a four-pitch walk, crossing the plate with the tying run on a two-out triple by Freese.

Sixth PA: Cardinals trailing 9-8 in the bottom of the tenth, two outs and runners at first and second. Berkman worked the count to 2-2, putting him one strike away from ending the World Series in defeat, then singled to center, bringing the tying run home and keeping the season alive.

That’s six plate appearances, and five of them resulted in Berkman either scoring or driving in the tying run. If that’s not a single-game record (for all of MLB history, not just the World Series), then I want to be made aware of the game that bests it.

WPA adores Lance’s work in this game, grading it at +.828, one of the best World Series games ever by a hitter. And yet, his exceptional effort has been almost entirely forgotten just two years later, because the publicity was justifiably focused on Freese, whose season-saving triple and walkoff homer added up to +.964 WPA – the best postseason game ever by any hitter.

Berkman walked in the first inning of Game 7, and scored yet another tying run on a Freese double; he also singled in the seventh and scored an insurance run in St. Louis’s 6-2, Series-clinching win. Freese was deservingly awarded the World Series MVP; Berkman was left in the cold despite going 11 for 26 with a double, a homer, five walks, five RBI, and nine runs scored – one run shy of the single-Series record.

Human memory has the understandable but unfortunate tendency to remember complicated, drawn-out happenings in highlight-package form, zooming in on one or two prominent features and downplaying the rest. Lance Berkman is a victim of that tendency, because he has spent his entire career being ever-so-slightly out of focus in October. He played Gehrig to Carlos Beltran’s brilliant Ruth in 2004. He hit a regulation grand slam to set up an 18-inning marathon, then saw the man who pinch ran for him end the game with a walkoff homer. He hit a potentially pennant-clinching homer two innings too early, giving his more-famous counterpart on the other team just enough time to upstage him. He put together a marvelous performance in his World Series debut, and his team got swept anyway. And in his return to the Fall Classic, he assembled one of the biggest single-game hitting performances in postseason history at exactly the same time as the hitter two spots below him in the lineup put up THE biggest single-game hitting performance in postseason history. It’s as though Berkman has been unknowingly entered into the witness protection program, and the players sharing the field with him are desperately trying to keep his picture off of the front page.

No longer  at least not here. Berkman has produced an exemplary collection of October accomplishments, even if they were always relegated to the second or third paragraph of the article describing the games in which they occurred. He deserves to take his place among baseball’s postseason legends.

Fittingly, given the nature of his postseason body of work, that place is an understated third.

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