Make no mistake about it, Paul Konerko had a great spring in Arizona. He was among among the Cactus League leaders in homers, which seemed to silence questions about there being any lingering effects from the things that helped end his 2012 season on a down note: offseason surgery to remove bone fragments in his wrist knocked loose in June, plus an August concussion that sent him to the disabled list.
It wasn't the way anyone would have wanted to see his year end after a red-hot start. But when asked about it in camp, if you think he's worried about the past, guess again.
“I don't really think about seasons and halves, I think about them as a full season,” Konerko said. He knows it's what we all do, though -- fans, writers and analysts alike. “I know from the outside, what people look at -- just like I do when I'm looking at football or hockey or whatever -- but as a player, it's just different. When you're in spring training, you don't really think about the previous season at all. Whether I've had a season that I've really liked or a season that I've really disliked, the following spring training isn't much different. You know, coming in, how you're getting ready, you're just looking ahead.”
That sense of purpose understates what the White Sox first baseman has done the past three seasons, which is raise his game at a time when offensive levels across baseball are going down. Let's repeat that: At a time when it's getting harder to hit, Konerko has been better than ever before.
Keep in mind, up through the 2009 season, Konerko was a player we already knew a lot about. Or at least, we thought we knew. He'd already given us 1,700 games and 326 home runs. He'd hit .277/.352/.491. He'd had a nice, predictable peak from ages 25 through 30, finishing it off with what was (then) a career-high .932 OPS in 2006. Then Konerko headed into his 30s, and he did what you'd expect from an older player: He declined. His OPS tumbled 90 points, then almost 150 from that career high.
Looking at that, if you follow the safe paths that sabermetrics so often tread, you might have expected more of the same. Rise, peak, decline, that's what players do and have done for more than a century. The data isn't damning so much as consistent, and it gives us a pretty good idea of the shape of things to come for the entire population of baseball players. Adjust for similar players, as Baseball Prospectus' PECOTA does, and you get more accurate still. For Konerko heading into 2010, that might not have painted a particularly rosy picture: PECOTA predicted an .808 OPS. Nice, but not great. Playable. Safe, even.
Except that Konerko apparently had very different ideas of what he was capable of doing as he headed toward his mid-30s, and in the past three years, he provided an example not only of the limits of what sabermetrics can reasonably assert about player performance, but showed that much of what a player can do lies in his own hands. Not his past, not his established level of performance, but his capacity for improving his game.
“I think that's the same for anybody. When you get older, you should do a little bit better as far as the way you process things and go about it. Anybody in any job, the more you do it, you should have a little bit better plan every year, you would think,” Konerko said.
Konerko believes that became necessary with age. “From a physical sense, it gets a little bit harder every year to keep in shape. There's no doubt about that. You have to work harder, just pay attention a lot more to your body, what you eat, what you drink ... You always have that one year -- for me, I think it was 2008 -- where everything before that year physically and everything after that year, is where you feel, 'This is getting kind of hard, to get out there.' "
Konerko observed in the run-up to his multiyear excellence, he'd started adapting to life as an older hitter. “More than anything, just the whole approach to playing the game and getting through the season and the daily routines, in those years, starting then, maybe starting from the end of '08. I felt like in '09, even if the numbers weren't the same, I was doing a lot of the same things, and building a good foundation of changing up some of the ways I did things. I think in the next years it sort of came out.”
What he wasn't doing was relying on the burgeoning range of new tools available to hitters, instead taking a more zen-like approach to his preparation. “Less of any of that. I rarely watch video now. I used to watch a lot of video. It's really just sticking with having a plan for how you go through the day, your routines, and really stay in the batting cage, and then realizing then that's what's important, not the results of the game. Great, if you do everything over the long haul, those results will be the byproduct.”
Konerko added: “As a hitter, you're always making those little minor adjustments here or there; I'm not afraid to experiment, to try new things. There's definitely things you do that help you do better, and in those years, I did some things, kind of latched on to some things, and ran with it. More than anything, just the way I processed at-bats, processed getting through the day, it was a little different. This year it will hopefully still be different, different from when I was younger.
“I think when you're younger, at least it was for me ... " Konerko paused, thinking back to who he had been. He changed tacks: “It's not necessary to chase the results ... Your preparation can be dictated by how you're going, result-wise, but that's wrong, that's not a good way to do it.”
