Konerko, Greinke, and a Swing That Contained Multitudes

Let’s start with the video. And then the words. Because you might not spot everything in the video the first time through. It sorta looks like an everyday foul ball, maybe with some sort of inside joke at the end. Trust me, though, this moment is fairly epic.

Paul Konerko‘s reaction provides our first clue that something was a bit different about this swing. He’s animated, talking to the third base coach about something. Zack Greinke’s doing a bit of stomping around after he watches it go.

“There are guys that take so quickly that it almost forces you to throw strikes,” Greinke told me at Spring Training earlier this month. “Paul Konerko, he would change his stances all the time, but there was this one time where he had this new stance where it looked like he wasn’t even getting ready and then all of a sudden you go and he’d swing.”

I laughed out loud. He was quick-pitching you! “Yeah,” Greinke agreed. “Before release, I think, oh, he’s taking, and you’d get overconfident. He only did that for a month or so.”

Go back and look at the video. It’s not quite a bat on the shoulder, but there is something about Konerko’s setup that seems lackadaisical. Given the 1-0 count, it looks like he’s waiting for Greinke to get himself in a deeper hole. “A guy like that, you think most pitchers would be coming with the fastball, but he’s liable to give you another slider out of the zone,” agreed Konerko when contacted by phone about the at-bat. “And then sometimes, he’d even take something off when he was supposed to come at you.”

So maybe Konerko was just taking, and that’s why it took him so long to get ready? Not quite. It did take him a long time to get ready back then. On purpose. “I used to be too tense too early before the pitch came,” Konerko remembered, “so sometimes I would wait to see how long I could wait. I was so ready to hit that it didn’t help me.” So, in the footage here, Konerko actually is attempting to chill out as long as possible, but not so much to mislead Greinke as to prepare himself optimally.

Konerko claims that his approach didn’t hurt him on getting to fastballs, though it did probably take him a while to settle in with it — at least judged by his production on fastballs by our pitch-type values. And though he was waiting as long as possible to counteract his overeagerness, it looks like he was as aggressive as ever in this stretch, according to his first pitch and overall swing rates.

He did swing at fewer first pitches in 2009 (down to 22% from 28%), but that 2009 number was not too far from the career average we have (24%), and by 2011 he was back to his career average. He fluctuated around a norm, and there doesn’t seem to be a pattern here. But look at how great he got at fastballs just the next year. That swing was on a fastball, and the smile Konerko gave to the third base coach was probably about something other than his looseness at the plate.

“From about 2005 to 2007, I was diving at balls over the plate and getting tied up on the inner half,” Konerko said, “so I started to look inner half. Just by looking, it kept me tall and I got better at pulling the ball. That led to a couple years of some of the most consistent approach I’ve ever had.” Konerko admitted that pulling the ball in the air was tricky skill, and that keeping it fair and up was part of the trick — Joey Votto would agree about that. That day, he was probably geeking out about getting his pitch on the inner half, staying tall, keeping it in the air… and not quite getting the result he wanted.

If you look at his career, right around 2009 and 2010 is when his pull (orange) and fly ball (blue) rates recovered from a slight dip. He righted the ship, but his pull fly-ball rates (green) continued dropping — probably because he was getting older. But by sheer volume of pull and fly-ball rates, he rediscovered his pull power and had that later career resurgence.

To the batter, it was about understanding himself best, but also understanding what it meant to be a right-hander in this league. “As a righty, you’re going to see hard sliders and sinkers in on your hands or softer stuff diving away, for the most part. So most people just lay off those inside pitches. Ninety percent of batters look for something out over the plate.”

On the left, sinkers seen from White Sox right-handers from right-handed pitchers in 2015. On the right, White Sox right-handed batter swings against those sinkers with no runners on.

“But in that 2010-2012 stretch,” Konerko continued, “I developed the ability to hit those ‘safe’ pitches inside. I started to want them, to look inner half, because it’s true you can’t cover both sides of the plate.”

Konerko’s swings against righties in 2009 (left) and 2010 (right). Note the hot zone inside, about where that pitch from Greinke was in 2009.

One pitch. One pitch from Zack Greinke to Paul Konerko in 2009, and yet you can pull it apart to better understand both the hitter and the pitcher.

From the pitcher’s perspective, the batter wasn’t going to swing, so he took something off the pitch and got overconfident. He laid a 91 mph egg on the inside part of the plate, that — just a year later — that same batter would have rocked for a home run down the line. He got lucky that Konerko hadn’t quite figured that bit out completely.

From the batter’s perspective, he wasn’t “setting up the pitcher.” He was working on himself — trying to stay as loose as possible till the last moment, trying to stand tall, look inner half, and keep the ball in the air and fair if it was touchable.

It was inner half, and it was 91, from a pitcher averaging 94 on his fastball that season. And Konerko missed his chance to do some damage, and so he probably said to his third base coach, in some fashion or another: next time. Next time, that’s fair.

While the pitcher probably muttered to himself, next time. Next time I won’t take anything off that thing.

With a phone full of pictures of pitchers' fingers, strange beers, and his two toddler sons, Eno Sarris can be found at the ballpark or a brewery most days. Read him here, writing about the A's or Giants at The Athletic, or about beer at October. Follow him on Twitter @enosarris if you can handle the sandwiches and inanity.

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6 years ago

So you get this neat little anecdote from Greinke about a time that Konerko tried to set him up with this stance…..now how in the world did you link said anecdote told to you earlier this month back to THIS SPECIFIC PITCH of THIS SPECIFIC AT-BAT from 2009……wow!!!!

Fantastic stuff as per usual Eno.