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Lance Berkman, Aging and Fireworks (Home Runs)

By this point, we're all familiar with Lance Berkman's season. It began with a knee injury that required arthroscopic surgery, continued through a slow start and has ended with him at a .240/.352/.396 slash line. We know where he's been in the past, but where is he going? At 34 years old, he's at a point when aging starts to catch up with players. As that article recently pointed out, these things happen. Players age and that affects their performance. Power hitters tend to lose some pop as they hit their 30s. But, is that happening to Berkman? Is his slow first half about his injuries or his aging? Let's look at some of his stats to see what's what.

First of all, look at his BABiP. It's the lowest its been since his rookie season back in 1999. It's also under .300 for the second straight year and only the third time in his career. He's got some improvement coming there, but not a lot. Even if he gains 15 points in BABiP, will that improve his offensive output that much? It may bring his batting average up over .250, but that's a far cry from where it's been in seasons past.

The thing is, BABiP may decline as player's age. I haven't seen any definitive studies on this, but batters are more susceptible to different levels of "normal" BABiP, depending on speed and other skills. Maybe Berkman's aging pattern has just lowered his acceptable BABiP level. At any rate, we can't blame this on his bad stats. Even when his BABiP hovered around .300, his batting average was up around .270 or .280. How do we account for that 30-40 point decline?

Don't look at his line drive rate. That percentage has stayed consistent around 18 percent for the past five seasons. His other batted ball data doesn't provide many other clues. Yes, his ground ball rate has increased, but only about three percent over the past two seasons. At this point in the season, that's almost in the range of statistical error, instead of showing an actual decline. Same goes for his fly ball rate's decline by about three percent. Neither show much change from how Berkman's been hitting. 

Two batted ball rates do stand out, though. His infield fly ball rate doubled from last season, going from 7.7 percent to 15.4 percent. I'm reluctant to draw any conclusions from this, though, since he had a similar IFFB rate in 2006 and 2007, with much better results. His home run per fly ball rate is also low, falling almost seven percent from last season. If there was one area where you could definitely see improvement coming, it's here. This looks to be more about a statistical anomaly than a real jump. He hasn't had more than a four percent drop in any other season, which suggests he should show some improvement in his home run total over the next two three months.

Maybe it's how pitchers are approaching him. The only real drop here is in the percentage of sliders he's seen. Since he has typically hit sliders pretty well in his career, this could be a change. Instead, it seems like pitchers are throwing him more curve balls. That's probably not a good idea, as Berkman is crushing them pretty well this season. He is seeing less fastballs and is having less success hitting them. That could show age catching up to him. Does he have the same bat speed he once did? Has there been a little drop in it, so he can't catch up to the good heaters? 

That may be the case, but it's probably another thing that will bounce back as the season progresses. I'm more confident in this after looking at his plate discipline numbers. For instance, he's not whiffing on a higher number of pitches. In fact, his swinging strike rate is about the same as in 2009 and where it was for most of his career. He's also not swinging at pitches outside the strike zone or at more pitches in the zone. Those rates are all pretty normal. In fact, the only percentage that's out of whack here is in his contact percentage for pitches inside the strike zone. If he continues at this pace, he'll set a career-high in Zone Contact percentage. Does that mean pitchers are throwing him fastballs down the pipe that he's barely missing? Or is this just a sign that he'll bounce back as the season rolls on. 

On the whole, it really doesn't look like Berkman is suffering the effect of aging. He's just going through an unlucky patch and should pull out of it by the end of the season. ZIPS tends to agree with me, showing Berkman hitting totals of doubles and home runs about like he got to in 2009. Of course, that's a little disappointing to the people who thought he'd be having another monster season, but I'd be happy with this new level. He could play for three or four more seasons as a good starter at this level. He's not a superstar, though, and that's what his salary suggests he should be producing. 

The big question is whether his singles will pick up. If he starts hitting more singles, he should raise his batting average over the .255 that ZIPS projects for him. That should also pick up his other rates and possibly push him over .500 for his slugging percentage. 

Will you see more home runs (fireworks) from Berkman? Yes. Is age catching up with him? If it is, it's not showing up anywhere but his singles totals. I'd say that's pretty good, though it may not be good enough to get his option picked up for 2011.