Paul Konerko’s 2010 was both a gift and a curse.
The numbers Konerko posted were outstanding, career-highs in some cases. Without his production, the White Sox’s lineup would have been abysmal in the season’s first two months. Had the White Sox found their way into the playoffs, he would’ve been a serious MVP contender.
But because Konerko’s fantastic season came in a contract year, he’ll cost more for the White Sox to retain, if he comes back at all.
As with the 2005 offseason, Konerko’s decision to stay or go looks like the defining aspect of the White Sox’s 2010 offseason. Obviously, that may not be the case—as it was in 2005, when the Jim Thome trade defined the offseason.
There are a few questions regarding Konerko’s 2010 success that need to be answered: 1) Is it sustainable? 2) What kind of contract can Konerko get on the open market? And 3) Should the White Sox meet that value?
Stats and stuff
- fWAR: 4.2
- FanGraphs page
- bWAR: 5.0
- Baseball-Reference page
Konerko’s 2010 numbers really are staggering for someone who hadn’t hit at an extremely high level since 2006. He set the following career highs (previous career highs in parenthesis):
- .393 OBP (.381, 2006)
- 584 slugging percentage (.551, 2006)
- .415 wOBA (.394, 2006)
- 160 wRC+ (138, 2005)
- .272 ISO (.258, 2004)
- 5.0 bWAR (3.5, 2005)
He also had second-best seasons with a 4.2 fWAR (4.4, 2005) and a .312 batting average (.313, 2006) while his 39 home runs were the third-most in his career (41, 2004; 40, 2005).
Konerko started mashing home runs right out of the gate, as he hit 11 in 22 April games. But he cooled off significantly in May, hitting just three home runs with a .712 OPS. After those up-and-down first two months, Konerko hit at a high level with remarkable consistency.
There were a few factors behind Konerko’s success that should be noted that are red flags for Konerko’s chance to repeat his success next year.
Home run/fly ball rate
First, Konerko saw his home run/fly ball rate spike back to around his 2004-2005 levels after after seeing a decline from those levels in the last four years. In 2004 and 2005—years in which Konerko hit 41 and 40 home runs—his home run/fly ball rates were 22 and 20.3 percent. From 2006-2009, that rate was around 15 percent.
In 2010, Konerko’s HR/FB was 19.5 percent.
Most of that has to do with Konerko simply hitting the ball better. Without thinking back to Konerko’s home runs, I went to Konerko’s home run distance chart on Hit Tracker expecting to see a bunch of dots clustered at about the 370-foot mark in straightaway left field.
At first glance, the chart looks to have fulfilled my expectations. But digging deeper, that wasn’t really the case.
When looking at the distance graphs for Konerko’s 10 shortest home runs, only two of them seem to be egregiously “just-over-the-fence.” Both those came away from U.S. Cellular Field (at Angels Stadium, and not surprisingly, Yankee Stadium).
But seven of the eight remaining home runs in that group were pulled either into the White Sox’s bullpen or the first few rows of seats in left field at U.S. Cellular. We know that U.S. Cellular is a home run haven, as the set of park factors from Toirtap show.
ESPN’s park factors show that U.S. Cellular Field played better for home runs in 2010 than it did in 2009, so maybe that played a role in Konerko’s home run jump as well.
But, as I’ll talk about below, Konerko’s home run/fly ball rate should be expected to regress. Maybe it does, maybe it doesn’t. But the most likely outcome of 2011 is that Konerko’s HR/FB rate does regress to the mean like so many other things do in baseball and life.
Obviously, BABIP didn’t influence Konerko’s home run output (home runs aren’t in play). But his .326 BABIP was a fairly significant departure from his career average of .285, so that’s a noteworthy stat.
Over the last nine seasons, Konerko has a line drive rate of 20.9 and a BABIP of .285. That sounds about right for a slow power hitter who rarely beats out infield hits.
But the gulf between Konerko’s line drive rate and BABIP in 2010 was .128, significantly higher than his usual .076 difference. A regression to the mean in that regard should be expected in 2011 for no better reason than that’s what usually happens.
Konerko obviously could buck the regression trend and see his BABIP stay in the .320s. I’m not saying there will be a BABIP regression, instead, I’m saying that I expect one. Expecting Konerko to keep his BABIP in the .320s would be foolish. The most likely outcome is that it falls back into the .280 range and, in turn, Konerko doesn’t have monstrous OBP and batting average numbers again.
After regressing to a good—not great—level in 2007-2009, it looked as if the 34-year-old Konerko’s 2004-2006 production was a thing of the past. While Konerko struggled in 2008, that season was an aberration. He rebounded well in 2009, posting a .362 wOBA and a 2.5 fWAR, proving that 2008 (1.1 fWAR) to be an aberration.
But instead of flat-lining in the 2.0-2.5 fWAR range, Konerko’s fWAR shot up to 4.2 in 2010. When you consider that a -13.8 UZR—a number I don’t buy into—significantly lowered his value, his 5.0 bWAR seems more accurate.
