Ever since Lance Berkman said he is playing this year to get his 2011 contract option picked up, we have seen a lot of media discussion about the Big Puma's future in Houston. Fangraphs discusses what Berkman might be worth in the free agent market if he leaves Houston. Maybe I'm too defensive as an Astros' fan, but the fangraphs piece seemed too much like fans of other teams licking their chops at the availability of Berkman. The Chronicle's fanblog asked fans whether they believed Berkman is in serious decline and whether his option should be picked up. (With a few exceptions, most commenters seemed to think Berkman would continue to be worth the $13 million cost of picking up the option.)
My best guess is that the Astros will end up either picking up the option in 2011 or working out a multi-year contract extension which might be structured to reduce the annual cost in 2011. But I don't have a crystal ball, and that isn't exactly my subject anyway. Instead, I will ponder what level of performance we might expect from Berkman in his age 34, 35, 36 years. For this rumination, I will look to comparable players to Berkman from the past and how they performed at ages 34 to 36. Thus, my title "back to the future." This may not be the most reliable method of prognostication, but I enjoy the process of recalling and comparing prominent players from the past.
For my comparables group, I used Dick Allen, Carlos Delgado, Larry Walker, Willie Stargell, Fred McGriff, Chipper Jones, Jeff Bagwell, Eddie Murray, and Brian Downing. Bagwell, Murray, and Downing are Berkman's top comparables produced by the ZIPS forecasts. The remaining comparable players are the most similar players to Berkman at age 33, as generated by Baseball-Reference's similarity score. Two players on the Baseball-Ref list were not used because they had no age 34 data available. (Albert Belle retired due to injury after age 33, and David Ortiz is the same age as Berkman,) These comparable players were exceptional-to-great hitters. Two of the players (Stargell and Murray) are in the Hall of Fame. Bagwell, Jones, and perhaps even Walker have a chance of being voted into the Hall, when their time comes.I will use OPS+ from Baseball-Reference.com for the comparison, because it is a simple and effective statistic for comparing hitting across different time periods and takes into account ballpark impact. For each of the comparable players, the following table provides the average annual OPS+ for ages 34 - 36. (Note that Dick Allen didn't play at age 36, and in his case, only ages 34 and 35 are averaged.) For comparison, Berkman's OPS+ in 2009 is 139 and his career average OPS+ is 147.
Average OPS+ Ages 34 - 36
Hitters in their mid-30's often exhibit more erratic performance from year to year. Age-related declines in performance usually don't occur in a straight line. Sometimes hitters will put up a peak type season late in their career. Below I show the highest annual OPS+ for ages 34 - 36: For comparison, the table shows the career OPS+ after the 34-36 age high OPS+.
Highest OPS+ Age 34 - 36 / Career OPS+
Allen 143 / 156
Delgado 131 / 138
Walker 160 / 140
Stargell 161 / 147
McGriff 142 / 134
Jones 176 / 143
Bagwell 135 / 149
Murray 158 / 129
Downing 137 / 122
Average 149 / 139
In most cases, these players put up an OPS+ season between ages 34 - 36 which is higher than their career OPS+. Chipper Jones, who shares a switch hitting similarity to Berkman, posted two of his three highest OPS+ seasons at the ages of 35 and 36. Larry Walker and Willie Stargell showed little decline during their mid-30's and continued to post exceptional OPS+ seasons after age 36.
Overall, the performance of the comparable players provides a moderate degree of optimism about Berkman's level of performance over the next three seasons. It's possible that Berkman rebounds with a late career peak, like Chipper Jones. Even if that doesn't occur, the odds are good that Berkman will put up at least one season close to his career peaks accompanied by lessor seasons similar to 2009 (OPS+ of 139) or 2007 (OPS+ of 130). And that would be pretty darned good.