Remember when Paul Konerko was an elite hitter? It wasn’t that long ago that the White Sox first baseman hit .313/.381/.551 with 35 homers. In fact, Konerko posted that line in 2006, after eclipsing the 40 homer mark in both 2004 and 2005.
Of course, one the tenets of baseball analysis is that hitters – especially one dimensional sluggers, tend to age rather rapidly. However, Konerko is only going to be 33 years old, and has shown signs that he may not have run out of steam entirely.
Last season, Konerko had a rather mediocre line of .240/.344/.438 with 22 homers in 122 games. However, as we will see, Konerko was struck with a bout of bad luck, and also showed significant signs of life towards the end of the season.
The first thing to note about Konerko’s 2008 was his poor luck with balls in play. His BABIP was a mere .247, much lower than his career average of .285. His line drive percentage remained high, at 21.5%, right in line with his career LD% of 21.4%. Furthermore, he struck out at the same rate as he has over the last five seasons (he struck out in 18.3% of his at bats in 2008 – his K rate has remained between 18% and 19% every year dating back to 2004), and he actually had the highest walk rate of his career as well.
According to the BABIP model I introduced with Chris Dutton, Konerko’s expected BABIP was .280 this year (incidentally, Konerko is a good example of a player for whom the “old” model of predicting BABIP – namely, adding .120 to line drive percentage – is a poor indicator of true BABIP, as our “new” model has consistently predicted Konerko’s BABIP to be far lower than the “old” model). The 15% difference between Konerko’s actual BABIP and his expected BABIP was the 14th biggest difference among all full-time players in 2008 – in other words, Konerko was extremely unlucky on balls in play.
Furthermore, Konerko’s 2008 was plagued with injury woes. Konerko strained his oblique and was put on the disabled list in June – he was hitting a paltry .215/.325/.368 with 8 homers at the time, so it’s very possible that Konerko tried to play through the injury before finally being placed on the DL (in fact, in the 30 games prior to the DL, Konerko hit only .202/.281/.330).
After coming back from the injury on July 8, Konerko hit like himself again. In the final 60 games of the season, Konerko posted a line of .267/.366/.514 with 14 homers – while striking out 37 times and drawing 30 walks. He suffered a sprained knee in September but managed to play well despite it; both the knee and oblique should be fully healthy in 2009.
At age 33, Konerko will remain an injury risk, and likely will not be able to perform at the same level that he did in his peak. However, rumors of his demise are greatly exaggerated. Konerko suffered from a tremendous amount of bad luck on balls in play that should regress next season, thus raising hit batting average.
Furthermore, although he may not hit 40 homers, he still has enough power to hit 30-35 bombs, and will be helped (as always) by the fly-ball-friendly confines of US Cellular Field. As Konerko demonstrated in the last three months of 2009, when healthy he can still be an offensive force. And he can probably be had relatively late in most drafts, as less-astute owners will assume that he’s washed up.
Paul Konerko is an excellent sleeper for fantasy baseball in 2009.