This is the fourth installment of a periodic series I call “Under the Radar.”
In this series, I take a closer look at players who have enjoyed their fair share of success as major league baseball players, but who are not usually associated with baseball’s biggest stars, players such as Derek Jeter, A-Rod, or Albert Pujols.
These players have toiled, in effect, Under the Radar.
Yes, it is true that in their own baseball towns, they may enjoy a loyal, even affectionate fan-base. They may even represent their team in the All-Star Game. Yet somehow they manage to remain out of the gossip columns while being productive, though not flashy, players for their respective teams.
In this edition of Under the Radar, I will take a closer look at a pair of first baseman who have soldiered on in Chicago for the past several years.
Specifically, I will be examining the careers of Derrek Lee of the Cubs, and Paul Konerko of the White Sox.
Once I began to take a closer look at the career statistics of these two players, it became strikingly clear how similar their respective careers have been.
To begin with, both players are 34-years old. Both players bat and throw right-handed. Both players made their professional debuts in the National League in 1997. Therefore, they have each played thirteen seasons in the major leagues.
Both Derrek Lee and Paul Konerko are with their third major league organizations. Lee began his career as a member of the Padres, played for the Marlins for six seasons, and is now about to enter his seventh season with the Cubs.
Konerko came up as a catcher in the Dodgers organization, played briefly with the Reds and has been a member of the White Sox since 1999.
Even many of their career statistics are strikingly similar:
Konerko has played in 1700 games. Lee has played in 1681 games.
Konerko has logged 6893 plate appearances. Lee has 6860.
Konerko has 1690 hits. Lee has 1701 hits.
Konerko has 326 homers. Lee has hit 293 home runs.
Konerko has compiled 2991 total bases. Lee has 3016 total bases, a difference of a scant 25 bases spread out over 13 seasons.
Konerko has produced 1601 runs in his career (Runs + RBI’s – Homers.)
Lee has produced 1592 runs in his career.
And, in case you have forgotten, both players have one World Series Championship ring to their credit. Lee won his while playing with the Marlins in 2003. Konerko won his World Championship ring just a couple of years later in 2005.
But, as you would expect, there are some differences as well. Beginning with the obvious, Derrek Lee is a black man playing in Chicago’s North End, a predominantly white, Central and Eastern European-leaning culture.
Paul Konerko is a white man who plays in Chicago’s predominantly black South-Side.
It should be noted here that both players have enjoyed overwhelmingly positive experiences in Chicago, despite the color of their skin, and the ballparks they play in.
As far as their baseball skills are concerned, Derrek Lee has been the better defensive player of the two. Lee has three Gold Gloves to his credit; Konerko has none. Konerko was, however, a defensive upgrade over Frank Thomas who became a full-time D.H. once Konerko arrived.
Lee has also been the better base-runner of the two. Lee has stolen 101 bases in his career, although he has also been caught 44 times. Meanwhile, Konerko has only attempted 10 stolen bases in his entire career! But he has been successful eight times.
Lee also has 28 triples to Konerko’s seven.
Although both players have been significant run producers, Lee has been better at scoring runs, while Konerko has been a little better at driving runs in.
Specifically, Lee has scored 90 or more runs in seven different seasons, while driving in 90+ runs in five seasons.
Konerko, on the other hand, has topped 90 runs scored three times, but he has driven in 90 or more runs seven times, topping 100 RBI’s four times.
Konerko has played in three All-Star Games; Lee has played in two.
Lee has finished in the top 10 in N.L. MVP voting twice; Konerko has finished in his league’s top ten once.
In 2005, the year Konerko won his World Series ring with the White Sox, Lee enjoyed the best season of his career. He led the N.L. in hits (199), doubles (50), home runs (46) slugging percentage (.662) and total bases (393.)
Konerko, on the other hand, has never led his league in any category in any season, except Grounding Into Double Plays (28 in 2003.)
Lee’s career OPS (On Base plus Slugging) is .873.
Konerko’s career OPS is .843.
Overall, then, it wouldn’t be inaccurate to say that Derrek Lee has been a slightly better player than Paul Konerko over the past 13 seasons.
Are either of these players potential Hall of Fame candidates? Probably not. Although both have had very productive careers, the expectations for Hall-of-Fame enshrinement tend to be greater for first basemen than for perhaps any other position.
After all, this is the position played by Lou Gehrig, Jimmie Foxx, Willie McCovey, Hank Greenberg, Harmon Killebrew and Eddie Murray.
By the time each of them retires, Derrek Lee and Paul Konerko will probably finish their careers in the second tier of first basemen, a level that includes Will Clark, Don Mattingly, Keith Hernandez and Fred McGriff.
Finally, it is interesting to note, however, that if you look up both players’ career statistics at Baseball-Reference.Com, you will discover, historically speaking, whose careers both players most closely match.
To this point in his career, Derrek Lee’s career most closely matches that of Kent Hrbek, Fred McGriff, Tim Salmon… and Paul Konerko.
To this point in his career, Paul Konerko’s career most closely matches that of Kent Hrbek, Fred McGriff, Boog Powell… and Derrek Lee.
On either side of the Windy City, then, the people of Chicago have been treated to solid, consistent, and extremely similar careers by each team’s respective middle-of-the-order, run-producing first baseman contemporaneously.
Can any other baseball town in America count itself so lucky?