Commentary

Hit Parade: Will the real Lance Berkman stand up?

Updated: May 20, 2008, 12:25 PM ET
By Brendan Roberts | ESPN.com

The age of 32 is too young for a hitter to be in decline.

Even if that hitter was starting in the big leagues by the age of 23. Even if he was moved to primarily first base (a switch that could mean he may be slowing down). Even if he has a reconstructive knee surgery in his past. Thirty-two years old -- Lance Berkman's age -- is still a prime year for a lot of hitters in today's game.

The amazing season Berkman has had so far is not an anomaly; his 2007 season was.

Houston, hello

Is Lance Berkman an every-other-year type of guy? His recent performance over the past few seasons may be saying so.

Year
AB
HR
RBI
AVG
OPS
2008
167
16
44
.389
1.251
2007
561
34
102
.278
.896
2006
536
45
136
.315
1.041
2005
468
24
82
.293
.935
2004
544
20
106
.316
1.016
I've spent no less than the last two hours while writing this trying to figure out what happened to Berkman last season, reading every scouting report, opinion, 2008 season preview ... and just about anything else a Google search could find. Nothing. Nothing that could explain why a career .304 hitter batted 26 points lower than that. Nothing that could explain why Berkman set a career-high for strikeouts in a season and a season-low for doubles. Nothing that could explain why his homers fell by 11 and RBIs by 34 from 2006, even though he got 25 more at-bats.

We all just kind of accepted that the 2007 Berkman was the new Berkman, probably because that version was still pretty darned good. He still hit 34 homers and drove in 102 runs, and a hitter losing his consistency and batting average but maintaining his power is something that often happens as sluggers age.

But that was not the real Lance Berkman. Who knows why he struggled (comparatively speaking)? Maybe his knee or another injury was bothering him, or there were off-field issues, or he just didn't get many good pitches to hit. Or maybe it was just one of those years.

This is reason No. 596 why fantasy owners use two or three years of stats and rate them about equally, unless there's a good reason not to. In Berkman's case, there was no reason to overweigh 2007.

I am guilty as charged, of course, as I've been slow to bring him back to elite status in my hitter rankings. (No, I'm not going to be fired for ranking him 4-5 spots too low, as one reader suggested.) But that practice is over until further notice. I'm seeing now that it's 2006 all over again for him. That season, he was hitting .350 as late as May 8 and had 10 homers in April. He finished with a .315 mark, with 45 homers and 136 RBIs. Hmm, after reading that, now this season doesn't seem like quite the surprise, huh?

I'm not sure he's headed for a career season; that .331-average, 34-homer, 126-RBI, 55-double 2001 season he put up was pretty amazing. But I say he maintains the hot start and finishes with, let's say, a .325 average with 40 homers, 130 RBIs and 40-plus doubles.

That, folks, is elite. Berkman owners have a gold mine on their hands in an early-round pick who has and will perform even better than expectations, which is hard to do. They should hang on to him for dear life.

Fortunes Rising

Hitter Rankings

Here it is May 20, and Victor Martinez has yet to homer. For the first time this season, he has lost the top catcher spot (to Geovany Soto).

