CHICAGO, IL - MAY 22: Paul Konerko #14 of the Chicago White Sox stands in the Chicago White Sox dugout before the game against the Minnesota Twins on May 22, 2012 at U.S. Cellular Field in Chicago, Illinois. This is Konerko's first game back after being hit in the face with a pitch on May 19. (Photo by David Banks/Getty Images)
While more highly-touted American League first basemen have struggled to start 2012, Paul Konerko is killing the ball. The White Sox captain might be the best hitter in baseball through the first two months of the season.
Since baseball is the lone sport that exists within a hard reality policed by numerical context at every turn, it feels appropriate to begin talking about Paul Konerko's mind-blowing start to the 2012 season by simply listing the raw data. Here you go: as the White Sox entered Tuesday night's game against the Tampa Bay Rays, Konerko leads all of baseball in batting average at .395. He's third in hits, second in on-base percentage, second in slugging, second in OPS. His OPS+ (adjusted for ballpark and era) is 205, which is remarkable because a) 100 is considered perfectly passable, and b) last year's league leader José Bautista finished at 181.
Coming into Tuesday, Konerko has had 46 at-bats over his last 11 games. In those plate appearances, he's hitting .600 with five homers. His slugging percentage over that streak was 1.075, which would place him third in all of baseball if it were his OPS. His OPS over the streak is 1.727, which would be like if you took Carlos Beltran's career OPS and multiplied it by two. Oh yeah, after singling in the ninth inning during the White Sox's Chris Sale-powered 2-1 Memorial Day victory over Tampa Bay, the first baseman extended his hitting streak 14 games, a mark that would come to an end with an 0-for-4 outing during the Sox's seventh straight victory on Tuesday.
While it's still early, it isn't that early. The .399 average Konerko took into Memorial Day is the highest since Roberto Alomar owned a .401 mark in 1996. You might still be listening to Pinkerton, but 1996 was 16 years ago. These numbers are starting to become significant.
Preseason projections created by either very smart humans or very smart humans who created very complex algorithms have been penciling in Konerko for regression at the dish for years. It still hasn't happened. This is Paul Konerko's age 36 season, and through the first 46 games and 191 at-bats, it's head-and-shoulders the best season of his career. Don't diminish the sample size too much. Konerko is mashing at historic rates while more highly paid and highly recognized American League first basemen like Albert Pujols, Adrian Gonzalez and Mark Teixeira are off to terribly underwhelming starts. That Konerko is keeping pace with Texas Rangers outfielder Josh Hamilton, who has hit opposing pitchers with a force of a natural disaster in 2012, might be his greatest accomplishment.
This is all so remarkable for numerous reasons. Here are a few:
- Speed: If any modern player was ever going it hit .400, it likely would have been Ichiro. Konerko himself recently admitted as much. Ichiro was a lefty who could run like the wind and would beat out plenty of weak groundballs in the infield. Konerko isn't as lucky; Konerko probably couldn't beat your dad in a 40-yard dash. That the White Sox captain is leading the league in batting average while doubling as the game's slowest player only adds another layer of adversity. Ichiro was flirting with .400 on "Rookie" mode, Konerko is doing it on "All-Madden".
- Hard on himself: Konerko's approach at the plate has been unquestionably pristine during his late career revival over these last three years, but what makes the production even more striking is how hard Paulie can be on himself. This is one of the more self-loathing athletes on Earth when things aren't going his way. Konerko used to let his struggles go directly to his head, and it helped sabotaged his 2003 and 2008 seasons. That may still even be the case, assuming Konerko ever struggles again. As the White Sox captain continues to hit the hell out of the ball, over-thinking has had no place in his brain.
- Age: Had Kenny Williams, Ozzie Guillen and Jerry Reinsdorf been given a supernatural chance to lock in Konerko's 2009 production for the next three seasons, I have to believe they would have pulled the trigger. Konerko was solid as a 33-year old in '09, finishing the season with 28 homers and a triple-slash of .277/.353/.489. A .842 OPS would have given the White Sox a pretty solid return on their investment, especially for an aging player. Instead, Konerko has spent the seasons following 2009 being better than ever.
Paul Konerko won't be a Hall of Famer. Hall of Famers are typically good for about 70 wins above replacement. Konerko has 30. But during the last three seasons, Paulie has reaffirmed his place as the second best hitter in White Sox history. He's almost a tall-tale on the South Side at this point, a local treasure who's only becoming more iconic as he ages. It isn't supposed to work this way.
There was a time when a late career push like the one Konerko is making would have triggered rampant steroid speculation, but these ears and eyes haven't seen a person even hint at it. It wasn't long ago that a bizarrely amazing first half from Raul Ibanaez earned White Sox blogger Jerod Morris a spot on ESPN's Outside the Lines for suggesting that people might even be talking about PEDs in relation to the production of the former Philadelphia Phillies' corner outfielder. No one has the audacity to question Konerko, particularly not the area fanbase that mythologizes him as a hybrid of Paul Bunyan and Chuck Norris.
Konerko's late career renaissance has been possible because of two distinct factors: he's hitting fastballs better than ever, and he's also started to use the entire field. Konerko has always been a top-notch fastball hitter, but he's been extra special over these last three years when one would think his bat speed would start to diminish. As Fangraphs recently pointed out, he's also turned himself into an outstanding opposite-field hitter.
More than anything, this is a time to appreciate Paul Konerko. Even he knows this production won't last forever. It can't. The passage of time will eventually mitigate even the greatest physical specimen, and Konerko is far from that. Instead, the captain can credit this late career resurgence to being one of the smartest hitters in baseball, someone who never stopped working at his craft despite very obvious physical limitations. When Kenny Williams briefly considered making Konerko a player-manager before the start of the season, it was (hopefully) more of a nod to Konerko's outstanding character and work ethic than a serious consideration. Williams was right to realize this is the real leader of the White Sox, reluctant as he sometimes seems.