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Mark Grace or Paul Konerko? The Head and The Heart Decide

A side-by-side comparison of two popular first basemen from rival teams and what it tells us about them as players.

Mark Grace Paul Konerko
Photo: Konerko - Nuccio DiNuzzo/Chicago Tribune

Back in May, a post appeared on my timeline on Twitter dot com from my esteemed colleague Fitz Magic. It was a comparison of two players. The caption instructed me to “pick one.” The options? Two first basemen that played in Chicago. One on the North Side and the other on the South Side. Those two were the great Paul Konerko and Mark Grace.

Now, of course, you could simply read this as “which player do you like better?” And there is nothing wrong with doing so. However, I think it begs the question, “who was the better player?”

It’s blatantly obvious – at least to me – what I want to do here. And what the hell is a White Sox writer doing talking about the Cubs – at all? This will not make me many friends in the Sox online community. My heart and my head each have an answer to this question, and this article will detail my ambivalence toward these two men. But, keep in mind, that I subscribe to the #FaxOnly mantra here at On Tap Sports Net.

A Bird’s Eye View

White Sox first baseman Paul Konerko’s signature moment came in the World Series with an epic grand slam. This is justifiably the pinnacle moment in franchise history outside of recording the final out of the 2005 season. As a die-hard Sox fan, Paulie is one of my favorite players of all time. The World Series, over 400 home runs, retiring a member of the Sox, and the blue-collar affable personality that embodies South Siders.

Mark Grace, on the other hand, was a solid and consistent first baseman known for his grit on the Cubs for well over a decade. He contributed with his glove, speed, and ability to get on base. Grace did not have the type of moment in his career that Konerko did and he never reached the World Series in his Cub career. I don’t speak for Cubs fans, but that leaves something to be desired.

The Trade

In the 1998 offseason, the White Sox traded up-an-coming center fielder Mike Cameron for a guy named Paul Konerko. A former first-round pick of the Dodgers, Konerko had a ton of potential but didn’t impress many after a season with Los Angeles and the Reds. This was well over a year after the infamous White Flag trade. Which is a rebuild that – at least partially – bared fruit eight years later in 2005. Sound familiar?

Cameron had a nice MLB career with the Reds, Mariners, Brewers, Mets, Padres, and Red Sox. You could make a decent argument that Cameron had a better career than Konerko. You would be incorrect, and while I am not a WAR monger, Cameron amassed a 46.7 WAR career to Konerko’s 28.1. However, Konerko’s production came with one team and Cameron spent just one season with the White Sox’s trade partner.

The Sox would see Konerko turn into a slugger he’s remembered as and play over 2,200 games on the South Side. Needless to say, they were very fortunate to trade for a player like Konerko, who altered the history of the franchise.

Tale of the Tape

Paul Konerko simply mashed the ball over his 16 seasons with the White Sox. He finished his career with 432 HRs, 1,383 RBIs, 2,292 hits, and a .281/.356/.486 slash line. He earned six All-Star nods, had two seasons of 40 HRs and 100 RBIs, hit 30 or more homers in seven seasons, and drove in 100 runs six times. Konerko carried an above-average 9.7% walk percentage and above-average K% of 14.6%. The value of these numbers is immense and speaks for itself.

Konerko was well-known for his power and not his speed. If anything, his speed was a detriment. Also, his work at first base was average at best throughout his 16 seasons. And I am being nice when I say average. Harsh criticisms in the context of what he did at the plate. Overall, he amassed a career WAR of 28.1, which is low mostly because of his defense. Nevertheless, he was an exceptional hitter who had a career worthy of the Hall of Fame consideration.

A Legend

Konerko carried a legacy at first base on the South Side. There are very few hitters in MLB history that will top or even match the legacy and career of the great Frank Thomas. The first-ballot Hall of Famer is unarguably the best hitter in franchise history.

Frank passed the torch to Paulie, who upheld the White Sox first base legacy well. That’s something very few hitters are capable of doing. He did so until the next first base legend – Jose Abreu – matriculated to Chicago. Abreu has extended that legacy into the fourth decade. More on him at another time.

Paul Konerko will likely not be inducted into the Baseball Hall of Fame. I would be happy to be wrong about that, but frankly, I simply don’t care if he is or isn’t. He has a statue at 35th/Shields and is forever enshrined in the hearts and minds of White Sox fans. Sorry for the sap, but Paulie is a legend to me and many others.

Amazing Grace

Mark Grace made his MLB debut with the Cubs in 1988 and played in Chicago through the 2000 season. When we think about Cubs’ first basemen, names like Anthony Rizzo and Derek Lee usually come to mind. Makes sense when considering it’s been 22 years since Grace last suited up for the Cubs.

Grace played in the wrong era. He made his debut in the ’80s and had a career that spanned into the early 2000s. This was before metrics, such as WAR, were relevant. It was an era in which corner infield positions were expected to produce home runs and RBIs. As a result, he was overshadowed by home run totals that skyrocketed along with players’ heads suddenly growing in size. However, the totality of his value was immense and it’s evident in the 46.4 WAR he compiled.

Grace had a great career. Not known for power hitting, which was often a criticism, his run-producing capability was more akin to a centerfielder or shortstop. The lefty notched just 173 home runs and drove in 1,146 runs, and that’s because he was too busy taking walks, not striking out, and hitting line drives.

Availability

Grace really shined in other areas of the game. His defense at first base was among the best in the game during his prime. This is evident from his 4 Gold Glove awards. Grace played in fewer than 140 games twice: his rookie year and the strike-shortened 1994 season. Take away 1994, and he averaged 150 games played per season in his Cubs career. Availability is overlooked way too often as the 162-game baseball season is a war of attrition. What was less likely than Grace missing a game was him striking out.

He averaged a 6.9% (nice) K rate per season, an impressive figure considering he had 600-plus plate appearances in 10 of his 13 seasons in Chicago and never fewer than 550 (outside of the strike of 1994). Grace had more walks than strikeouts in each of his 16 seasons — a very rare feat in today’s game. To put that into perspective, there were two baseball players in 2021 that had more walks than strikeouts: Yasmani Grandal and Juan Soto. Avoiding the K led to Grace’s .383 career on-base percentage. Pair that with his .303 career batting average, and you have one hell of a career. He also hit for the cycle and slashed .647/.682/1.118 in the 1989 NLCS.

Lastly, a lot of recognition needs to be given to the man who had more hits (1,754) than any other baseball player in the 1990s. Think of all the great hitters of that decade — Frank Thomas, Barry Bonds, etc. — none of them had more hits than Grace in that span.

Head and The Heart

It’s a battle of the head and the heart. I can’t wax poetic about Grace the way I can about Konerko. I stick to the facts with both but only get sentimental when talking about Paulie, and I have World Series memorabilia thanks to him. I’m a White Sox fan that doesn’t care about the Cubs, so therein lies the crux of my argument. As much as I don’t like to admit it, Mark Grace was a better overall baseball player than Paul Konerko.

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