Paul Konerko and Father Time

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.

Spray Charts Pull Center Opposite
2002 0.365 0.383 0.272
2003 0.279 0.318 0.190
2004 0.363 0.408 0.219
2005 0.421 0.299 0.248
2006 0.434 0.355 0.289
2007 0.413 0.264 0.181
2008 0.345 0.257 0.224
2009 0.383 0.304 0.247
2010 0.438 0.375 0.309
2011 0.406 0.322 0.276
2012 0.492 0.487 0.447

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.

Opposite SLG wOBA wRC+
2002 0.377 0.274 60
2003 0.219 0.175 -7
2004 0.438 0.269 54
2005 0.349 0.257 49
2006 0.536 0.335 95
2007 0.351 0.216 18
2008 0.368 0.244 37
2009 0.371 0.263 49
2010 0.543 0.361 121
2011 0.322 0.253 50
2012 0.579 0.445 184

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.




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Chris is a blogger for CBSSports.com. He has also contributed to Sports on Earth, the 2013 Hard Ball Times Baseball Annual, ESPN, FanGraphs and RotoGraphs. He tries to be funny on twitter @Chris_Cwik.

52 Responses to “Paul Konerko and Father Time”

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  1. fgmatt12 says:

    I know there was mention in an interview and on the BP podcast about him understanding pitch sequence better as he got older. This could explain the improvement in hitting fastballs, since he’s guessing right more frequently.

    He’s easily my favourite hitter to watch. He never looks fooled and never takes a bad swing.

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  2. Angelsjunky says:

    I’d love to see someone do research into why certain players are able to get better in their 30s. Paul Molitor is another example – he had a breakout year at age 30, hitting .353/.438/.566 when his previous high had been .322/.372/.469 at age 22. Molitor was a much better hitter in this 30s than he was in his 20s.

    Dwight Evans is another example, although not as extreme as Konerko or Molitor. His breakout year came at age 29 in 1981 when he led the AL with a .937 OPS. His four best OPS seasons were at ages 29, 30, 32, and 35.

    Chili Davis is another player that comes to mind – he also was a better hitter in his 30s than in his 20s, although some of this might have been due to the spike in offensive numbers in the 90s. But Chili had his two best OPS seasons at age 34 and 35 and stayed above his career mark in each of the last six years of his career.

    Actually, that might be an interesting line to follow: Which players play above their career OPS in most years of their 30s? What sort of commonalities can we find in these players?

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    • Eric R says:

      Quick and dirty– did a ratio between OBP*SLG*600 [a basic RC formula] for players before 30 vs 30+ [min 3000 PA for each, 1940 debut onward]:

      Mark McGwire 157
      Barry Bonds 151
      Larry Walker 144
      Sammy Sosa 138
      Luis Gonzalez 134
      Ozzie Smith 134
      BJ Surhoff 131
      Ellis Burks 130
      Roberto Clemente 129
      Pete Runnels 129
      Chili Davis 126
      Steve Finley 125
      Terry Pendleton 125
      Paul Molitor 123
      Bret Boone 122
      Julio Franco 121

      Some of those guys at the top– might be steroid related… Walker and Burks, Coors field? For a bunch of them, around age 30 just coincides with a higher offensive era?

      I don’t have the where-with-all to recreate something league and park adjusted in my data, but using the bottom half of this list, here is the RC ratio plus an OPS+ ratio:

      Roberto Clemente 129 … 135
      Ozzie Smith 134 … 128
      Mark McGwire 157 … 127
      Barry Bonds 151 … 127
      Pete Runnels 129 … 125
      Sammy Sosa 138 … 125
      Bret Boone 122 … 124
      BJ Surhoff 130 … 118
      Terry Pendleton 125 … 118
      Larry Walker 144 … 117
      Julio Franco 121 … 115
      Luis Gonzalez 134 … 114
      Ellis Burks 130 … 114
      Paul Molitor 123 … 112
      Chili Davis 126 … 111
      Steve Finley 125 … 106

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  3. Father Time says:

    I’ll catch up one day, Paul…

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  4. Mr Juice says:

    One word: PED.

    -74 Vote -1 Vote +1

    • SP Ver2.0 says:

      PEDs don’t help you improve to ridculous plate discipline, idiot. And Paul is one of the most respected guys in baseball. This comment is asinine.

