My first thought: Other than sabermetric types who dream about walks and OBP, I don't think most baseball fans think of Berkman in Hall of Fame terms and I'm sure some of you will be insulted that I'm using Berkman and Hall of Fame in the same sentence. I could be wrong about that. I believe most baseball writers probably don't think about Berkman in those terms, although I could be wrong about that as well. For example, it's pretty clear that Berkman has been regarded by the baseball writers as a great player. He's finished third, third, fifth, fifth, seventh and seventh in various MVP votes.
What does that mean? Bill James created something called "award shares." If you're a unanimous MVP winner, that's 1.0 award shares -- you collected 100 percent of the possible maximum points; if you collected 80 percent of the possible points, that's .80 award shares. And so on. Berkman has 2.0 career award shares, which doesn't sound like a lot, but is more than Ryne Sandberg, Tony Gwynn, Gary Carter, Roberto Alomar, Rod Carew, Robin Yount, Willie McCovey, Eddie Mathews, Billy Williams, Paul Molitor and many other Hall of Famers.
So I think that at least puts him in the discussion; it doesn't make him a Hall of Famer, but it's a starting point that he merits the debate.
Berkman's power and on-base skills have made him a lethal hitter. From 2001 through 2009, he hit .301/.415/.558 while averaging 32 home runs and 107 RBIs. He hit as high as .331 in those years, topped 40 home runs twice, led the NL one year with 128 RBIs, drove in 136 runs another, made the postseason three times. Those are all things Hall of Famers voters like. During those nine years, he ranked seventh in home runs, fourth in RBIs, fourth in OBP, eighth in slugging percentage, sixth in OPS and fifth in OPS+ (behind Barry Bonds, Albert Pujols, Manny Ramirez and Alex Rodriguez). He was, clearly, one of the elite hitters in the game.
But was nine elite years enough? Hall voters, of course, require a tough-to-dissect combination of peak value and career value. After struggling in 2010 with a knee injury, Berkman bounced back with a terrific 2011, hitting .301 with 31 homers. He had a great World Series, hitting .423, driving in five runs, scoring nine. The Cardinals won it all. In 52 career postseason games, his batting line is .317/.417/.532. I'll take that, thank you.
So where does that leave us?
A player who was one of the elite hitters of his generation.
Ten Hall of Fame-caliber seasons, plus a great partial season in 2000 (.297/.388/.561 in 114 games) and a not-so-great 2010.
A terrific postseason performer.
A player who didn't win an MVP Award but fared well in the voting.
On the negative side: Not much defensive or baserunning value, a late career start (his first big year came at 25) and relatively low career totals (right now) of 359 home runs, 1,197 RBIs and 1,836 hits.
It's interesting to compare him to his one-time teammate, Jeff Bagwell, who obviously isn't in the Hall of Fame (for some reasons we all know about) but whom many of you and in the stat community believe is a no-brainer Hall of Famer:
Bagwell did that in 2,150 games, Berkman over 1,787 games so far, so it's not exactly the same thing. Plus Bagwell had to play his early years in the Astrodome and was a superior first baseman and baserunner. Anyway, the point is they're pretty close as hitters, which many may not realize.
I thought entering the season that Berkman needed two more good seasons similar to his 2011 campaign -- get him past 400 home runs, close to 1,500 RBIs. Yes, voters love those round numbers. The knee injury wipes out much of 2012 and puts his future in doubt. Berkman alluded to having concerns about coming back. "You certainly think, if I have to get my ACL repaired, I might be done playing," he said. "And the doctor kind of said that. He's like, 'Well, you're not a young man anymore.'
Without adding to his career counting totals, this puts Berkman on the Hall of Fame bubble. As Dave Cameron wrote on FanGraphs, "Given his numbers and his peers, my guess is that Berkman ends up with guys like (Edgar) Martinez and Todd Helton -- hitters who specialized in the wrong skills."
Given those bubble candidates, voters historically favor the long careers -- Tony Perez and Eddie Murray -- over the high-peak, shorter career guys (Martinez, Larry Walker). They did vote in Jim Rice a few years ago, but he's a bit of an outlier candidate for a lot of reasons, a guy whose case became a politicized battle of the pre-steroids generation.
What do you think? Myself, it's a close call, but I think those peak years were so good I'd vote for him. Ten years as one of the very best hitters in the game? Works for me.