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Air Gordon and the Price of Domination

…or, “Alex Gordon, Superstar? Part the Second.”

Part One of my long-awaited-by-no-one post on Alex Gordon’s 2011 and future was originally intended to see just how Gordon’s 2011 performance compared to his contemporaries — and recent Royals seasons — as well as to begin assessing his true talent. Well, after more than 1,000 words I only got to the comparison portion, which inadvertently may have given some people the wrong impression of my intent. Hopefully, today’s post will clear some matters up. The key is the in question mark — Alex Gordon seems to have performed (and orated) like a superstar in 2011, but how good is he, really? What is his true talent, and what (if anything) should the Royals be willing to give him in a potential long-term extension?

A review of some general principles might be in order. While concepts such as “outlier” and “breakout” have their uses, I think they are often used improperly. It is lazy to call Gordon’s 2011 performance either an “outlier” from which he will now return to previous levels or to dub it a “breakout” that is his expected level of performance in the future. Both tendencies gloss over important facets of estimating a player’s “true talent” properly: elements such as adjusting for age, weighting recent seasons, and regressing to the mean, among others. I will not belabor those general points, so check out the links in this paragraph and the relevant entries in the Sabermetric Library for more reading along these liens.

I do want to emphasize the relative degree of uncertainty in Gordon’s projections simply based on his recent playing time. There is uncertainty in any projection, but moreso for Gordon’s than for many other players’ who have been in the majors the same number of seasons. Why? Looking just at Gordon’s stats from the three most recent seasons, one sees a huge jump in Gordon’s major league performance in 2011. That can be deceptive, though, since Gordon had more plate appearances in the majors in 2011 than he had in 2009 and 2010 combined, even before weighting the most recent season most heavily. In fact, if you weight his last four major league seasons of plate appearances in a fairly-standard 5-4-3-2 manner, his 2011 is weighted (weight times plate appearances) about as heavily as the the three previous seasons combined. On a positive note, this means that his excellent 2011 is going to get far more weight than any of his poor seasons. However, this “optimism” will be tempered by his projection being regressed more to the mean — which indicates added uncertainty in Gordon’s individual case because it is relying more heavily on the average performance from the population of players to which he is thought to belong rather than his individual performance. Uncertainty cuts both ways, of course, but it should add an element of caution. (Gordon did have substantial time in the minors in both 2009 and 2010, but the problem of translating minor league statistics adds another set of issues that I do not have the space to address here).

If you had asked me to picture a Gordon “breakout” (ahem) prior to 2011, just about the last way I would have envisioned it would be him having a .303 batting average. Much was made in the off-season (and, though no one remembers it, in previous seasons, too) of Gordon re-tooling his swing to generate more contact. It seems to have worked, as in both 2010 and 2011 his contact rate was up a bit, and in 2011 that turned into an improved strikeout rate. However, even that lowered strikeout rate was still worse than average, and is not enough to explain the .303 batting average. Our old frenemy BABIP rears its ugly head.

Gordon had a .358 BABIP in 2011, and it is highly unlikely that a .358 BABIP is his (or many other players’, for that matter) true talent. While xBABIP models have their uses for short-term, in-season analysis, they have limitations. Without going into those at length, I will simply note that projection systems that weight and regress a player’s observed BABIP, adjust for park, age, handedness, and things of that nature are preferable. It is too simplistic, in any case, to simply note that Gordon got “lucky” on his 2011 BABIP. While he probably did, xBABIP models also indicate he was “unlucky” in previous seasons. Moreover, left-handed hitters usually have a higher BABIP than average and Kauffman stadium also inflates hit rates on balls in play. Overemphasizing the results of xBABIP models at the expense of more sophisticated projections can gloss over these factors. It is also important to remember that hitter BABIP skill varies more widely than for pitchers, which is why attempts to construct a FIP for hitters run into problems. BABIP is not a uniquely “regress-able” component. All components need to be regressed, hitter BABIP simply requires more regression than, e.g., walk rate.

It is also important to note that while Gordon heavily benefited from a high BABIP in 2011, his season was not simply a result of an inflated batting average. While his walk rate dropped a bit from previous seasons, it was still above average, and he hit for more power (.200 ISO) than ever before. Like BABIP, these results need to be subjected to regression, weighted with respect to past performance, and so on, but Gordon did well in these areas, too.

