This article is about three First basemen who have recently seen their stocks move in different directions.
Last winter, USA Today’s 2011 MLB Preview Magazine published a lengthy piece by yours truly, whereupon I rendered thoughts on who the most over and underrated players in the game were as we approached the new campaign. And throughout 2011, I posted monthly updates on these “predictions,” so as to praise or condemn myself.
I had more successes than failures, though one person I failed miserably on was Dunn.
The ‘Dominant’ Comeback Year of Adam Dunn
In his first campaign on the South Side, Dunn hit .159 in 122 games, with just 11 homers and 42 RBIs. He would have probably led the league in strikeouts (177), but he was benched most of the final six weeks.
This past off-season, MSF Founder and Managing Editor Jerod Morris often mused that Adam would be a candidate for 2012 Comeback Player of the Year. Well, it’s hard to be worse than those 2011 stats, and though I think Dunn is still underrated (and a better overall ballplayer than Howard, though most media would scoff at that statement), I didn’t take Jerod too seriously. I assumed this was a fan’s wishful thinking, rather than a prediction.
After all, Dunn is 32, and aside from those in the steroid era, players generally don’t get better with age. But while the great Albert Pujols, 32, still tries to emerge from his horrific 2012 start and a slightly down 2011, Dunn, who homered Opening Day for a record-tying eighth time, is having a fantastic April and May.
Sure, his average is .244, but Dunn also leads the league in walks. With 15 home runs in 47 games (that’s 50+ HR pace), he is second in the AL to Josh Hamilton’s amazing 20, and sits third in the all-important OPS. And Dunn is fourth in RBI with 35 (pace for well over 100).
He is currently surpassing his career averages. In fact, if the season ended today, Dunn’s OPS and slugging percentage — which are the best measures of his value since he was signed to “slug”– are both career highs.
Dunn hasn’t “turned it around”; he hasn’t “rebounded”; he’s been absolutely dominant. There’s a big difference. He’s playing at a level right now that Ryan Howard hasn’t played at since 2009.
The Reliable Production of Paul Konerko
Speaking of improving with age, Mr. Konerko was also on my underrated list, and he continues to impress.
Konerko turned 36 early in Spring Training and has made the last two All-Star teams. He leads the entire Major Leagues in batting right now at an astounding .396; and with 10 homers and 29 RBI in 44 games, he is cruising toward another season of .300, 30+ HRs and 100+ RBIs. Konerko also sits atop the AL in on base percentage and behind only Josh Hamilton in OPS.
Paulie continues to be under-appreciated, and though I dislike the ChiSox, I will keep praising him — because there are people who actually think Ryan Howard is a better player, despite Konerko being better in nearly every category, and by a long shot in many.
Konerko’s consistency is remarkable. He has played in at least 137 games for 12 of the last 13 years. His OPS has been over .840 during 11 of those 13 seasons. But here’s the kicker: Konerko’s 162 game average for strikeouts is under 100 for his career. In fact, for three of his last four years, he has struck out fewer than 90 times. Ryan Howard suffers the ultimate baseball failure (a strikeout) nearly 200 times for every 162 games.
Even before his injury on the final out of his historically awful 2011 playoffs (2 for 19, including 0 for his last 15 with six strikeouts and the final out when he tore his left Achilles), Howard had zero chance for 2000 hits, and 400 HRs is very questionable. Konerko, just three years older than the Philly first baseman, recently achieved the former and the latter.
And to reiterate the theme of this piece, unlike Howard and most others, the White Sox First baseman somehow gets better with age. He was in the AL Top 10 in nearly all major offensive categories during 2011 and will probably be there again 2012.
The Continued Regression of Ryan Howard
Returning to Howard, who despite being the same age as Dunn, has nearly 100 fewer home runs (don’t look for that stat to ever be cited by ESPN). And while I have no doubt the media and his fatuous admirers will use his injury as an excuse for the rest of his career, Howard’s injury may not affect his bat as much as his age will; but it certainly won’t help his fielding, where he is already considered one of the worst fielding first basemen in the past decade
In reality, there was absolutely nothing in 2011 to change anyone’s mind about Ryan Howard’s steady decline. He is the most overrated player in the 27 years I’ve followed baseball. In fact, no matter what pundits and Phillie fans say or ignore, I’m more confident in my views than ever. Howard seems like a nice guy, and I surely don’t “hate him” as lazy people will claim despite mounds of statistics; but in baseball reality, he’s been vastly overhyped for more than six years.
Getting back to facts, there was a devastating critique of Howard’s absurd $25 million/year salary (a contract as bad or worse than A-rod’s or Pujols’) and declining performance in Yahoo Sports last July, hitting every angle statistically and factually. Howard apologists attacked the writer ad hominem.
Then, in August, Baseball Reference exposed his supporters’ one reasonable claim: RBIs. They showed that given Ryan’s unmatched opportunities with men on base, about 20 other guys would’ve had as many or more RBIs than Howard. He truly lives a blessed life, having nearly 20 at bats per season with the bases loaded. Howard supporters ignored the math and had no reply.
Though Howard’s RBI and home run numbers remained relatively high, vital categories (and overall power categories like slugging, OPS and OBP) continued to fall precipitously, while his strikeouts remained 2nd in the National League (a hideous 172 in 152 games).
So Konerko, 36, keeps getting better; Dunn, despite the 2011 downfall, jumps right back on the horse; and 32-year-old Howard, well, we’ll see. I doubt he’ll hit more than 30 HRs again in a season. Howard wasn’t hitting much more pre-injury anyway. He’ll probably retire before Konerko and Dunn too.
What’s most mind-boggling is that as recently as last August, I had friends telling me Howard was a lock to hit 500 home runs and approach 600. It’s as though you’re arguing politics with someone who has an aversion to election results.
In 2007, A San Francisco AP writer named Janie McCauley said Howard, then 28 with just 129 career bombs, was the only current player with a chance to pass Barry Bonds with 762 dingers. Astounded but not surprised by the idiocy of such a statement from a veteran journalist, I emailed Janie asking her how Howard would hit 54 home runs every year until age 40?! She didn’t write me back.
Ryan Howard may somehow merit huge contracts, Subway Commercials, appearances on Letterman, cameos on Entourage, and all the press accolades, but the truth, which usually prevails, is obvious to sentient fans.
Ultimately, Howard will be VERY lucky to hit 400 career HRs, and even before last October’s setback, it was a stretch for him to get 450.
People should use statistical facts rather than emotion.