Texas Rangers v Los Angeles Angels of Anaheim

Dont’cha just love well thought out titles?

Writing about player performance this early in the season is at least somewhat silly, but is pretty much required anyway (see Infallible Prediction Number 12). So we solider on.

I have little shame about it because, well, I’m pretty much shameless, and also because regression will soon very likely ruin the fun little subplots of Lance Berkman and (especially) Travis Hafner getting off to great starts for their new teams with late-30s revival seasons. It is fun because, while both players were awesome during their primes (Berkman’s was much longer than Hafner’s), their being good this late in their careers would have been an unlikely prediction to make even back in 2006 when they were both among the best hitters in baseball. Who knows how long it will last? For now, it is worth exploring their similarities and differences then and now, with yet another reminder of the value of plate discipline.

Kinda sounds like the nerdiest After-School Special ever, doesn’t it? Or like that moment in every episode of The Client List where someone tells the Jennifer Love Hewitt character how beautiful/smart/brave she is. Uh, not that I’ve ever watched that show.

Lance Berkman and Travis Hafner have very different Major League origin stories. Berkman was pretty much slated for major-leagueness (as much as a prospect can be, anyway) from the beginning. He was the 1997 College Baseball Player of the Year, an All-American, and was drafted 16th overall in the 1997 draft by the Astros, raeching the majors in 1999. It would not be accurate to compare the hype around him to Mike Trout or Bryce Harper – he was a very good prospect, but was not ranked as a future monster who would become one of the greatest switch-hitters of all time. But yeah, people knew he was good. Berkman hit from the get-go in his first real season in 2000, when he busted out a .297/.388/.561 (132 wRC+) line.

[Side rant: It is crazy to remember that not only was Berkman an outfielder back then, as (Jeff Bagwell was playing first base and still putting up .400 wOBA seasons), but Berkman actually spent a fair amount of time in center field, getting almost 1000 innings there in 2002. He was already "Big Puma" in those days (I'm not sure when "Fat Elvis" got started, but it is impressive that in this nickname-poor age, Berkman has two good ones), but he was athletic enough to at least fake it in center.]

The Young Travis Hafner was not seen as quite the prize as the Young Berkman. Although he was a year young that Berkman and was drafted a year earlier, he was not taken until the 31st round of the 1996 draft out of Cowley County Community College in Arkansas City, Kansas (where I have been, multiple times. Also, I just learned that Hafner was the valedictorian of his high school class of eight in Sykeston, North Dakota – a school that did not even have a baseball program).

While Berkman got a brief taste in 1999 and became a full-timer in 2000, Hafner did not even see the majors until 2002, when the Rangers gave him 70 plate appearances. While Berkman was already established as a burgeoning hometown hero, Hafner was so highly regarded by the Rangers that he was packaged with something named Aaron Myette and sent to Cleveland for Einar Diaz and Ryan Drese. Good thing the Rangers had the future of their DH and first base spots covered with Mark Teixeira and the soon-to-be-traded for Adrian Gonzalez on the way, am I right? Maybe Texas was just disappointed in Hafner’s inability to fake it in center. Or at first.

Hafner looked decent over a half season of 2003 in Cleveland, but really got going in 2004. (At some point, he got the equally-awesome nickname of “Pronk,” a derivative of two others: “Project” and “Donkey.”) His time on top of his was relatively short, but from 2004 to 2006 he was perhaps the third-best hitter in baseball behind Bonds and Pujols (according to wRC+). Berkman was fifth by that ranking in that time period, but the duration of his prime period of awesomeness started earlier (2000) and lasted longer (until 2008), and Big Puma has had a borderline Hall of Fame career.

Whatever their past accomplishments, for Hafner in particular but also for Berkman, there had to be some skepticism going into 2013 for both players. Hafner, in particular, never looked the same after 2006. He was decent in 2007, but in 2008 the injury problems really mounted. He was worse than worthless in 2008. After that, with a big contract that Cleveland was stuck with, he was never horrible at the plate, but he was never great, and he managed to play in more than 100 games in on only one season after 2007. The penny-pinching Yankees signed him for $2 million as a platoon DH in a effort to simply fill a hole prior to his season.

