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Big League Stew

We’re Going Streaking! Lance Berkman returns to top of the NL

Alex Remington
Big League Stew

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The Stew goes through the quad and into the gymnasium to look at some of the hottest players in baseball and their chances of keeping it going.

Lance Berkman, St. Louis Cardinals

The Naked Truth: .357/.444/.705, 10 HR, 32 RBIs, 2 CS

Having a nice little Saturday: The 35-year-old Lance Berkman — who was traded from the Houston Astros to the New York Yankees at the deadline last summer for a middle reliever and a weak-hitting minor league infielder — is currently leading the National League in slugging, OPS and total bases, and leading the major leagues in RBIs. The Big Puma might have never settled in as a Yankee, but now that he's back in the NL Central, he's tearing the cover off the ball. Yes, it seems that rumors of Berkman's demise were greatly exaggerated.

You're my boy, Blue!: Maybe we shouldn't be that surprised that one of the greatest switch hitters of all time is having a great year. And that's exactly what Berkman is. Among switch hitters with at least 5,000 plate appearances, Berkman has the second-highest OPS+ of all time, a few points higher than third-place Chipper Jones. (Mickey Mantle is highest, by a substantial margin.) Berkman has the fifth-most home runs by a switch-hitter, behind only Mantle, Eddie Murray, Jones and Chili Davis, and if he hits 14 more home runs — as he looks absolutely certain to do — he'll pass Davis for fourth on the list. He's four years younger than Jones, and if he plays the next four years the way Jones has played his last four, he'll merit serious Hall of Fame consideration.{YSP:MORE}

That said, Berkman is hitting a bit over his head at the moment. His BABIP is .349, 31 points higher than his career BABIP of .318, which suggests that his batting average will probably come down two dozen points or so. Similarly, 19.2 percent of his fly balls are going for home runs, compared to just 14.8 percent for his career (and just 12.4 percent from 2008-2010), which means that he probably won't stay on pace for 42 homers all year. Still, his plate discipline is better than ever. He hasn't been walking quite as frequently as usual, but he's striking out much less than usual, so he's one of only 15 qualified players in the majors this year with more walks than strikeouts. His line-drive rate is 23 percent, which is 3 percent higher than his career rate, and 6 percent higher than his rate from 2008-2010.

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Think KFC will still be open?: Berkman isn't way over his head — like, say, Jeff Francoeur, who's striking out more than three times as often as he's walking, and for whom a decline in production are as sure as death and taxes — but he's a little over his head, and he'll come to earth a bit. (Also, Matt Holliday won't hit .390 all year.)

But fortunately for the first-place Cardinals, Holliday and Berkman decided to go out of their minds at the exact same moment that Albert Pujols decided to impersonate a mere mortal. The only problem for Berkman is the usual unknowable: How long will his balky knee allow him to stay on the field? After nearly a decade of exceptional durability, he has only averaged 129 games a year the past two years, missing time due to injuries to his knee, ankle, calf, groin, back and wrist. Whenever he's on the field, though, he's sure to hit.

What other players are currently streaking?

Carlos Beltran, New York Mets .295/.387/.590, 8 HR, 24 RBIs, 0 SB, 0 CS, 17 BB/18 K
It's truly a joy to watch Carlos Beltran play well. Though he's 34 years old and coming back from knee surgery, he hit three homers on Thursday and looked like the unstoppable force he was in the 2004 playoffs. While he's probably the most successful base stealer ever — his 88 percent success rate with 289 stolen bases is the highest in recorded history — his foot speed has declined, and the formerly elite center fielder has now become an unspectacular right fielder.

But the man can still mash, and his fine plate discipline remains. Like Berkman, his strikeouts are down this year and he's walking at his usual rate since 2005. Thursday night's outburst was uncharacteristic for Beltran, who had never belted three in one game before, and it has elevated his homer per flyball rate above career norms; 14.3 percent of his fly balls are going over the fence this year, compared to 11.2 percent for his career. But that's also the exact homer per flyball rate that he managed from 2006-2008, so it's not entirely outside the realm of possibility. His contact and swinging strike rates are right where they usually are, and his BABIP is actually 12 points lower than his career average. Other than the power output, everything Beltran's doing is eminently sustainable, and the power is hard to write off, because he's certainly done it before. The injury history makes one nervous, but for now, it's safe to say that Carlos Beltran is back.

Matt Joyce, Tampa Bay Rays .358/.410/.569, 4 HR, 15 RBIs, 11 BB/24 K
Sam Fuld has returned to earth, so the first-place Rays are now being led on offense by 26-year-old right fielder Matt Joyce, the man they received for Edwin Jackson more than two years ago. Joyce has a moderate amount of power and plate discipline, but he struggled to find playing time on the Rays, and still has never received as many as 250 at-bats in a season. This year, he's played his way into the starting lineup and then some, but he's not likely to keep hitting this well.

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Because he's only amassed about a season's worth of at-bats over the last four years, it's hard to know how much to extrapolate from his career stats. Judging by his minor league career, Joyce is a decent though not extraordinary hitter. His 9 percent walk rate this year is lower than his 12.3 percent walk rate in the minors, but it's slightly above the league average of 8.7 percent. His 19.7 percent strikeout rate this year is slightly higher than his 18.8 percent rate in the minors and the league average of 18.0 percent. Moreover, his league-leading batting average relies on an unsustainable .422 BABIP and a just-as-unsustainable 32 percent line drive rate. Sooner or later, his numbers will come back to earth. He's almost certainly capable of being a league average hitter. But he won't remain a league leader.

Bartolo Colon, New York Yankees 2-1, 3.86 ERA, 37 1/3 IP, 3.70 FIP, 1.23 WHIP, 5.29 K/BB
As Dave Cameron pointed out Friday morning, Bartolo Colon is currently leading the American League in xFIP — his xFIP is 2.81, far better than his 3.86 ERA and 3.70 FIP, implying that he has gotten quite unlucky on home runs. In addition, he may also be getting unlucky on hits, because his BABIP is .317, 21 points higher than his career rate of .296. But Cameron notes that Colon has also been getting quite lucky on strikeouts, because he has a worryingly low swinging strike rate. On the other hand, the main point stands: While Colon isn't the best pitcher in the league, he's still a quite good pitcher, and not very different from the quite good pitcher that he was for years. His average fastball velocity of 91.7 mph is almost exactly equal to his average fastball velocity from 2005 to 2007. Though there are some other red flags aside from the swinging strike rate — his walk rate (4.5 percent) is unsustainably low, nearly half his career rate (8 percent) —but his velocity is back, and his results aren't outside the realm of possibility with a pitcher who was as good for as long as Colon. Control was always his weak point, so his results will certainly decline if his control begins to flag. But he is exactly as he appears: A pretty good pitcher who is pitching pretty well. As Cameron writes: "Colon has never been lousy. This surgery didn't make a bum into an ace because he was never a bum to begin with."

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