1. Hanley Ramirez, Marlins (previous: 1)
2. Chase Utley, Phillies (2)
3. Matt Holliday, Rockies (3)
4. David Wright, Mets (4)
5. Jose Reyes, Mets (5)
6. Alex Rodriguez, Yankees (8)
7. Lance Berkman, Astros (11)
8. Miguel Cabrera, Tigers (7)
9. Albert Pujols, Cardinals (6)
10. Ryan Braun, Brewers (13)
11. Jimmy Rollins, Phillies (10)
12. Carl Crawford, Rays (9)
13. Brandon Phillips, Reds (12)
14. Alfonso Soriano, Cubs (30)
15. David Ortiz, Red Sox (16)
16. Chipper Jones, Braves (19)
17. Derrek Lee, Cubs (14)
18. B.J. Upton, Rays (15)
19. Prince Fielder, Brewers (17)
20. Ryan Howard, Phillies (26)
21. Carlos Lee, Astros (22)
22. Miguel Tejada, Astros (28)
23. Vladimir Guerrero, Angels (18)
24. Ichiro Suzuki, Mariners (20)
25. Josh Hamilton, Rangers (33)
26. Grady Sizemore, Indians (23)
27. Mark Teixeira, Braves (21)
28. Aramis Ramirez, Cubs (27)
29. Magglio Ordonez, Tigers (25)
30. Nick Markakis, Orioles (29)
31. Carlos Beltran, Mets (34)
32. Garrett Atkins, Rockies (36)
33. Rafael Furcal, Dodgers (40)
34. Justin Morneau, Twins (38)
35. Nate McLouth, Pirates (46)
36. Alex Rios, Blue Jays (24)
37. Curtis Granderson, Tigers (35)
38. Ian Kinsler, Rangers (48)
39. Matt Kemp, Dodgers (41)
40. Torii Hunter, Angels (37)
41. Geovany Soto, Cubs (39)
42. Manny Ramirez, Red Sox (32)
43. Victor Martinez, Indians (31)
44. Dan Uggla, Marlins (NR)
45. Carlos Guillen, Tigers (45)
46. Carlos Quentin, White Sox (NR)
47. Jacoby Ellsbury, Red Sox (50)
48. Brian Roberts, Orioles (42)
49. Derek Jeter, Yankees (44)
50. Adam Dunn, Reds (NR)
Adam Dunn, OF, Reds: The 5x5 population tends to overrate three offensive categories: homers, steals and batting average. Considering Dunn looks downright yucky in the latter two, it's a common misperception that he's been a major disappointment this season. He may be a disappointment, but he's not a major one. In fact, do you realize Dunn is on pace for 43 homers and 115 RBIs? And he's just now starting to heat up. That .231 average and one steal give owners one last chance, if it hasn't passed already, to get Dunn for below-market rate.

Eric Chavez, 3B, A's: Remember this guy? Ya know, the guy who won the AL Silver Slugger award at third base in 2002, the guy who was a perennial .280-30-100 guy for a stretch earlier this decade, the guy with six Gold Glove awards and the guy revered in the book "Moneyball." All reports I've been reading say that Chavez is looking good at the plate in Triple-A (he's 4-for-10) in his return from back problems, and he should return within the next couple weeks. Obviously, I'm a fan, and I have reason to be, considering he's healthy again and is still only 30. I can't speak to his durability and health, but you can't tell me he doesn't at least intrigue you in anything beyond 10-team standard leagues.

Bobby Crosby, SS, A's: Speaking of once-good A's, you know what you hadn't seen in awhile? A Bobby Crosby homer: He went a month before hitting his third homer of the season Sunday. You know what else you haven't seen, though? These words in Crosby's game log: "Did not play." Believe it or not, Crosby has played in every one of the A's 46 games this season, and there are no reports of a nagging injury or anything. And he's starting to come alive in May. Look, I'm as big a Crosby hater as there is, but even I must admit that there aren't many shortstops/middle infielders out there with Crosby's kind of power potential, no matter your league size. The homers are just beginning, and he's still available in about 55 percent of ESPN leagues. Give him a look, huh?

Fortunes Falling

Jacque Jones, OF, Marlins: His problem wasn't the league, his location or the ballpark. In fact, Jones was getting plenty of good pitches to hit in the right-hander-heavy AL Central and at the bottom of that Tigers lineup, and Comerica doesn't have the dearth of homers that many believe. Jones has simply lost it. He's a free-swinging bum who swings at too many bad pitches, can't hit lefties and no longer runs well. Even those in NL-only leagues can roll your eyes, as I just did, when you see him show up on your league's waiver wire now that he's with the Marlins.

J.R. Towles, C, Astros: He's hitting .149. Yes, .149. Only Brian Bocock has a lower batting average among players with at least 75 plate appearances. I know the catcher position is supposed to be defense-first, but the 25-22 Astros can't stand for this much longer. Sadly, even Brad Ausmus, who started Monday, could do better than that. Not only do I see Towles losing his starting gig, but if he doesn't pick it up soon, I could see him back in the minors by June.