      +21 Vote -1 Vote +1

    • Will says:

      That’s not even a word, it’s an acronym.

      +48 Vote -1 Vote +1

    • Dave (UK) says:

      Plus it is an abbreviation of three words, not simply one word

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    • West says:

      That’s why he and other White Sox led a boycott of testing in 2003 inorder to tirgger mandatory testing for the rest of baseball.

      If you watched him, he isn’t hitting the ball farther and he is significantly less athletic. If he’s taking PED’s he needs a refund.

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    • Billion Memes says:

      As soon as I finished the article, I knew there would be a comment just like this, as well as the typical responses to such a comment. Its funny to me how predictable it was. To be honest, PEDs crossed my mind as I read the article because we are programmed to believe that outliers to the aging curve must have some root cause. For me though, PEDs are always the lazy explanation. “Outlier! must be PEDs!” The reality of the large player pool is that there will always be outliers who defy the various models. Sometimes there will be a root cause that can be found through investigation, as the author attempts. And sometimes, there are just outliers that defy explanation. That is the reason they are called outliers.

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  5. David says:

    PEDs don’t help with plate discipline. But it’s my understanding that they do help older players recover from the day to day grind of the season more easily so they can concentrate on things like plate discipline. If I’m wrong about that, I’d like to know. <– not sarcasm.

    And as long as we're ridiculing asinine comments, suggesting that Konerko isn't using PEDs because he's respected in baseball circles is asinine.

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    • TKDC says:

      But using his character to defend a blanket, unqualified accusation is not asinine. Just as it would not be asinine if this accusation were levied at Derek Jeter or any other old player having a great year who has never been legitimately connected to PEDs.

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    • chuckb says:

      Is it ok, then, to suggest he’s not using PEDs since he’s been outspoken in favor of more, not less, testing for PEDs and that he has never tested positive for PEDs?

      It’s slanderous to suggest that successful athletes are successful due to PEDs in the absence of any evidence, empirical or anecdotal, suggesting that they’ve taken PEDs.

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    • Michael says:

      It’s perfectly valid to defend Paul Konerko based on his character and on the organization’s character. This was the team that employed Frank Thomas and was the first organization, in 1997, to push for stronger steroid testing throughout MLB. Basically, they’ve got a blemishless record, and Paul Konerko’s all natural. It’s nice to know that there are people doing amazing things in baseball that you can root for because they’re doing them cleanly without cheating.

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    • Jon L. says:

      PED’s absolutely do help with plate discipline, as anyone who has either ever swung a bat or watched Sammy Sosa ought to intuitively know.

      The increase in strength allows you to swing faster, which allows you to wait longer, which allows you to be more selective.

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  6. I had a seat behind the Sox dugout yesterday in line with the back of the batter’s box. Konerko’s back foot was completely outside of the batter’s box for every plate appearance which would help with some extra time needed on pitches. I can’t recall the last time anyone was every called out on it by an umpire or an opposing manager but Konerko is as deep in the box as I’ve seen a hitter.

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      • therood says:

        This is very common. Just about every hitter stands as far back as they possibly can to get as much view as possible. Maybe a few speedy lefties will stand at the front of the box to get that extra 1/2 step to first, but just about everyone else sees the advantage in that extra thousandth of a second afforded by the extra real estate.

        If you pay attention, the first thing most leadoff hitters do is erase the line at the back of the batter’s box. It looks like they’re digging in from the CF view, usually, but they’re actually removing this line.

        It’s a rule that umpires generally won’t enforce, provided the batter isn’t set up so far back as to be fishing for catcher’s interference. From what I can tell, the umpires interpret the rule as any part of your back foot touching any part of where the line used be as fair game.

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    • chuckb says:

      This is interesting. I wonder how many other players get away with this. It’s not going to be visible on TV and, based on where his back foot is positioned, it’s likely not visible to the home plate ump either. His foot blocks the view of the back line of the batter’s box which probably gives the impression that his foot is on the line.

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      • Nathan says:

        I think this is incredibly common. Every game it seems like the first batter in the first inning digs in hard and smears that line, and no later than the fourth of fifth plate appearance of the game, the back line of the box is a blur.

        Whether we like it or not, I think that cheating and standing back out of the box like this is one of those rules that umps have long let guys break, and it’s now just an accepted “unwritten rule” (sorry for even saying that) that as long as you get a cleat or two on the chalk dust, you’re alright.

