Konerko is stable presence for White Sox
First baseman powers South Siders to first place in AL Central
Hey, you got a minute? Because we really need to talk.We need to talk about how good Paul Konerko is. Konerko's 14-game hitting streak, during which he hit a ridiculous .540 with a 1.523 OPS, came to a close Tuesday night at Tampa Bay. But he's been on a tear all season, with only a Jeff Samardzija pitch to the face getting in his way. We can point to a number of reasons why the Chicago White Sox -- a team nobody seemed to think much of when the season began -- are the hottest team on the planet right now, winning seven straight and 11 of 12 to jump into first place in the American League Central. We can point to Chris Sale's rousing return to the rotation after a brief bullpen stint (he struck out 15 Rays on Monday). Or the reemergence of Jake Peavy and Adam Dunn. Or Addison Reed's success in the ninth. Or Alejandro De Aza's leadoff lumber. But Konerko is the stable, steadying presence, the axis upon which the Sox rotate. And frankly, he deserves a little more love. For the season, Konerko's .386 average is the best in baseball, and his .462 on-base percentage is the best in the American League. His 1.117 OPS is second only to that of Josh Hamilton. That's good stuff, right? Good enough, it seems, to make Konerko the early favorite for the AL starting honors at first base in the All-Star Game. But the thing is, it's no fluke. Over the course of 2010-11, Konerko compiled a .941 OPS that ranked sixth in baseball, trailing only Miguel Cabrera (1.038), Jose Bautista (1.025), Joey Votto (.984), Hamilton (.965) and Albert Pujols (.959). And oh, by the way, Konerko turned 36 in March. So while mid-30s regression tends to be the norm for a big league ballplayer, Konerko is content with his own timetable, thank you very much. He's also content to generally stay out of the spotlight, even though he's posting gargantuan numbers in the country's third-largest market. When I asked Konerko last summer why he doesn't get the attention of some of those others in his OPS realm, he shrugged. "It's just not productive for me to worry about that stuff," he said. "By no means does it ever enter my mind. In fact, that's better, because maybe the pitchers don't read it and think, 'Don't throw something down the middle.' I can't stress how much something like that doesn't even enter my psyche." Because Konerko is not much for colorful quotes or off-field intrigue, he doesn't seem to enter our collective psyche much, either. But when you look at what Konerko's done the last three years, it's simply stunning. It was fair to assume he had peaked in his age-30 season in 2006, when he hit .313, with 35 homers, a career-high 113 RBIs and a .932 OPS. Because over the next three years, he hit a combined .260 with a much-more-pedestrian .804 OPS. Somehow, though, Konerko turned that trend on its head. He hit 39 homers in 2010, decided to stay with the White Sox despite free-agent overtures from the D-backs (who play right up the road from his home in Scottsdale, Ariz.) and has kept chugging along the last two years, even as the Sox have been almost completely reinvented around him. Konerko's new manager, Robin Ventura, said it best the other day, when Ventura told reporters, "He's one you kind of, like a wine, just leave it alone and watch it." Yes, he's aged well. Over the weekend, White Sox fans watched Konerko hit his 400th home run in a Chicago uniform. That's quite a legacy for the guy acquired in the November 1998 trade that sent Mike Cameron to Cincinnati. At the time, there were rumblings that the 22-year-old Konerko had a hip condition that might threaten his career. How'd that turn out? Konerko's recent successes are an example of intellect trumping age. He's generally regarded as one of the game's most advanced analytical minds, and, for Konerko, knowledge is power -- quite literally. Over the last two-plus seasons, he's done a much better job of spraying the ball to all fields and he's absolutely hammered opposing fastballs. "He doesn't take an at-bat off," Indians closer Chris Perez said. "Very rarely do you see him swing at the first pitch or make a weak out. You can't just live in one spot with Paulie. You've got to move it around, you've got to move his feet, change his eye look. You've got to do all that in one at-bat, just to get him out. He makes you work for it." Konerko has his own work cut out for him if he's going to challenge the .400 mark this season. It would be unwise to expect such a feat. And, frankly, the jury is still out as to whether these White Sox are good enough to remain in their current position atop the Central. It was only natural that external expectations for them would be lowered, given the way they underachieved last year. So this recent spurt might be met with some skepticism. But in addition to some burgeoning young talent and a rejuvenated core, the White Sox have one of the more consistent, constructive hitters in the game. That goes a long way. And it's certainly worth talking about.
Anthony Castrovince is a reporter for MLB.com. Read his columns and his blog, CastroTurf, and follow him on Twitter at @Castrovince. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.