Paul Konerko is one of the best hitters in baseball. While he’s rarely mentioned among players like Josh Hamilton, Matt Kemp or Ryan Braun, Konerko has been a an important presence in the middle of the Chicago White Sox lineup. In fact, this season, he leads the American League with a .489 wOBA and a .399 batting average.
What’s even more amazing about Konerko’s success is that he’s doing this as a 36-year-old. Conventional wisdom says that Konerko entered his decline phase years ago — but in 2010, something changed. At 34 years old, an age where most players are struggling to stay in the majors Konerko got better and has blossomed into one of the game’s best hitters.
Pre-2010, Konerko looked like any other aging player. He put together a pretty strong peak between ages 23 to 30, but his age starting catching up with him in 2007. That season, Konerko’s slash line fell to .259/.351/.490. That was still effective, but was a sign that Konerko might be slipping. The next season pretty much confirmed those questions. He hit only .240/.344/.438. At that point, it didn’t look like Konerko had much left in the tank; and though he rebounded a bit in 2009, it appeared that his best days were behind him.
But then things changed. And since 2010, Konerko has been phenomenal. Before turning 34, Konerko hit .277/.352/.491. During the past two-and-a-half seasons, he’s hit .318/.402/.568. This type of late career surge is nearly unprecedented. Barry Bonds is one of the few players that improved as he got older. Much has also been made about Jose Bautista’s late breakout, but he was 29-years-old when he turned things around. What Konerko is doing just doesn’t happen often. And while much of his success has been unexplainable, there are some clues that tell us how Konerko has improved at an age when so many others succumb to age-related issues.
Since 2010, Konerko has utilized the entire field.
Over his career, Konerko hasn’t been a great opposite-field hitter. He’d seen some success hitting to the opposite field in 2002 and 2006, but his performance became far more consistent during the past three years.
On first glance, it’s clear that Konerko has been exceptional when hitting to the opposite field in both 2010 and 2012. But 2011 seems to stand out as an outlier. And while it’s true Konerko’s performance slipped a bit in 2011, his 50 wRC+ was still one of his better opposite-field performances since 2006.
His slugging and wOBA were somewhat down that year, too, but he still had a strong performance in batting average. It’s possible that Konerko had started taking pitches the other way, instead of trying to pull everything. And if that means he’s only hitting singles to the opposite field — like he did in 2011 — he’s alright with it.
There’s another reason for Konerko’s recent success, but it’s nearly impossible to explain. Over his career, he’s been a great fastball hitter. But during the past three years, Konerko has hit fastballs better than ever. In 2010, he produced a ridiculous 49 pitch-type value on fastballs. In 2011, that number remained high and finished at 28.4. That performance against fastballs rated among Konerko’s top two seasons on that pitch. And if he continues to destroy fastballs this year, he could be on his way to another great performance in the category.
The strange thing is, all of this has happened at an age where Konkero should have experienced a major loss of bat speed. And it’s not as if Konerko is sitting on fastballs and allowing himself to suffer when he sees other pitches. Konerko’s performance against off-speed stuff has remained fairly consistent. Somehow, Konerko has become a better fastball hitter as he’s gotten older.
Konerko’s performance during the past couple of seasons is truly extraordinary. At a time when most hitters are trying to prolong their careers, Konerko looks like he’s just getting started.