Berkman was understandably seen as the bigger prize given his history and his big comeback year with the bat for the Cardinals in 2011. Yet there was understandably some skepticism when the Rangers guaranteed him one year and $11 million. The Yankees spending $2 million on a 37-year-old platoon DH is one thing, but the Rangers spending $11 million on a 36-year-old DH is another, especially considering some aspects of his recent history. Berkman did have that big 2011 in St. Louis while playing mostly outfield. However, he missed most of 2012 with knee injury. While being able to DH full-time obviously reduces the strain on his knee, these sorts of injuries are not just all about running and fielding.

Whatever the pre-season concerns, and with, yet again, the acknowledgement of how young the season it, both players are raking. Berkman is hitting .345/.472/.534 (176 wRC+) which is great, but Hafner has been even better, smacking the ball around to the tune of .300/.417/.660 (191 wRC+). There are some important descriptive differences in the performances — Berkman is mostly riding a high batting average on balls in play (.400), while Hafner is hitting for monstrous power (.350 ISO). Neither is going to last, at least not at this rate, but that is not all there is to either of their hitting games so far this season. Here are a few final notes on aspects of the past, present, and potential near future these players both share.

While both players were well-rounded hitters in their prime, they both had somewhat high averages on balls in play. Clearly, it was not because they could run out slow-rolling infield hits. Berkman’s career BABIP is .318. Hafner’s is lower, but in his prime he had seasons over .340, despite being a slow guy who hit a surprising amount of ground balls given his power. This is simply a reminder that while BABIP fluctuates quite a bit compared to power or plate discipline, it is still a skill, much more so for hitters than pitchers.

Having a diverse set of hitting skills has been found to make is easier for hitters to age gracefully. While both players had high BABIPs in their best seasons (and that is hardly unusual), and perhaps for their careers, it was clearly not the main driver behind their value. Both Hafner and Berkman had power. Despite their builds and sabermetric stereotypes, however, they were not three true outcome Adam Dunn types. Both hit for average. While both had plenty of walks, neither struck out that much, at least not for their “type. Berkman’s strikeout rate was mostly average for his career, while Hafner’s was slightly higher in most years. But neither was Mark Reynolds.

It is also worth noting that both players are currently in team and stadium situations that suit them. Berkman is in Texas, which not only allows the DH, but favors, well, all hitters. But the way parks work, the better the hitter is, the more he will produce in a hitter’s park given that the effect on events is multiplicative. For Hafner, he is in a platoon situation, which obviously helps, but is also in a home park that especially favors left-handed power. That is a good choice by the Yankees.

But while power was a big part of their past games and remains so in the present, both players, especially Hafner, saw their power drop as they aged. That is to be expected. What remained was their plate discipline. While Hafner’s strikeout rate went up over 20 percent in his later Cleveland years, it never got out of control. Moreover, despite him not being the power threat he had been, he kept his walk rate in double digits (except for the 9.8 percent in 2011) every year. Berkman did not experience the same obvious drop off, but by 2009, he was not quite the same as he had been.

Berkman (and to a lesser extent, Hafner) will see his 2013 BABIP come down. Hafner will not keep hitting for this kind of power in 2013 (Berkman might end up hitting for a bit more). Berkman clearly had the better career and is likely still the better hitter. Whatever their differences, both are in situations that favor the skills they still retain. They both have at least decent power, and neither has ever been overly dependent on balls falling into play or hoping that their big flies will go out rather than floating into an outfielders glove. And, at the root of it all is perhaps the cheesiest but perhaps most obviously true sabermetric standby: knowing and exploiting the strike zone is the root of good offense.

It’s a Sabermetric Hallmark Hall of Fame Moment.