By Tim Baffoe-
(CBS) As he is amid the autumn of his career and approaching the usually cruel winter and recently passed the 400 career home runs mark, Paul Konerko’s Hall of Fame candidacy seems worthy of discussion.
In previous years when the topic was raised among many a tavern Senate, I leaned toward close-but-no-cigar arguments. Konerko has always been a very good baseball player, but very good hardly gets a guy a custodial gig these days in Cooperstown.
My standard had long been 500 career home runs for a player of Konerko’s ilk. Successful first basemen are defined by power with rare exceptions (Mark Grace and John Olerud, unworthy of Cooperstown, would be such), and 500 homers seems like the very least an upper-echelon resume should have.
But Konerko has become an anomaly in that he has stayed so good in his later years. I had always assumed his pretty good numbers would meet baseball old age in the unfriendly way it does for so many others; therefore, he would not end up even really needing any Hall of Fame discussion. As we’ve seen, though, the guy just keeps putting up numbers that if he were ten years younger we’d equate to a likely future Hall of Famer.
As of now it seems most statistical evidence makes a case that Konerko comes up short. According to Baseball Reference, he’s statistically most like Tino Martinez, Gil Hodges, and Derrek Lee, not one of whom is a Hall of Famer by any means. Even for the slobbering, bowing “PAULIE!” screamers out there that has to shout back pretty loudly.
The bigger question, though, is not whether you or I believe he should be enshrined in Cooperstown. I don’t have a vote, and I assume you reading this are not Peter Gammons. (If you are, hi, Peter! Love your butt tweets.)
How the geniuses of the Baseball Writers Association of America view Konerko determines whether he gets a plaque or not. They are a tricky bunch to gauge when it comes to borderline guys. They’ve let in seemingly unworthy players in the past as well as left out players that the majority of the baseball world cried loudly for enshrinement.
Most of the writers have yet to embrace sabermetrics and rely more on what their cloudy eyes have seen. That helps Konerko’s cause because his career 26.2 WAR at the moment hardly merits consideration of the Hall nor will it by the time he retires presumably around the mid- to low 30s mark, but I doubt the crusty old bastards who hold the majority of the votes would even care to look at such a stat or realize that he has the same WAR as Bobby Avila, Tim McCarver, and Terry Puhl, 522nd best all time. Here’s a list of guys not in Cooperstown (as of 2010) whose career WAR blow Konerko out of the water.
You have to assume most voters will note that Konerko was never the best in the league at his position and only a five-time All Star (probably six after this season). The only offensive category he has ever led the league in is grounding into double-plays in 2003—that doesn’t help his cause.
On the plus side, Konerko is widely assumed to have played his entire career without the assistance of performance-enhancing drugs. A career that spans a significant portion of the Steroid Era and contains what will eventually be close to 500 homers looks pretty impressive then. Getting 500 is not out of the question, though it will be tough for him, and if he does eclipse that number his chances on the ballot are greatly improved.
Since Frank Thomas was not invited back by the White Sox after the 2005 World Series Championship season in which he contributed little due to injury, Paul Konerko has arguably been the face of the franchise. That may score him some bonus points with voters—thinking White Sox and thus then thinking Konerko says a lot about a player for many baseball thinkers.
And baseball romantics certainly appreciate that Konerko has never left a team via free agency and is one of the last stars seemingly devoted to the team where he gained his fame. Never underestimate, too, how appreciative the media can be to a hell of a nice guy, and he certainly is one.
The biggest boost for Konerko’s candidacy, though, may be the fact that he refuses to fade away. For the past few years, analysts across the country have assumed every April that this is the year that age catches up with him. And then it doesn’t. And the mantra is repeated the following year. And the analysts are proved wrong again.
An MVP-caliber season at age 36 speaks volumes to those voters who might otherwise be on the fence with Konerko, and contributing heavily to a White Sox playoff run in 2012 is certainly gravy for that. As CBS Sports’ Jon Heyman said on The Mully and Hanley Show Tuesday morning, “One thing that is remarkable about him, is he’s been better as he’s gotten into his mid-30s. He hit over .300 the last two years. He’s had great years toward what you would think would be the end of his career.”
But here’s the rub—Fred McGriff. McGriff had two 30/100 seasons at an older age than Konerko, and his career traditional stats of 493/1,550/.284 are just about what Konerko should finish his career with. Both have also played in five All Star Games. Yet McGriff received just 24% of the 75% of votes needed to gain HOF entry in 2012, and that was his third year on the ballot. The Crime Dog was very good for a long time, just like Paul Konerko. Also, just like Konerko, The Crime Dog was never the best of the best and never an MVP.
As Konerko’s twilight glows brightest making for an Indian Summer in what should be a time of career decay, he may just blaze a trail to Cooperstown. And while I would be happy to see him make it, I have to assume he’ll be a guy on one of those sports shows and barroom debate lists for years to come.
Tim Baffoe attended the University of Iowa and Governors State University and began blogging at The Score after winning the 2011 Pepsi Max Score Search. He enjoys writing things about stuff, but not so much stuff about things. When not writing for 670TheScore.com, Tim corrupts America’s youth as a high school English teacher and provides a great service to his South Side community delivering pizzas (please tip him and his colleagues well). You can follow Tim’s inappropriate brain droppings on Twitter @Ten_Foot_Midget, but please don’t follow him in real life. E-mail him at firstname.lastname@example.org. To read more of Tim’s blogs click here.