AL All-Star Report: Pierzynski Power Play Helps White Sox

The Chicago White Sox are holding their lead in the American League Central, with a ½ game lead over the Cleveland Indians coming into Tuesday’s games and the big reason is their offense, which is fourth in the American League in runs scored. And while first baseman Paul Konerko is the straw that stirs the drink on the South Side, don’t overlook the big contribution made by catcher A.J. Pierzynski. The 35-year-old veteran is an experiencing an offensive outbreak like we haven’t seen in his career and he leads up TheSportsNotebook’s discussion of American League catchers.

Pierzynski’s on-base percentage of .335 isn’t dazzling, but it’s manageable, especially at a position where offensive output is far from the norm. Where he’s really kicked in is with his power. The 10 home runs have him on a pace to hit 20 in a season for the first time in his career, and his .508 slugging percentage is easily the best of his career—he’s only cleared .450 once and that was in 2003 when he was with the Minnesota Twins. In fact the OBP figure is also the best Pierzynski has produced since ’03. So even though this is someone who was a key part of Chicago’s 2005 World Series champion, the fans of the South Side—a group that includes President Obama—have never seen him hit like this.

Does that make him worthy of the All-Star selection if we voted right now based on current year production only? There are three other candidates you can make it an argument for. Well, really only two. I’m including Baltimore’s Matt Wieters in the discussion, because he’s close enough that a hot streak could move him up to the top if we had this same conversation in a couple weeks and he certainly could lead the field when TheSportsNotebook revisits the entire All-Star discussion at the end of September, but a recent hitting slump have his OBP/Slugging numbers at .336/.450. He draws his walks, which helped sustain him offensively, even as his batting average slipped to .255 and he’s popped nine home runs. Nonetheless, based on today’s production, Wieters would be fourth, behind not only Pierzynski, but Joe Mauer in Minnesota and Mike Napoli in Texas.

Mauer has enjoyed a comeback season in the Twin Cities and we’re back to seeing him churn out times on base, as he’s hitting .302 with a plate discipline that tacks on 104 points when it’s time to do OBP. The power is fine for a catcher, but at .422, not what either his White Sox or Ranger counterpart are producing. Napoli has hit 11 home runs to key a .483 slugging percentage, and his OBP is at .356. My issue with picking Napoli for the All-Star spot is that he has a lot more support in his lineup than either Mauer or Pierzynski, so my inclination is to narrow it to the two AL Central catchers. And from there I give a slight nod to the veteran Pierzynski, because I think his home runs have been so important in giving help to Paul Konerko and Adam Dunn and carrying a lineup that lacks depth, while still needing to score a lot of runs. I have my doubts that it can sustain into the second half, but the White Sox catcher currently has TheSportsNotebook’s nod for top AL catcher.

If we’re looking for anyone to break into the upper crust by the time September arrives and we decide who had the best overall year, let’s start with Detroit’s Alex Avila, whose .338/.429 line is a little disappointing right now, but he was the AL’s best at this spot in 2011 and isn’t far from getting back into the discussion. And if Boston’s Jarrod Saltalamacchia had better patience at the plate, he could get in the conversation. Saltalamacchia has hit 11 home runs and his slugging percentage outpaces Pierzynski, and he’s batting .255, but unlike the other catchers he’s not using walks to tack a 100 or so points on in OBP. As a Red Sox fan I hope he gets in the mix. As a writer I really hope it’s not a Chicago-Boston battle at catcher, because I dread an article where I’m repeatedly typing and spell-checking Saltalamacchia and Pierzynski throughout.

In the category of “good batting eye but please get a hit” are Russell Martin in New York and Carlos Santana for Cleveland, who have OBPs around .340, while batting in the low .200s. As much as I like walks, and give both players credit for their patience, I’m not so into the whole OBP thing that I fail to see that it is better to get a hit then take a walk.

There are three disappointments led up by Toronto’s J.P. Arencibia, whose second season was supposed to be breakout time. Instead it’s a .269/.413 disaster as his nine home runs mark his nine productive at-bats for the year. Miguel Olivo in Seattle is also not hitting, and neither is Kurt Suzuki in Oakland, although the latter has been subpar for so many years that the only disappointment is either me for even vaguely thinking things might change, or Billy Beane for never bothering to find anyone else.

The LA Angels and Kansas City are splitting time with players due to injuries and none have been particularly successful. The same goes for Tampa Bay, where 37-year-old starter Jose Molina is healthy now, but has only 97 at-bats for the year and is a liability. CBS Sportsline’s player review said he’s not as good a hitter as his brother. That’s true. It’s also such an understatement that it’s akin to saying my drive to the basket is not as good as LeBron James and I’m not as cool as Brad Pitt was in Oceans 11.