Third in a series of weekly scouting reports provided to SI.com by the network of former scouts, players, coaches and executives at the Baseline Group. To read the first report, on Max Scherzer of the Diamondbacks, click here. To read the second, on Greg Maddux of the Padres, click here.
Lance Berkman is a durable, switch-hitting first baseman who can also play the outfield. He rates as a premium level player. He is a quiet, unassuming type and leads by example. He always plays the game hard.
Berkman has all the tools, and this year he's putting them all to good use. Here's how Berkman ranks in some important statistical categories, through May 19:
• 2nd in batting average (.389)
• 3rd in on-base percentage (.467)
• 1st in slugging percentage (.784)
• 1st in OPS (1.251)
• 1st in runs (48)
• 1st in home runs (16)
• 1st in RBI (44)
And he's even stolen eight bases - good for 19th in the majors.
Defensively, his footwork is average, but his reaction time and instincts have improved. Historically he hasn't talked much on defense, but he's screaming as loud as any player in baseball this year.
Berkman's production and unselfish approach has had a positive impact throughout Houston's lineup. Throughout his career he's been more than willing to talk a walk, giving those behind him more RBI opportunities. He ranks 20th among active walks leaders and figures to ascend to the top five on that list by the time he retires.
Berkman is fourth among active hitters in career OPS+, which is the sum of a player's on-base percentage and slugging percentage adjusted for the player's park and era. Berkman's career OPS+ is 149, which trails only Albert Pujols (168), Frank Thomas (157) and Manny Ramirez (154) and it bests Alex Rodriguez (147), Vladimir Guerrero (147) and Ken Griffey (139) among others.
Berkman is a smart hitter whose approach at the plate allows him to make adjustments from pitch to pitch. He is a veteran who can set up younger pitchers, especially those called up before they are properly developed.
As a right-handed hitter, Berkman pulls the ball more often. He sets up to pull the ball because he's not as efficient as hitting the ball to the opposite field. He can get away with this because he is left-hand dominant and at the plate he hooks the ball with his bottom hand. This is also the reason he has more low ball power from the right side of the plate. There is a significant difference between a bottom hand hook and a top hand hook. From the right side of the plate the start of his swing is longer than the left side and, as a result, he doesn't handle the ball up in the zone as well. It's one of his few weaknesses this year.
As a left-hander he is a better all around hitter and is doing tremendous damage for two reasons:
1. Prior to the pitcher delivering the pitch, he's made a subtle move back before he makes his stride. This move allows Berkman to see the ball for a longer period of time and make better decisions on which pitches to swing at.
2. Berkman has been able to keep the start of his swing consistent. The good start of his swing enables him to produce a shorter swing, and a shorter swing allows him to get to more pitches with the barrel of the bat. Berkman is a better high ball hitter from the left side and is more capable of hitting for power to all fields. It's the side of his natural power.
Berkman likes the ball out over the plate, preferably elevated. He does a great job letting pitches get deep into the hitting zone. He drives most fastballs to the opposite field or the middle of the field, and he'll pull off-speed pitches. He shows the ability to foul off a pitcher's best pitches and hit their mistakes very hard.
• Switch-hitter who can play 1B or OF
• Dependable and durable
• Leadership skills
• Game power to all fields as a left-handed hitter
• Very good pull power as a right-handed hitter
• Ability to maintain composure and poise in late game situations
• Less success against fastballs above the belt
• Tends to pull too much as a right-handed hitter
• Average range as an infielder
Berkman can have difficulties versus pitchers who can locate hard sliders. The hole in his swing is down and inside - much like Manny Ramirez.
At 1B, Berkman is a slightly above average defender with soft hands and an average, accurate arm. He is a smart player who anticipates plays well. He makes good decisions and knows when he can make aggressive throws to get lead runners. He has slightly above average range because of a quick first step and willingness to dive to make a play. He doesn't have very quick feet if he has to move more than a couple of steps to his left or right, but he takes deep angles to groundballs to make up for it. He handles low throws well and knows the situations where he has to knock down a bad throw.
If has to play the outfield, he is an average defender. He is best suited for the corner outfield spots because he lacks anything more than average range. His effort level helps make up for his shortcomings. He has an average arm that is accurate, and he hits his cut-off men. He doesn't always look smooth when making plays but gets the job done consistently.