William Lance Berkman
(Big Puma, Fat Elvis)
- Bats Both, Throws Left
- Height 6' 1", Weight 205 lb.
- School Rice University
- High School Canyon High School (New Braunfels)
- Debut July 16, 1999
- Final Game September 17, 2013
- Born February 10, 1976 in Waco, TX USA
Lance Berkman was a top-quality hitter who spent the first 12 seasons of his career with the Houston Astros. He was 3rd in the MVP voting in 2002 and in 2006, and was 5th in 2001. He made six All-Star teams and won a World Series ring with the St. Louis Cardinals in 2011.
At Rice, Berkman set records and led the team to the College World Series for its first trip ever in 1997. In 1995, Lance led the Southwest Conference as a freshman with 26 doubles but his .322 average and 6 homers were relatively unimpressive. The next year, he improved to .398 (4th in the SWC), slugged .747, drove in 92 runs and led the conference with 20 homers. Rice moved to the Western Athletic Conference in 1997 and Berkman starred, leading the WAC in average (.431), slugging (1.032), homers (41), RBI (134), runs scored (109) and hits (110). He was named to the All-Conference Team at first base and won Player of the Year honors. His 41 homers were second all-time in NCAA Division I, trailing Pete Incaviglia's 48 in 1985, and his RBI total was second all-time to Inky's 143. He led NCAA Division I in total bases (263), homers and RBI and was second to Mike Marchiano (1.034) in slugging. He won the Dick Howser Trophy as the NCBWA Player of the Year. He was named to the College Baseball Hall of Fame in 2015. Selected 16th overall in the 1997 amateur draft by the Astros, he signed for a $1 million bonus.
Minor League Apprenticeship
Berkman was assigned straight to High A with the Kissimmee Cobras and hit .293/~.411/.543. His OPS was among the best in the Florida State League and, even though he had only spent half the year with the club, he was named the 8th-best prospect in the league. In 1998, Berkman was named the 64th best prospect in baseball according to Baseball America and he continued to shine, hitting .306/~.422/.555 for the Jackson Generals with 24 homers, 85 walks and 89 RBI before a late promotion to the AAA New Orleans Zephyrs. With New Orleans, he homered six times in 17 games and had a .271/~.394/.644 mark. In the Triple A World Series, Lance hit .467 with 3 homers in the decisive Game 4 to win it; he was MVP of the Series. He was voted the #10 prospect in the Texas League and led the loop with 10 intentional walks.
Major League Debut
Entering 1999, Baseball America ranked him the 13th-best prospect in the minors, between Roy Halladay and Carlos Beltran. He came up for 34 games at the age of 23 with Houston, hitting .237/.321/.387, but spent most of the season with New Orleans, outshining the other college slugging legend, Pete Incaviglia, still hanging around and batting only .194. Berkman hit .323/~.422/.518 in 64 games for New Orleans with just 8 homers. He slipped to the #37 prospect ranking in the minors after that year. In the year 2000, after again spending a few weeks in the Pacific Coast League (.330/.479/.563, a walk per game), he played most of the season with Houston, hitting .297 with 21 home runs. That did not immediately make him a star, though, as Jeff Bagwell and Richard Hidalgo both hit over 40 home runs and batted at least .310, Moises Alou added 30 home runs with a .355 average, and Daryle Ward also hit 20 home runs in fewer at-bats than Berkman. It was a strong hitters' park.
Stardom with the Astros
Berkman ratcheted up his production in 2001, hitting 34 home runs with 55 doubles and a .331 average. Houston won the division with 93 victories. Berkman was 5th in the MVP voting, splitting votes with Jeff Bagwell, who was 7th. In 2000, he maintained his high production by hitting 42 home runs (3rd in the league) with 128 RBI (tops in the league) and was 3rd in MVP voting. The year 2003 was a bit of an off year. One highlight came in the first inning of a game on July 13, when he hit back-to-back-to-back home runs with Richard Hidalgo and Morgan Ensberg. He hit two home runs that game, the first multi-homer game of his 2003 season and already the 12th multi-homer game of his career. In 2004, he hit 30 home runs with 106 RBI, and added a personal high of 127 walks. He was 7th in the league in the MVP voting.
