Lance Berkman Broke Down In 2009 But Will He Rebound?

Bryan CurleyCorrespondent IDecember 29, 2009

PHOENIX - JUNE 14:  Lance Berkman #17 of the Houston Astros hits a 2 run home run against the Arizona Diamondbacks during the first inning of the major league baseball game at Chase Field on June 14, 2009 in Phoenix, Arizona.  (Photo by Christian Petersen/Getty Images)
Christian Petersen/Getty Images

Yesterday I looked at the catcher position and identified players whose past year deviated from their career averages.  Today I will do the same for first basemen and determine if last year’s stats are the start of a new trend or merely an anomaly.  

Kendry Morales

While Kendry Morales seemed to come out of nowhere last year, he was actually a member of the Angels for parts of the ‘06, ‘07, and ‘08 seasons.  In those 3 seasons he averaged 126 AB’s, 13 R, 4 HR, 15 RBI, and a .249 AVG.  With these paltry numbers it was no wonder Morales had a hard time cracking the lineup.  To be fair, Morales was behind Mark Teixeira for half of the ’08 season.  But in 2006, Morales received the most AB’s of any Angels 1B (196) and could not muster more than a .230 AVG with 5 HR and 21 RBI.  And in 2007, Morales gave way to Casey Kotchman, a player known more for his glove than his bat.  That brings us to 2009.  With Teixeira and Kotchman both gone, the keys to first base were once again given to Morales.  But this time he took advantage.  Last year Morales batted .306 with 34 HR and 108 RBI while scoring 86 R.  Certainly a pleasant surprise for those fortunate enough to take a chance on him last year.  But will he do it again next year?  Absolutely.  We know Morales can hit for average because his career minor league AVG is .332.  However, he did not hit for much power in the minors, registering only 1 HR every 22.18 AB’s.  He was even worse in the majors, registering 1 HR every 31.41 AB’s.  But this all changed last year due to an improvement in his plate discipline.  Morales walked once every 12.3 AB’s last year compared to once every 13.96 AB’s from 2006-2008.  He also only swung at only 46% of pitches thrown to him.  His previous low was 48.3%.  Morales also saw more pitches per plate appearance.  He saw 4.01 pitches per plate appearance, besting his previous high of 3.64.  With a firmer grasp of the strike zone, Morales was better able to look for his pitch and use his natural hitting ability to drive the ball.  An improved batting eye bodes well for Morales in 2010 to put up numbers similar to the ones he put up in 2009.  It also helps that nobody will be threatening him for playing time.  

Lance Berkman

Recently we here at Baseball Professor pegged Lance Berkman as the most disappointing 1B of 2009.  He finished the year with 73 R, 25 HR, and 80 RBI to go along with a .274 AVG.  Not good at all for someone who averaged 98 R, 32 HR, and 105 RBI and batted .303 during the 2000s.  Was last year just a blip in his stellar career or the beginning of the end for Lance Berkman?  To answer this question we must take a closer look at Berkman’s 2009 statistics.  In March, Berkman battled bicep tendonitis.  It is no surprise then why Berkman posted a line of 10/5/10/.162/0 in the month of April.  Excluding that month, he posted a line of 63/20/70/.295/7.  He put up those numbers in only 386 AB’s as he battled left wrist soreness, a strained left calf muscle, and back spasms.  Although these injuries are a concern, Berkman has showed that he can be productive while battling various ailments.  After looking at Berkman’s line again, it doesn’t look so bad considering he only had 460 AB’s.  In fact, his AB/HR ratio were not all that different last year (18.4) than from 2007-2008 (17.7).  It is also encouraging that Berkman put up these numbers despite posting a BABIP that was .24 less than his career average (.300 vs. .324).  Although Berkman is getting up there in age (he’ll be 34 by opening day), he still has at least one more year before we can count him out as a perennial 30 HR 100 RBI threat.  As a result he should become a nice value target on draft day and, with a full season’s worth of AB’s, should revert back closer to his career norms.  If you miss out on Pujols, Fielder, Cabrera, Howard, or Teixeira then don’t be afraid to draft Berkman.

Russell Branyan

Raise your hand if you had Russell Branyan in your 30 HR pool.  Didn’t think so.  One of the biggest surprises at the first base position, Branyan batted .251 with 31 HR, 76 RBI, and 64 R which were all career highs.  Not coincidently, he had the most at bats of his career with 431.  His previous high in at bats was 378 way back in 2002.  Could it be that simple, that all Branyan needed was more playing time in order to become a viable fantasy source of power?  At first glance it seems like this may be the case.  The difference between his actual BABIP (.307) and his expected BABIP (.295) was not all that great last year indicating that his numbers were indicative of his performance and not based on luck.  Also we know his power is for real considering that his AB/HR ratio last year was right in line with his career average (13.9 vs. 14.8).  These numbers seem to indicate that Branyan will be able to duplicate his ‘09 numbers if given the at bats.  However, there is cause for concern.  Here is a breakdown of Branyan’s month by month AVG totals: .333, .317, .265, .159, .206.  Note, he missed all of September with a herniated disk.  Not surprisingly, his career batting average is .234.  Maybe his former employers were onto something by not giving him 400+ AB’s.  With batting averages that low coupled with his putrid career batting average, Branyan will surely not be given as many at bats next year as he was given with the Mariners last year.  Last year was an aberration for Branyan.  He was thrust into a starting role because the Mariners were desperate for some power in the lineup.  Fantasy owners don’t need to be that desperate with so much power available at first base.  No matter where Branyan signs next year, his 2010 numbers will be closer to his career averages than his 2009 numbers.  Whether it be the injuries that have plagued him throughout his career or the fact that he will be forced into a platoon role, Branyan simply won’t accumulate enough at bats to be fantasy worthy.  Then again do you really want 30 HR if you have to take on a batting average south of .250? 

As always check out Baseball Professor for more fantasy baseball analysis.