It's been since 2008 since Lance Berkman was a force in the National League. Up until 2009, Berkman was one of the premier players in the senior circuit until injuries and age slowed him down for progressively worse 2009 and 2010 campaigns. Then the Cardinals signed him and announced that he would be their starting right fielder and people either gasped or laughed. But now, Berkman is one of the early fascinating stories of 2011 and though thirteen games is way too small a sample size, let's dig a little into his numbers and see if this falls under the fluke category.
A few things jump off Berkman's stat page over at Fangraphs.com for his 2011 start. The first is that Berkman is being much more aggressive in the strike zone. The last two years, it seems Berkman was tentative in that area. In 2009, he swung at 68.1 percent of pitches in the strike zone. The following year, that figure dropped to 66.4 percent. This year, that figure is way up to 79.1 percent which is much more reminiscent of the 74 percent rate he had during his good years. Perhaps this shows a confidence and well-being factor that wasn't there the last couple of years.
The second thing noticed was that his BABIP is sitting at only .278. Since that figure should be around the league average of .299 or .300, Berkman isn't getting lucky on balls in play. Despite the lack of balls falling in for him, Berkman is batting a healthy .327. This seems to indicate a sustainability for his average, if not his current home run rate.
On the negative side, Lance Berkman's line drive percentage is way up at 23.8 percent, much higher than his career norm of 19.7 percent. Berkman has not had that kind of line drive percentage since 2005. Perhaps the swing percentage in the strike zone and his line drive percentage add up to Berkman getting a lot of good pitches to hit early in the season. This might also reflect in his walk percentage, which is way down from his career norms. Berkman's walk percentage has always been consistent, so look for that to improve as the season goes along. Or perhaps, Berkman made a decision to be more aggressive this season and it's paying off. If you account for the extra line drives, Berkman's ground ball and fly ball figures fall in line with his career averages.
The power numbers shouldn't surprise anyone. Berkman now has 333 homers in his career and has hit over 40 homers in a season twice and over 30 three other times. All of Berkman's homers have been hit as a left-handed batter. The switch hitter has been vulnerable from the right side against lefties for quite a while now and he's only had eight at bats in that situation thus far this year with only one hit. Berkman will need to prove he can still be effective when the Cardinals face more lefties in the future. The likelihood of that happening will increase and Berkman has only hit one-sixth of his career homers against left-handed pitching.
Lance Berkman also has a really good situation thus far with how deep the Cardinals' line up has been. Theriot has been getting on base, Colby Rasmus is hitting near .400 and after pitchers get through Albert Pujols and Matt Holliday. Berkman has been making pitchers pay for any relief they have been feeling once they get through those two guys.
One last thing on the negative side of his numbers. Berkman is killing fastballs, which he is seeing about sixty percent of the time. But he has negative values against curves and change ups. That isn't the norm for him as he's always had some success against those pitches in the past. But for some reason, he is vulnerable against those this year. But even that negative can be a positive if you figure he will bounce back on those pitches to get back to his career norms.
The bottom line here is that this Fan doesn't think Berkman's early start is a fluke. He's in a good line up and in a good situation. Unlike the last few Houston years, he is playing for a contending team that has more professional players to inspire him. The big thing, of course, will be his health. Every time he trots out to right field, we will be holding our breath that he doesn't hurt himself out there. He needs to have a full and uninterrupted season to continue to be successful. But if he can manage to do that, Berkman is going to have a really nice season.
Oh! And one last thing. According to baseball-reference.com, Berkman is holding his own in right field. Negative numbers, but not a disaster. So far, so good it seems.