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      • MikeS says:

        Somewhere close to all of them.

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    • Joe O says:

      You know how you stop that? Throw him more curveballs. Conversely, Alexei Ramirez stands far up in the box to be able to get to breaking pitches before they break too much. Your placement in the box is an advantage in some aspects, and a disadvantage in others.

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  7. Chicago Mark says:

    I don’t know if the comment is asinine. But Kon is highly respected here in Chicago. And if you watch him you can see he is quite comfortable at the plate. He just doesn’t try to do anything more than hit what the pitcher gives him. I really believe he’ll continue at this pace for a few more years.
    He’s a class act and great hitter.

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  8. Jorge Cantu says:

    Nice article Chris. Big Papi is hitting better over the last couple years as he seems to go to left field more often although I have not checked out the stats. He’s the same age as Konerko.

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  9. jesse says:

    I don’t watch sox games, but do teams employ the big shift vs konerko? It would jive that he has adjusted to it going the other way more to take advantage,

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    • Eminor3rd says:

      No, they don’t. They do shift Dunn pretty regularly, though.

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    • therood says:

      Konerko uses right field way too much for a shift to be effective. While he obviously has the most power to left, he uses right and right-center a lot, as the chart in the article shows.

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  10. James says:

    When asked why he’s better, Konerko insists that he’s just becoming a smarter hitter. He’s intellectual about the game, and has learned how pitchers pitch.

    Plus, he doesn’t TRY to hit homers. He just tries to make solid contact, and when combined with a good batting eye, it all adds up.

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  11. James k says:

    Thank you! I’ve been waiting for a fan graphs writer to acknowledge what konerko has been up to. It would be devastating if konerkontested positive for PED’s. The guy gets a standing ovation every single home game most every at bat. I will cry the day he retires. He is a beacon of all that is good in the sport and a roll model for slow balding white men. Assuming he stays healthy 500hr is totally possible making for a fringe HOF career. He gets no love on d so the war won’t be there but it’s not like voters look at war to begin with.

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  12. As to Konerko’s off years, there was an issue of a bad thumb that bothered him off and on for years. I believe that contributes to his resurgence as well. He’s gotten smarter and healthier.

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  13. 2ndHalfAdjustments says:

    His BABIP is also a crazy, unsustainable .433 right now. I love the guy, but he’s going to come back to the pack, even if 2012 ends up being another excellent year, a la ’04, ’05, ’10 and ’11.

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    • Nathan says:

      True, but he’s already at 200 PA, so even if the BABIP normalizes to 0.300, he’s going to have a heck of a season but the counting stats, and the rates are still going to be sterling.

      This coming from a Tigers fan… Konerko has been the one White Sox player that I’ve just been unable to dislike. :-)

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  14. payroll says:

    Maybe he switched to a lighter bat? Laser eye surgery?

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  15. Beanie says:

    Watching Konerko’s approach in the at-bat’s, it looks like he’s actually swinging more effortless, using less power than before.

    Guys like Sosa, Bonds and McGwire crushed the ball.

    Konerko is more of a Michael Young/Fred McGriff type of hitter these days, much more about contact, still able to hit it out of the park for some reason, perhaps having a very clean swing and follow through.

    Konerko is perhaps the most underrated player in the MLB today.

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    • Joe O says:

      I think it’s because Paulie perhaps picks a certain pitch or two in each at bat where he decides he thinks he knows what to expects, and swings hard. Usually he will guess first pitch fastball, and then his eye is so good, he can usually work a 3-1 count, and probably sits fastball too. Those are his HR pitches. Whereas it seems any time he doesn’t have a good guess as to the pitch, he just slows everything down and takes the pitch wherever it is thrown, and gets his singles/doubles that way. I think his 40 HR days are over, but 30 HR and .300+ avg is just, if not even more valuable.

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  16. rubesandbabes says:

    Without accusing Konerko, I would like to chime in against those who have a need to shout down the idea of PED use in baseball for their own reasons. Name calling is the last line of defense and there you all are doing it.

    The Braun bust takes PED use out the past, back into the present, and fans don’t want to face this.

    Fangraphs’ response to the Braun bust was to try and equivocate Braun with Dodger rookie Dee Gordon, looking right past NL MVP runner-up Dodger Matt Kemp, and in so doing looking past any real discussion. What the heck??