In 2005, he missed 30 games, but contributed to an Astros team that went to the World Series. Although Chicago trounced Houston in the Series, Berkman hit .385. Lance had another great year in 2006, hitting .315 and slugging a career-high .621 thanks to 45 home runs, also a career best. He drove in 136 runs - third highest in the National League and a new Astros record - and made the All-Star team for the fourth time as the Astros fell just short of the playoffs. He "slipped" to still robust numbers (.278, 34 home runs, 102 RBI) in 2007 and came in 5th in 2008 MVP voting, a season which he batted .312 with 29 bombs and 106 RBI. On June 13, 2009, Berkman took Jon Garland of the Arizona Diamondbacks deep for his 300th career homer. On September 11, 2009, he hit his 20th homer of the season, becoming the 11th player in baseball history to hit 20 home runs in every season in a decade, joining teammate Carlos Lee and Alex Rodriguez as the 3rd player to do it in the 2000s. It was a rare highlight in a season in which he was slowed by injuries and failed to reach either 100 runs scored or RBI; he finished with "only" 25 homers and hit .274, his lowest batting average since his initial season.
A World Series ring
Lance continued to hit below his career norms in 2010 and was traded midseason to the New York Yankees, where he failed to impress. He became a free agent after the season and signed with the St. Louis Cardinals for 2011. There, he had a big comeback season, earning National League Comeback Player of the Year Award as the Cards' starting right fielder. He played in the All-Star Game and hit 30 home runs for the first time since 2007, then was a key contributor when the Cards pulled a major upset by winning the 2011 World Series after it appeared until the season's last day that they would not even make the postseason.
He was moved back to first base in 2012, following the departure of Albert Pujols as a free agent, but was slowed down by a pair of stints on the disabled list in the early going. He missed a month with a calf strain sustained in early April, returning on May 13th, then barely a week later injured his right knee when he landed awkwardly after catching a relay from shortstop Rafael Furcal on May 20th. Exams showed he had damaged cartilage on both sides of the knee, requiring arthroscopic surgery and a layoff of 6 to 8 weeks. He finally returned on July 14th but was injured again in early August and only came back for a handful of games in September. As a result, he was limited to 32 games, during which he hit .259/.381/.444, and missed the postseason altogether. Berkman signed a one-year contract with an option with the Texas Rangers on January 5, 2013. He hit .242 in 73 games while being used primarily as the team's designated hitter. He played regularly until he was stopped by inflammation in his hip in early July, and he had been slowed by a sore knee before that. When he came back in September, he played only five more games. The Rangers declined their option on his contract after the season, making him a free agent once again. On January 29, 2014, he announced his retirement, stating his continuing knee problems made him unable to mount another comeback.
After retiring, Lance went back to Rice to complete the coursework required to earn the degree in kinesiology he never finished as a young man. He was also working as a student assistant coach with the school's baseball team under his old coach, Wayne Graham, as his objective was to work with youth in some capacity in the future.
Lance was a six-time All-Star who would have had a shot at the Hall of Fame had he kept up his production after his 2011 rebirth. He was one of the top switch-hitters in the history of baseball, but needed to accumulate more impressive career numbers and to show some longevity in order to be considered one of the all-time greats. The fact that he bounced back with a very strong season in 2011, after two off-years, was a very good marker towards the goal of reaching Cooperstown, but he followed with two unproductive, injury-addled years before retiring, hurting his chances at future induction. Indeed, in his first year of eligibility in 2019, he received just 5 votes and dropped off the ballot.
Berkman was known to sometimes be outspoken. When Commissioner Bud Selig moved a series of games between the Astros and Chicago Cubs from Minute Maid Park to Milwaukee's Miller Park because of Hurricane Ike in September of 2008, he stated: "Major League Baseball has always valued the dollar more than they do the individual, the players and their families." In early 2012, after the Astros had accepted to move to the American League following the purchase of the club by Jim Crane, he once again poked a jab at Selig: "I feel basically like the commissioner extorted Jim Crane into moving the Astros."
Berkman shares with Lou Gehrig the obscure record for the most consecutive years hitting a home run on the same date. He hit a home run on each September 21 from 2001 to 2007. Gehrig set the record on June 8, 1938.
Berkman is the brother-in-law of former minor league pitcher Joshua Baker.
- 6-time NL All-Star (2001, 2002, 2004, 2006, 2008 & 2011)
- 2011 NL Comeback Player of the Year Award
- 2-time NL Doubles Leader (2001 & 2008)
- NL RBI Leader (2002)
- 20-Home Run Seasons: 11 (2000-2009 & 2011)
- 30-Home Run Seasons: 6 (2001, 2002, 2004, 2006, 2007 & 2011)
- 40-Home Run Seasons: 2 (2002 & 2006)
- 100 RBI Seasons: 6 (2001, 2002, 2004 & 2006-2008)
- 100 Runs Scored Seasons: 5 (2001-2004 & 2008)
- Won a World Series with the St. Louis Cardinals in 2011
- Doubles, switch hitter, season, 55, 2001
- Extra base hits, switch hitter, season, 94, 2001
- Brian McTaggart: "Berkman and Cruz enjoying new challenge as college coaches", mlb.com, February 23, 2022.