Paul Konerko and the Hall of Fame

Paul Konerko and the Hall of Fame. That’s a title I didn’t expect to write in 2011, if ever. Ozzie Guillen thinks Konerko will make the Hall and that “there’s no doubt he did it the right way.” My first thought upon reading this was probably the same as yours. Ozzie Guillen is just as likely to win a Nobel Prize in subtle, reasoned discourse as Konerko is to ever have a bust in Cooperstown.

Then I thought about a few other players active in my lifetime. Bert Blyleven didn’t always feel like a Hall of Famer, but he’ll be inducted this year. Craig Biggio didn’t feel like a Hall of Famer for much of his career, but by the time he retired, we all knew he’d be there someday. I never thought Larry Walker seemed like a Hall of Famer during his career, but reviewing his numbers last year made it quite clear that he blows away the minimum standard Hall voters have established. Maybe a deeper look at Konerko’s career is in order.

Konerko is 35, and is currently playing his fifteenth big league season, his thirteenth as a regular starter for the White Sox. His career slash line is .282/.357/.501, an OPS 21 percent better than league average. He’s collected 1,940 hits and 381 home runs. Perhaps most importantly, the best season of his career came in 2010, when he hit 39 home runs, had an OPS of .977, was worth 5.1 WAR (per baseball-reference) and finished fifth in the AL MVP voting. Konerko’s raking again in 2011 (16 HR, .953 OPS in 62 games), perhaps putting together a Rafael Palmeiro-like late career (with less suspicion, I imagine).

Those are some solid numbers, and Konerko’s clearly not done building his case. On the other hand, Konerko has led his league in exactly one category over 15 seasons- he grounded into 28 double plays in 2003. None of the ten players baseball-reference lists as most similar to Konerko (starting with Joe Adcock, Tino Martinez, and Derrek Lee) are in the Hall of Fame or on their way there. Orlando Cepeda was fairly similar to Konerko through his age 34 season, but not as much so as Kent Hrbek or Boog Powell.

The best way to measure a player’s Hall of Fame candidacy, at least in my opinion, is to compare his cumulative value, as illustrated by Wins Above Replacement, to other players in and out of the Hall. Konerko has accumulated 24.1 bWAR, tied with Lloyd Moseby and Whitey Kurowski, among others, for 949th all time. Among younger players with more WAR are Rafael Furcal, Eric Chavez, and Kerry Wood, none of whom has booked a suite for his family in Cooperstown for induction weekend. Fellow 35-year-olds Lance Berkman (48.5) and JD Drew (47.0) each have roughly twice as many WAR as Konerko.

Konerko’s not done accumulating value, of course, and it was clearly his recent play that inspired Guillen’s quote. Let’s be generous and assume that Konerko finishes 2011 as strongly as he did 2010, and that he enjoys two more 3.5-win seasons (equalling the second best season of his career, 2005), and sticks around for three more 2-win seasons, retiring as an erstwhile 40-year-old DH. That would give Konerko 40.5 wins, more than half earned after his 33rd birthday. The only player in baseball history with exactly 40.5 bWAR is Steve Finley. Finley was a two-time All-Star who led the league in triples twice and won a title in a wonderfully epic World Series with the 2001 Diamondbacks. He’s never been confused with Willie Stargell. A few Hall of Famers, including Chuck Klein and Hack Wilson, earned fewer than 40.5 WAR. Exactly one of them, Jim Bottomley, was a first baseman. If Ozzie Guillen’s aspiration for Paul Konerko is to finish his career with a flourish and live up to the standard set by Bottomley, who hit 219 home runs and slugged an even .500 in the last great hitters’ era (1922-1937) before Konerko’s, I’ll concede this much: Konerko might someday be better than the worst Hall of Fame first baseman. And worse than Mark Grace and Ed Konetchy.

In the same interview, Guillen notes that “The Hall of Fame can be too picky…” (yup) “…there’s not that many good players out there anymore…” (umm…) “…You’re not going to see the 3,000 hits, the 500 home runs and 300 wins.” Oh boy. First off, 300 wins seems pretty irrelevant in Konerko’s case. More aptly, 28 players in baseball’s 140-year history have compiled 3,000 hits. Five of them- Boggs, Gwynn, Ripken, Henderson, Palmeiro, and Biggio- have done it during Konerko’s career. Another, Derek Jeter, will get there this month. 25 players have hit 500 home runs. Ten of them- McGwire, Bonds, Sosa, Palmeiro, Griffey, Thomas, Rodriguez, Thome, Ramirez, and Sheffield- are roughly Konerko’s contemporaries. Pujols will get there in the next few years. Guerrero and the two Joneses might get there too. So, yeah, Konerko’s 450 will be a rare feat akin to Babe Ruth hitting 60 in a season. Or something.

Even if it wasn’t ridiculously wrong, that last quote would be absurd. Because there aren’t that many good players anymore, fewer players are dominating their leagues enough to reach these milestones? Players compete against the hitters and pitchers of their own eras. If it were true that fewer players were reaching these milestones today, wouldn’t it be because there are more good players today, striking them out, knocking them out of games with seventh-inning doubles? Derek Jeter accumulated his 3,000 hits against pitchers of every race, pitchers with access to great nutrition, weight training, and supplements, pitchers who played organized baseball at age five and played in three leagues at the same time in high school. His 3,000 hits are in many ways a greater feat than Paul Waner’s or Al Kaline’s (even though Kaline hit his in a pitchers’ era). It’s probably true that Konerko is a better athlete than some players who offered similar value a half century or a century ago, but we can’t be sure. The most fitting comparisons for Konerko are the first basemen of his own era.

Among first basemen, only Albert Pujols, Joey Votto Adrian Gonzalez, Miguel Cabrera, Prince Fielder, Kevin Youkilis, and Mark Teixeira have been more valuable than Konerko over the past 2 1/2 seasons. Pujols is a Hall of Famer. Cabrera will almost certainly be a Hall of Famer by the time he’s done. It’s a little premature to talk about Votto and Gonzalez and Fielder as candidates, but someday their respective managers will make a claim like Guillen made about Konerko. I have a feeling we’ll laugh a little less when that happens.

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