Paradoxically, thinking less about the results has produced even better numbers. Consider Konerko's batting average on balls in play in the past three years is at .314. That's a significant improvement on what he'd done before: Through 2009, his career BABIP was at .282. One of the most harped-upon truisms in sabermetrics is that performance regresses to the mean, as if it's a magnetic pole sure to pull performance up or down to true mediocrity. Twelve years into his career, Konerko had a previously established level ... and it wasn't where he's been for the past three years.
Now that Konerko has achieved that 30-point bump on balls in play dropping in across three full seasons, as an analyst you have to start accepting that this isn't a matter of luck or random variation or whatever lazy, all-knowing assertion you want to throw at any one player's performance variation. It's human agency in action. It's execution. It's one man doing what he can to adapt in the face of change over time. And it's all Konerko.
What's more remarkable still is that Konerko has been adding all of these base hits without sacrificing anything from his core game as a power hitter: His Isolated Power (ISO) was .214 through 2009, and it's .226 since. His walk rate was 9 percent before; it's 9.6 percent since. So at a time when offensive levels are going down, not only is he hitting for a higher average, Konerko is nevertheless delivering a bit more power and patience at the ages of 34, 35 and 36.
“I'm kind of like a one-dimensional player, but I try not to be a one-dimensional hitter,” Konerko observed. “I definitely try to switch gears up there; sometimes you come up, third inning, nobody on, you might want to try to take a shot at driving the ball for a home run. There's other times, where I think you need to taper it back. Within a count, you have to be conscious of all that stuff, I never wanted to just be a free swinger that was just the same every time. You get two strikes on me, I know I'm behind the eight ball a bit, but to me, if you can have a good at-bat, make that guy throw an extra three, four, five pitches, if that's going to help the team and help the guy behind you [in the order], you just have to go into scrap mode, so you're just scrapping up there.”
But these aren't the only improvements Konerko has made. In the past two years, at a time when major league strikeout rates are at all-time highs, Konerko's rate of striking out has been at 13.9 percent, below his career average (14.5 percent).
Konerko doesn't necessarily see that as another positive byproduct of his late-career adaptations as a hitter, though: “That's kind of a misleading statistic. There's times like last year where I'd much prefer to strike out more. A lot of times, when the hitter's doing the right things up there, and his swing path is good, there's a little more swings and misses. It also keeps the ball off the ground, so you don't have double plays as much. Yeah, I don't like to strike out a lot, I never have, but I think you have to take it for what it's worth.
“Last year, when my swing didn't feel good, I put balls in play for outs. I'd much rather see three, four pitches, swing and miss and strike out and have a better chance of driving the ball, than put the first pitch on the ground to the third baseman.”
That's because Konerko has no illusions about what he's supposed to try to do, as well as what he's supposed to avoid on balls in play -- like double plays, something else that he's managed to improve upon. Once a lock to ground into 20 or more twin killings, Konerko has avoided hitting into that many in each season since 2008.
Here again, Konerko thinks that's a matter of preparation: “It's a combination, of being aware of the situation, of what you're facing and what [the pitcher] is trying to do. I also think it's a byproduct of how my thoughts have changed about the baseball swing itself -- knowing that me putting the ball on the ground is death. In any situation, guys on, guys not on, you name it, me putting the ball on the ground is never a good thing.”
Which is what makes raising his BABIP that much more interesting, because fly balls are more likely to end in outs than ground balls. “You look at a lot of the best in the game, the Miguel Cabreras, they put the ball in the air, and make a lot of outs on balls in the air,” Konerko said. “I think your swing has to be able to produce that. Obviously, that's kind of the tricky part -- pitchers are out there trying to throw you sinkers in and sliders out and away, to make you put the ball on the ground. Hopefully, you're building a swing to put the ball in the air. For a middle-of-the-order guy, that's crucial.”
To be sure, the analysis community is going to be right about a player in his 30s far more often than it's wrong. Predictably enough, PECOTA's baseline prediction for Konerko in 2013 is down from 2012, albeit by just a dozen points of OPS, reflecting how he's long since changed the range of expectations for him as a 37-year-old. Honor is due to data accrued, after the fact.
But after seeing Konerko upset so many expectations for him in each of the past three years, consider this one more reason why you can look forward to 2013: To see if he'll do it again, regardless of whether you're a Sox fan. Because the question Konerko's late-career development challenges us with is this: How much of what a player does is within his own control? As Paul Konerko reminds us, all of it. Even when it defies what we think we know.
Christina Kahrl covers baseball for ESPN.com. You can follow her on Twitter.