The Big Puma was a one-of-a-kind elite hitter in his time with the Astros, and to this day is underappreciated by both the media and fans.
The Baseball Writers Association of America (BWAA) released the 2021 Baseball Hall of Fame ballot in November, with the ballot results to be released in late January. There are no notable first-time ballot entries for Houston Astros alums, and we’re still waiting to see if former Astros Jeff Kent, Andy Pettitte and Billy Wagner will get admission into Cooperstown.
We are still not more than two years removed from the 2019 ballot results where Houston Astros legend Lance Berkman fell off the ballot after only one year (only 5 votes, 1.2%). While I’ll admit it was doubtful Berkman would have ever ended up in the Hall of Fame, the fact that he was dismissed after one round on the ballot is still to this day baffling.
When people think of Astros players, most will immediately turn to greats such as Joe Morgan, Nolan Ryan, Jeff Bagwell, Craig Biggio, or even Jose Altuve. While he never reached the level of notoriety of those Astros greats, Berkman still had a sneaky-incredible career that, upon further reflection, deserves more revere.
A silky-smooth switch hitter from Waco, Berkman was drafted in the first round of the 1997 draft by Houston and eventually made his way up to the majors in 1999. Nicknamed “The Big Puma,” Berkman was a not-so-great athlete with an incredible ability to hit the ball from both sides of the plate. When he sat up in the batter’s box, he was a force to be reckoned with – he was calm, he had power and was clutch in the big moments.
During his peak with Houston (2001-2008), Berkman hit .303 to go along with 263 home runs and 879 runs batted in. With the Astros, he was named an All-Star five times and finished in the top five in MVP for voting four times (2001, 2002, 2006, 2008). In 2005, he was a vital part of the Astros magical postseason run and hit .385 against the White Sox in the World Series.
Berkman followed that up with his 2006 season, which was just statistically absurd. That season he slammed 45 HRs, 136 RBIs, while having a .315 batting average and OPS of 1.041. Berkman’s 2006 season was overshadowed by other mammoth seasons from Albert Pujols and Ryan Howard, which seemed to be the story of his career. He was constantly a victim of someone else’s spotlight – he never generated the same recognition that Barry Bonds or Albert Pujols or Ryan Howard or David Ortiz did. He may have never had the gaudy power to smack 55+ home runs, but he produced at similar levels to those superstar players and never garnered the same attention.
Berkman struggled with injuries and was traded in 2010, but eventually was able to get back to the World Series and earn a ring with the St. Louis Cardinals in 2011. During the 2011 NLCS and World Series, Berkman hit .369 in those 13 games – including a pivotal Game 6 hit against the Texas Rangers that helped them comeback and win it all.
Longevity will always be what critics will rail on about Berkman, a player who only managed to play 1,900 games in his 15-year career. Injuries might have derailed his chances at a Hall-of-Fame induction, but for more than a decade Berkman was one of the best hit most feared hitters in the game. He had the ability to pull the ball and go opposite field like a Tony Gwynn and had the natural power like a Chipper Jones.
Astros historians in future years will scroll and read about the great Nolan Ryan days, the iconic Bagwell and Biggio seasons, and of course 2017 World Series Championship. But the Lance Berkman experience in Houston during the mid-2000s was a tremendous ride. Seeing him standing in the box wearing that red burgundy number 17 Astros jersey, smacking doubles through the gap and thumping homers into the Crawford Boxes was a joy for a young fan like myself.
We shouldn’t forget how great he was, even if the Baseball Hall of Fame chose to.