Kurt Suzuki, C, A's: Speaking of catchers who look overwhelmed, how 'bout this guy? He's hitting just .153 in May after a respectable .281 in April. Plus, his strikeout rate is up this month, and he has walked only twice. I've been told many times that it's a bad sign when a first-year starting catcher slumps in May, for three reasons: (1) May usually marks the second time through the division, (2) it's an indication the "scouting report" has gotten around the league and (3) it's a sign that fatigue is beginning to sit in, which is understandable given the mental and physical overload a young catcher must experience. Either way, it adds up to a catcher who shouldn't even be your second catcher right now in mixed leagues. It's time to cut him loose, if you haven't already.

Pickups of the week

Mixed: Jay Bruce, OF, Reds: If you believe the reports, and I do, you'll see the Reds' phenom within the next few weeks. He's available in around 80 percent of standard mixed leagues.

AL-only: Michael Aubrey, 1B, Indians: The former first-round pick was called up by the Tribe on Saturday and promptly hit his first big league homer (for his first hit) Sunday. The lefty slugger should get enough starts at first base to pop the occasional homer and be a boon for AL owners.

NL-only: Wil Nieves, C, Nationals: With Paul Lo Duca and Johnny Estrada out, Nieves is splitting time with Jesus Flores and is quietly batting .326.

Splits check

This one courtesy of our ESPN Research team: Dodgers third baseman Blake DeWitt is 8-for-15 with runners in scoring position and two outs. That's definitely a good sign that the rookie can get the big hit.

Ballpark Watch

Wrigley Field: After watching the Cubs knock Randy Wolf around Wrigley on May 12, I felt like I'd seen that before. Turns out the Cubs are averaging a whopping 6.74 runs per game at home this season (.78 runs per game more than the second-best D-backs) and have a league-high .851 team OPS against lefties. Hmm, looks like Jeff Francis is set to pitch there next week. Guess I gotta sit him yet another week.

Player Rater surprise

Arizona's Chris Young and his .254 average still have a higher Player Rater score than such hitters as Jose Reyes and Carlos Lee. Behold the power of a high run total and nine home runs.

Schedule Watch

Use the new Trading Block link on your fantasy baseball team page to communicate your trade desires with other owners in your league!
White Sox: Talk about imbalance. The White Sox have played 27 games on the road and just 16 games at their hitter-favorable home field thus far. (Makes their division lead look a little more impressive, eh?) But things even up in June. Beginning June 3, the team will play 22 of their next 31 games at U.S. Cellular Field. My guess is that Paul Konerko picks it up right around that time.

Points Watch

Whereas the 5x5 owner doesn't, the points-league owner does get bonus points for doubles and triples. The extra-base hits (and walks) are key facets in those leagues, which means that Jose Guillen hasn't been quite as bad as he has been in 5x5 leagues. Guillen has 21 extra-base hits, which is more than even Chipper Jones and Matt Holliday. In fact, Guillen has almost as many doubles (16) as singles (18).

Position Watch

Rajai Davis, 2B?, A's: When Mark Ellis was out last week, the A's were having Davis take grounders at second base, which isn't as far-fetched as it sounds. He was drafted by the Pirates as a second baseman. His steals would be nice from that spot if he were to get enough games there.

Tip of the Week

Here's an odd one for you, but it shouldn't be overlooked. When talking trade with a fellow owner, craft your correspondence to match the intellect of that owner. For instance, if you know the guy writes brief but messy e-mails, then you do the same because you figure that's what he's going to appreciate reading. Guys like that don't like getting trade talk from a guy who sounds like an Oxford professor, because they might feel they're being "talked down to" or are confused by the vocabulary. As such, when you're talkin' trade with a high-IQ guy, speak his language and impress him. Don't make it seem like you're a dumb guy who can be snookered by an intelligent individual. When trading, you want to make it seem like you're on the same level as your fellow owner so that you can cut right to the chase.

Brendan Roberts is a contributing writer/editor for ESPN Fantasy.

Brendan Roberts is a contributing writer/editor for ESPN Fantasy. He has been covering fantasy sports as an editor and writer for more than eight years and was awarded the Fantasy Baseball Writer of the Year award in 2006 from the Fantasy Sports Writers Association. Roberts can be read in both the fantasy baseball and football areas at ESPN.com.

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