Now, on the surface, there doesn’t seem to be a lot of similarities between Paul Konerko and Johnny Damon. Damon is a 38-year old former outfielder who now mostly plays DH; in his prime, he could run and get on base pretty well, although he was never best in the league. He couldn’t find a job prior to the season, but he has since picked up a minor league contract with the Indians after bouncing around for the past few seasons.
Konerko is more or less the exact opposite. He started out as a power-hitting catcher, before the Dodgers realized he wasn’t particularly great at it. He was a well-regarded prospect for L.A. and then Cincinnati before finally winding up with the White Sox in 1999. Since then, he’s more or less been their starting first baseman, as he will likely be through at least 2013.
However, I am now making the bold prediction that Konerko will follow in Damon’s footsteps. Yes, I think that Konerko will become a slap-hitting outfielder who grows a large beard and plays on a second World Series-winning team (since the White Sox were a cursed team, that means he just needs one that has won a few times to complete the analogy; I’m placing money on the Cardinals, although the Dodgers, Athletics, and Red Sox may also be acceptable answers).
Or, not. See, there’s been much hand-wringing as of late in circles that get particularly passionate about the Hall of Fame. 3000 hits has, in the past, guaranteed that a player will reach the Hall of Fame. Regardless of how you got those 3000 hits, even if there were better players who reached base more often by doing things like taking walks, you would still get the VIP, priority entrance to Cooperstown while those other non-3000 players would be stuck in line, waiting years longer. And, in any case, hits used to be seen as one of the end-all, be-all stats. There were hits, home runs, RBIs, runs, batting average, and hustle displayed, and if your value relied on anything else, well, the Hall voters would more or less plug their ears and ignore you.
But, in the past few years, some interesting things have occurred that magical land between reality and fiction that BBWAA voting seems to occupy at times. Stats seem to have finally made inroads with some voters. Oh, nothing too drastic, but there are signs: they’re starting to look past wins for pitchers, or vote for players who walked a lot, or realize that players can be top power hitters without 500 homers.
Which has led to a lot of wondering about Johnny Damon. He currently sits at 2723 hits, meaning he could very likely make a run a 3000. The Bill James Projection Tool gives him an 87 percent chance at making it. Granted, that doesn’t really take into account the fact that he’s missing the start of this season; however, I think once he’s close enough, he’ll keep finding work somewhere until he makes it. There will always be teams in need of a one-year stop gap or a left-handed bat off the bench. And he hasn’t been an awful hitter the last few years, either. And even if that does get him into the Hall, it’s not like he would automatically become the worst player elected by the writers in recent memory (just for starters, Jim Rice has fewer bWAR, 41.5-51.6), or even the worst 3000 hit club member enshrined (again, Lou Brock has 39.1 bWAR, to start with).*
*This isn’t to say he is clear-cut better than those two; fWAR has him the worst of those three. I’m just saying it’s not like he’s miles below the Hall standard.
That’s nice and all, but you may notice that I have not mentioned the subject of this article, Paul Konerko, for the past three paragraphs. However, you may have already figured out where I’m going with this. Konerko hit his career 400th home run last week. That puts him sort of close to 500 home runs, another historical big deal in baseball. Or, at least, it has been. I think Konerko, like Damon, could be the one to test that.*
*I’m obviously excluding McGwire, Palmeiro, and others with steroid implications from this grouping, as there are extenuating circumstances in play. Konerko and Damon, rightly or wrongly, seem to have totally escaped these suspicions, so I think they’ll be the first real tests of these longtime benchmarks.
First, though, does Konerko actually stand a reasonable chance of making this list? Well, he’s currently at 401 home runs and he just turned 36 in March. He signed on through 2013 at least, so that’s likely two more seasons as a starter minimum. The Bill James calculator puts him at 58 percent after his 2011 season.
However, there’s a big difference between Konerko and Damon: while Damon has at least some slightly comparable Hall members, Konerko isn’t really even close. Baseball-Reference has him at 25.9 WAR, while Fangraphs has him at 29.4 WAR. If he makes the 500 Home Run club, he’d be far and away the least valuable member. As of right now, going by bWAR, that title goes to Sammy Sosa at 59.7 and Harmon Killebrew at 61.1. Yes, Konerko would likely finish his career with around half the value as any other 500 homer player. That could make him even more polarizing than Damon, come Hall time.
How has he managed this feat? Well, mostly by playing a high-offense position in a high-offense park in a high offense-era. It also doesn’t help that he’s been a pretty bad fielder and baserunner also. The other really big problem is that Konerko’s been rather one-dimensional, even as a hitter. There are more or less three things a hitter can excel at: hitting for average, getting on base, and hitting for power; you know, the triple slash stats. Konerko’s managed a .283/.359/.502 line for his career, which is solid, but the only one that really stands out is his slugging percentage. Given the era, it’s good for a 122 OPS+*, which puts him equal with Nick Johnson, Derek Lee, and Brian Downing, among others. Were he to make the 500 home run club, that would tie for the lowest mark among members with Ernie Banks. However, Banks was a lot more valuable for playing shortstop rather than first base. The only other members even close to that are Eddie Murray (129) and Sammy Sosa (128). More or less, Konerko isn’t really dominating his peers; he’s just managing to be above average for a long time.
*Keep in mind that, as Konerko ages, his OPS will drop, meaning this number will only go down.
Is that worthy of the Hall of Fame? Well, consider the case of Fred McGriff: he finished his career with 493 homers* and a 134 OPS+. All of that is good for 50.5 bWAR and 61.0 fWAR. Every rate and value stat puts him above Konerko, and yet, he hasn’t even come close to the Hall (21.5% his first year on the ballot, 17.9% last year). There really isn’t a way to argue that Konerko has been conclusively better than McGriff...and yet, if Konerko gets those seven extra home runs that McGriff couldn’t, he’ll (in theory) have a much easier path to induction, going off the old standards.
*As a side note, the 1994-95 work stoppages may have hurt McGriff more than anyone else. He missed approximately 60 games between the two seasons, where he hit 34 and 27 homers, respectively. Seven home runs over that span shouldn’t have been an issue. Sure, he would have been the worst member of the 500 home run club by WAR. But, he would be close enough to the other members in value that induction would at least be justifiable. Those seven home runs could have made all the difference to his candidacy. If nothing else, he would have made a very entertaining test case. If Konerko makes the club, though, he’ll likely be much more polarizing than McGriff ever could have been.
The only question is, will the old standards still be in play by the time Damon is even eligible, let alone Konerko? I really have no idea. But it should add to the excitement the Hall will see over the next decade or two.