    This idea that if a guy like Bagwell didn’t take a bust, therefore he should be defended to the wall is wrong and needs to be washed away, or we are not honest with ourselves. Not accusing Bagwell, either, but his era frames him, no one really knows, and so why all the need to venerate these suspected guys by attacking the very reasonable messengers?

    Those that think PED’s don’t help with plate discipline are not following the game: See Bonds, Barry.

    Tom Verducci’s article today is great sportswriting. Check it out!

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    • Phrozen says:

      PEDs do not “help with plate discipline.”

      Bonds? Bonds was intentionally walked nearly seven hundred times! Hank Aaron is second all-time, with 293.

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    • Nathan says:

      Actually, you made the point that the people you are arguing against consistently drive at: “…his era frames him.”

      The argument for Bagwell is that he has great numbers, and while he did play in the “PED era,” he did it empirically clean. His era should be framing him as a better player than maybe he would’ve been if we could judge Mac and Bonds without the mark of PEDs. Your argument is leaning more toward guilt by association — that since he played in the “PED era,” he’s more likely to have used.

      And really, the sad thing about Barry Bonds was that he did have excellent plate discipline, speed, fielding ability, and power before the PEDs.

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      • I’m sure Bonds will take his 3-4 best offensive seasons of all time and laugh when he doesn’t get in on the first ballot. Sort of like how James Cameron takes his 2.7 billion over the Best Picture oscar.

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      • rubesandbabes says:

        Sorry Nathan,

        Your really have no idea whether Bagwell played clean or not.

        To state he did it empirically clean, is only a hope – you don’t know.

        Credit you for a creative use of the word empirical, but sorry.

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  17. Nohd says:

    Chris: You might want to have a look at the 2012 line in your spray chart table. There’s a typo in there somewhere.

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  18. Ben Hall says:

    I’m not sure what the numbers are in the Spray Chart table. I assumed they were the fractions of his hits that went to the appropriate field, but the numbers don’t add up to 1.

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    • Chris Cwik says:

      Sorry, those are his batting averages to each area of the field.

      In 2008, he hit .224 on pitches that he took to right field.

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  19. Bill says:

    Schmidt was another player I watched who got better in many ways as he aged. His age 34, 35, 36 and 37 seasons were all excellent (though his previous SB and other power numbers meant he didn’t ‘improve’ much from earlier in his career), before a shoulder injury ended his days.

    Like Schmidt, Konerko has always had a short level swing to the ball, or at least he has the last few years when I’ve seen him, much like Schmidt did later in his career.

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  20. Uruguay says:

    Chris,

    Where did you get the data for the spray charts if you don’t mind my asking?

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    • Uruguay says:

      Never mind I’m an idiot Fangraphs supplies that data under “splits” for other ignorant people like me

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  21. Ryan says:

    Derek Jeter has similarly defied father time with his performance the last season and a half. He had an incredible season in 2009, followed by possibly the worst season of his career in 2010. Then, he started off cold in 2011 which was enough for everyone to label him in his decline. Then, from July of last season until now he’s been vintage Jeter at the dish. He already has 15 XBH this season, compared to 34 all of last season.

    2009: .334/.406/.465
    2010: .270/.340/.370
    2011: .297/.355/.388
    2012: .338/.379/.458

    I’m not saying Jeter’s resurgence is more impressive than Konerko’s by any means since Konerko’s downward decline began in 2007 and continued throughout the 2008 and 2009 seasons.

    I’m just pointing out the similarities in their age. Jeter’s “comeback” has come at the age of 37. Now, there is obviously much more season to go and I don’t think Jeter is going to hit .340 for the rest of the season but barring injury, I think that Jeet’s should hit .310+ along with 35+ XBH.

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  22. al in cal says:

    Paulie has been my 2nd favorite White Sox player of all time. Mr. Aparicio was the guy top on my list. In my estimation, he has one of the best pure swings for a right handed hitter in my lifetime. The guy in the top echelon with Paulie was Paul Molitor.
    It also looks to me as if more of the current Sox hitters are talking to Paulie for swing and/or pitch selection advice. If they pan to the dugout you can see guys talking to him a lot. Whether it is he or their new hitting instructor, I see a lot of players shortening their swing and going with the pitch instead of trying to pull the ball. They also are not swinging at as many bad pitches especially Viciedo who is rapidly becoming a legit hitting monster in his own right.

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