Like most players with a one-year or valley, Konerko regressed to numbers eerily similar to his career averages in 2009 (see also: Swisher, Nick) after his 2008 struggles. A healthy Konerko was able to bounce back to his career norms after one isolated aberration (in part caused by a thumb problem).
The same goes for players who see one-year peaks, especially players in their mid-30’s like Konerko. We’re not talking about Barry Bonds here—Paul Konerko will not get better with age. He’ll still be a good player in the 2.0-2.5 win range, but he shouldn’t be expected to be the great player he was in 2010.
We saw Konerko have a positive regression from 2008 to 2009. We should expect to see a negative offensive regression from 2010 to 2011 from Konerko.
On the bright side, we’ll almost certainly see a positive defensive regression from 2010 to 2011. Konerko’s been somewhere in the -4 to +2 DRS/UZR range over the last few years, and even though his range isn’t good, he’s not the defensive liability DRS and UZR rated him as in 2010.
Not a fluke
By no means was Konerko’s 2010 a fluke. Brady Anderson—who knows more than a few things about being accused of a fluke season—put it best back in 2004:
“Because I only hit 50 home runs once, it was, in fact, an aberration. However, it was not a fluke,” he told The Sun yesterday. “Nothing can be considered a fluke that takes six months to accomplish. Rather it was a culmination of all my athleticism and baseball skills and years of training peaking simultaneously. This was my athletic opus.”
Everything came together for Konerko in 2010. His timing was perfect, he didn’t have to mess with his stance, he was locked in, etc. There were legitimate reasons beyond Konerko’s HR/FB and BABIP as to why he put together such a fantastic season.
Konerko’s 2010 will likely be viewed as an aberration. Just don’t call it a fluke. Calling it a fluke implies Konerko was nothing more than lucky. While luck was part of Konerko’s success, it wasn’t close to everything.
Essentially, give the man some credit.
Don’t worry, he’s probably coming back
Jerry Reinsdorf is a very loyal owner, and while he usually doesn’t meddle in personnel decisions, don’t be surprised if he has a hand in bringing Konerko back.
Kenny Williams wants Konerko back, which leads me to believe Reinsdorf will open his wallet and do anything to bring back the man who awarded him the ball that registered the final out of the 2005 World Series.
But the deep market for first basemen this offseason and Konerko’s Type A status could work in the White Sox’s favor:
Russell Branyan (mutual option)
Adam Dunn (B)
Aubrey Huff (B)
Paul Konerko (A)
Adam LaRoche (B, mutual option)
Derrek Lee (B)
Carlos Pena (B)
Add in that two premier players in Adrian Gonzalez and Prince Fielder may be on the trading block and you have a logjam of first basemen available this winter. Konerko’s the only Type A free agent first baseman, too, so if the White Sox offer him arbitration, he’ll almost certainly return to the team with a multi-year deal.
If Konerko turns down arbitration, it’s hard to see another team giving up draft picks and three years, ~$30 million for a soon-to-be 35-year-old first baseman, even if he’s coming off a career year.
As long as the White Sox offer Konerko arbitration, I’ll be 99 percent sure he’ll return.
But is that a good thing?
The White Sox aren’t going to low-ball Konerko, but he shouldn’t get the $12 million he’s earned for the last five seasons. Something along the lines of two years, $20 million with a team/mutual option for a third year at $10 million sounds about right.
If Konerko is a 2.5-win player, $10 million a year would be fair in the current market where one win=$4 million. The White Sox won’t get a bargain for Konerko’s contract, but the indirect benefits of it will add to its worth.
Namely, that indirect benefit would be to not have Dayan Viciedo supplanting Konerko in 2011—which would happen if Konerko leaves, according to Brett Ballantini. I’ll get into Viciedo later this week, but the short version is that I think Viciedo would benefit from another year in the minors as opposed to being thrown into the fire full-time next year.
Another indirect benefit would be keeping Konerko’s leadership in the clubhouse. Clubhouse leadership is almost always overrated, but I’m willing to believe someone who’s been with an organization for 12 years holds some sway as a clubhouse leader.
And, finally, while Konerko doesn’t draw crowds, losing him would be somewhat of a PR problem in an offseason where two of the four players left from the 2005 World Series team will be jettisoned.
All this leads to bringing Konerko back being the right decision. It may not be a great move, but it’s the right one to make.
- Be sure to head over to Sox Machine and participate in his South Side Satisfaction Survey for position players.
- I’m not the only one doing player reviews—be sure to check out James’ series at White Sox Observer. As James says, you shouldn’t be above reading multiple opinions on the White Sox, so read his, too.
- Mike revisits the DH decision at White Sox Mix.
- The Mets are interested in Rick Hahn for their vacant GM position.
- Jake Peavy is ahead of schedule.