Converting to Konerkoism

Even more troublesome is Konerko’s potential for deterioration. For $12.5 million a year, and at three years for a guy turning 35 in March no less, is the sort of gamble that comes from teams overpaying because they’ve been perpetual losers or because of unnecessary emotional attachment. Yes, Konerko is a Reinsdorf favorite, so his return was almost guaranteed, and, yes, he was staggeringly good last year, and there is no chance he repeats it. None.
-- Jeff Passan, Yahoo! Sports

Paul Konerko hit the ground running with a dynamite April, carrying a lackluster offense through some pretty dark times. Regression caught up to him in May, with a two-week slump dragging his numbers back down to familiar territory. However, he found a way to shake it off when the calendar flipped to June, where he rediscovered levels of elite American League production.

Now, the only question is ... which year am I talking about? Last year, when Konerko discovered reserves of talent in the midst of a prolonged, gentle decline and posted a career year at the age of 34?

Or am I talking about this year, when Konerko has done the same damn thing?

His numbers from the first 68 games of each season tell the story:

Year G PA R H 2B 3B HR RBI BB SO BA OBP SLG OPS
2010 62 265 37 66 11 0 17 52 36 37 .296 .396 .574 .970
2011 65 282 32 79 11 0 16 52 28 38 .322 .390 .563 .953

 

Or, more succinctly:

  • 2010: 160 OPS+
  • 2011: 160 OPS+

The guy whom Passan said had "no chance" of sustaining his renaissance wants to do more than just repeat his career year. He appears to be hellbent on cloning it.

Even in 2011 Konerko's line is much more likely resemble what he produced from 2007 to 2009, when he hit a composite .260/.350/.475. Those are solid numbers, but unspectacular for a first baseman who provides no defensive or baserunning value. If he hits like that for the next three years, the White Sox will be taking a loss in value on the deal (though they did load the contract with deferrals that will spread payments out until 2020), and that's assuming he doesn't actually decline, in which case they'll have an unmovable player in 2013 who's dragging the offense down.
-- Keith Law, ESPN.com

Until last year, I'd been among the many who put Konerko in the "unspectacular" bin. Sure, he was the cornerstone of the World Series team, and I loved that grand slam as much as anybody. He even posted a better year in 2006, but that only allowed him to work out of a hole I put him in for being in the anti-Frank Thomas camp with David Wells earlier in the decade.

I'll grant that's emotional and irrational to some degree (although it makes sense on paper, siding with the greatest player in the history of the franchise over a professional slob). But it was accompanied by annoyance at more substantial issues -- his tendency to get into massive slumps, and his tendency to wear those slumps on his face and shoulders. He had defense mechanisms in place to avoid inspiring people, and when Ozzie Guillen anointed him the team's captain before the 2006 season, even Konerko agreed that it didn't really fit him.

With Jim Thome and Jermaine Dye on the team, Konerko was more or less just a guy. His numbers were mostly sufficient, but they never stood out too much (even when he had a career year in 2006, Thome and Dye were markedly better). Small nagging injuries held him back in other seasons. He didn't see much of a point in team meetings. He never suggested that changes were needed. He seemed content to blend in.

That's not Konerko's fault, but I felt like the Sox were trying to pass off something I couldn't really see. Like, sometimes I'll run into a pet owner who feels compelled to project a personality onto an otherwise detached dog. Their golden retriever or whatever will be lying motionless while a toddler pulls on his ears. "He's so good with kids, isn't he?" they'll say. On the outside, I'm doing my best uneasy Paulie-grade half-smile in an attempt to share the moment. On the inside, I'm thinking, "Maybe he's just indifferent."

I looked at Konerko in a similar light. The Sox told me he was the captain and the rock. From my perspective, he was thrust into a position of leadership, but he's only capable of leading by example. And between a prolonged slump here and a bad thumb there, he struggled to stay in a tone-setting condition.

Over the last eight baseball months, he's been Paulie the Pitch Pipe. He slugged in April while the other bats froze. He went 10-for-18 with a floating bone fragment in his wrist, then, after having it surgically removed, he smacked two doubles in his first game back. Hell, he took a fastball to the face, and then homered on the next pitch he saw. Besides watching Pablo Ozuna run out a double on a broken leg, it might be the manliest thing I've seen on a ballfield.

He might be 35, but he can still get around on any fastball. And when he needs to look off-speed, he'll shift gears into front-foot mode and think right field, which is why he's hitting .322 this year. Konerko is impressive, and in an unassuming way that leaves me wondering what his teammates are watching.

Gordon Beckham mimics Konerko's between-pitch routine, but he can't copy the way Konerko keeps his head on the fastball. Alex Rios has twice Konerko's speed, and yet he's grounded into twice as many double plays because he rolls over the outer-half pitches that Konerko dumps into right field.

"Why can't they be more like Konerko?" I think. And that's something that never crossed my mind before the past calendar year, because I didn't think a team could handle more than one Eeyore.

The droopy donkey is no longer an apt comparison. This version of Konerko, Leader of Men can lead by example because Konerko v3.0 performs no matter what. That's not the model the Sox always sold, but I'm happy to buy into it now.

Yes, just like Law said, Paul Konerko has become virtually unmovable. I don't think there's anybody in the White Sox organization who would entertain trading him, and it's finally starting to make sense to me.

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