With Jose Abreu and Anthony Rizzo tearing the cover off the ball on their respective sides of Chicago, fans can be forgiven for having short-term amnesia regarding great first basemen of Chicago past. In case you didn’t know, the retirement tour of South Side legend Paul Konerko comes to an end in the next week or so. I know, I know. This is Cubs Insider. But stay with me, we’ll get there.
Most people either have forgotten or never knew, but Konerko was a 1st round draft pick of the Dodgers, not the White Sox. He played a few seasons at catcher before the Dodgers moved him to first base. Then, Konerko played most of a minor league season at third base. In 1997, he was called up by the Dodgers for a cup of coffee.
In mid-season 1998, Konerko was traded to the Cincinnati Reds for reliever Jeff Shaw. He struggled in the majors with the Reds in a short amount of time, and was traded in the off-season to the White Sox for outfielder Mike Cameron (Konerko was the number 2 prospect in baseball prior to 1998). Obviously, the deal was a steal for the Sox, but the Reds turned Cameron into Ken Griffey Jr. so it worked out for them as well.
The numbers for Paulie’s career aren’t what we would look for in the cookie-cutter Hall-of-Famer, but there are some that believe he should go to Cooperstown. Because of that nasty steroid era, conventional wisdom regarding entrance to the Hall has changed. No longer is 500 home runs the benchmark, thanks to the spotlight on ‘roids. Konerko hit 439 homers (and counting…for, like, another week) in his career.
I conducted an unofficial Twitter poll and the votes were a much more decided NO on Konerko to the Hall-of-Fame. However, a Chicago Tribune poll on Thursday asking “Is Paul Konerko Hall-of-Fame Worthy?” sat at 49.04% yes and 50.96% no at the time of my vote. So if Konerko is a borderline Hall-of-Famer what does that mean for former Cubs first-baseman Mark Grace?
My intent isn’t really to debate Konerko’s Cooperstown credentials. To me, the more interesting debate is “Who was the better baseball player: Paul Konerko or Mark Grace?” Even the most astute baseball observers would probably be split on the topic, and referring back to my unofficial Twitter poll I found that most felt that Konerko had the slight edge.
Before I break down stats, let’s look at the stuff many like to bring up when discussing “greatness.” First, both players won a World Series. And while Konerko fans may try to argue that Paulie was the MVP of the White Sox World Series run, I’d caution you not to dismiss Grace’s importance to the 2001 D’backs. Konerko sported a .868 OPS in the 2005 WS compared to Grace’s .865 OPS in 2001.
Neither player gets to boast a tremendous accumulation of playoff stats because neither benefited from consistently playing on quality teams. Konerko played in seven total post-season games outside of 2005 and Grace played in ten. But let’s go ahead and look at our sample, small as it may be. Konerko’s career post-season slash in nineteen games was .243/.300/.554; Grace’s was .329/.417/.488 in twenty-five games.
Most of you have heard the trivia stat regarding Mark Grace having the most hits and doubles of any MLB player in the 1990’s, but that only tells part of the story. From 1990-1999, generally considered his prime, Gracie hit .310/.385/.449 and won four Gold Gloves. Nowadays, that kinda stuff qualifies you as a star. His overall career numbers are nothing to sneeze at, either: .303/.383/.442 with 173 round-trippers, 511 doubles, and 1,146 RBI in 9,290 plate appearances.
Konerko has good numbers, too. His slash is .279/.355/.488, with the aforementioned 439 taters, 410 doubles, and 1,412 RBI in 9,483 plate appearances. The difference between the two on offense truly is negligible. Grace was the better pure hitter by far, with the better average, on base percentage, and over 100 more doubles than Konerko in nearly 200 fewer PA’s. Konerko counters Grace’s overall hitting prowess with his extra 264 dingers.
Before I get into anything else, the longballs have to be addressed. The difference in the eras in which they played should be considered. For one, the average number of big flies per season by first basemen in the 1990’s was 27. In the 2000’s it was nearly 33. That’s over a 20% rise in homers from Mark Grace’s prime to Paul Konerko’s.
To put it in simple terms, it’s like saying Konerko hit 350 gopher balls instead of 439. Or like Gracie hit 208 souvenirs instead of 173. Either way, Konerko still wins the slamalamadingdong category. But it certainly leads you to wonder what kind of hitter Grace would’ve been had he been ten years younger and able to average around twenty jacks per season in his prime.
So far, we’ve measured both players post-season awards and stats, slash lines, and counting stats. Up to this point, you could make a fair argument for either player being slightly better than the other. In fact, if we use wRC+, a stat that neutralizes ballpark and league factors, Grace and Konerko’s career numbers are 120 and 119 respectively. But something does create clear separation between the two: Defense. It’s the best argument I have remaining, and I have one big stat to back it up.
Even at his best, Konerko was nowhere near the defender that Grace was at first base. While Gold Gloves aren’t exactly a proper measurement of a defender (again, Grace won four of them), we know that he was universally considered an excellent fielder. And while advanced metrics such as UZR aren’t really available prior to 2002, we can rely on old scouting reports that support the fact that Grace was considered an “outstanding fielder,” “smooth” and “always alert,” and that “the brothers love him.” Wait, what???
Ready for that big stat I promised? It relates to WAR, the most polarizing of all saber stats. In career cumulative WAR according to Fangraphs, Mark Grace comes in at 45.6 versus 25.1 for Paul Konerko. Tough to believe? It’s surprising, but true. Even if you aren’t a big believer in the value WAR places on defense, or even the stat as a whole, you have to admit that Grace clearly outshines Konerko in this part of the game.
Have I convinced you that Grace was the better player yet? If you think I’m too biased, you could ask my daughter, Grace, for her opinion. Yeah, you read that right. I have no shame. Neither Konerko nor Grace (the ballplayer) should be enshrined in anything other than the Hall of Very Good, though Konerko does have a reasonable shot at being voted into the Cooperstown. And if he gets in, I say good for him. Major League Baseball is so screwed up on the process that it doesn’t really affect me either way.
But Hall of Fame or not, Mark Grace was the better baseball player.