After all that sound and fury signifying little-to-nothing, what can we expect from Gordon at the plate in 2012? With the qualifications regarding uncertainty in mind, Oliver forecasts Gordon to hit .267/.354/.456 for a .354 wOBA in 2012. In 2011’s run environment, that’s about 21 runs above average per 700 plate appearances. I would guess that other projections systems will see Gordon about the same way. Keep in mind that he will be 28 — not ancient, but already past when most hitters generally peak. That line may not seem overly impressive — and, indeed, it indicates more of a “good” hitter than a “superstar” hitter — but remember that the run environment in recent seasons has been pretty stingy.

It is not all about hitting, though, and Gordon’s switch from third base to the left field (and here the Royals front office probably deserves some credit) has gone well. He set the organizational record for outfield assists in 2011 with 20, the most by a major league outfielder since Alfonso Soriano had 22 in 2006. Both UZR and DRS liked him in left field in both 2011 and his short time there in 2010, as do other metrics. The Fans’ Scouting Report is also impressed. With all that said, uncertainty rears its head again — the general rule is that three seasons of fielding data is as reliable as one year of hitting in relation to true talent, and we have less than one-and-a-half of Gordon in the major leagues. Moreover, Gordon’s 2011 rating relies heavily on his “arm” rating, and runners are less likely to take chances with him next season. I would conservatively eyeball his 2011 projection at four runs above average.

Two more notes: Gordon has been good at taking the extra base for most of his career as indicated by UBR, but like everything else, that requires plenty of regression, so placing him at one run above average seems about right. Of more import is his injury history: while Gordon got almost 700 plate appearances in 2011 before being shut down, he spent time on the disabled least in each of the prior three seasons, including a serious hip injury in 2009. Due to attrition, players should never be projected to play 162 games; I usually project them for around 85 or 90 percent playing time. In Gordon’s case, 80 percent seems like a safer bet, although I admit that is less-than-scientific (unlike the utterly rigorous and irrefutable portions of the rest of this post. Ahem.).

In the past I’ve usually done a bit of arithmetic at this stage. These days I feel like it tends to give an impression of greater exactitude than I would like, but just to show my work, here’s what we have for Gordon’s 2012 projection: +21 hitting + 4 fielding + 1 base running – 7.5 positional adjustment for left field + 25 AL replacement level, all times 80 percent playing time, then converted to wins give us about 3.5 WAR for 2012. I am a bit uncomfortable with even one decimal place there, so it might be helpful to read that as “between three and four wins” rather than 3.5 on the money. In any case, although Gordon does not project as a “superstar” going forward, a three-to-four-win player is very good.

What should the Royals do with their “merely very good” player? They do not have to give Gordon an extension, as he is under team control for 2012 and 2013. However, the Royals are not exactly stacked in the outfield in either the short- or long-term. If you think Gordon’s projection falls short of “superstar status,” check out Melky Cabrera and Jeff Francoeur‘s. Lorenzo Cain could not convince the organization to give him Melky or Frenchy’s job, and while Wil Myers is still a good prospect after a tough 2011 season, he probably will not see serious time in the majors until at least 2013. Bubba Starling might be the next Royals savior, but that particular parousia will probably not happen for some time.

This is likely the last off-season the Royals will have leverage to negotiate with Gordon in favorable circumstances, as if he performs decently in 2012, Gordon will be close enough to free agency that he would be better off going on another one-year contract and getting to free agency faster. So while they do not have to re-sign him, this is probably the last chance to do it in a manner that favors the club financially.

To figure out a fair deal for Gordon, we need to look at arbitration figures for players in comparable situations. Rather than embarrass myself (further), I consulted our own Matt Swartz, who has done extensive work on this topic. He suggests that Gordon would be likely to get around $4.4 million in arbitration this off-season, and assuming he has a decent 2012, more than $7 million the next off-season. That would be about $12 million total.

Unless the team gets a great deal when buying out the arbitration years, they are going to want at least one extra year of control of the player. Assuming the 3.5 win projection from above for 2012 and a standard half-win-a-season decline for Gordon, by 2014 we would expect him to be something like a 2.5 win player. Assuming the average price of a marginal win is up to around $6 million by then that would be worth about $15 million on the free agent market.

Altogether, something around (again, this is a ballpark figure) three years and $25 million dollars seems like a fair deal for the Royals and Gordon this off-season. In exchange for guaranteed security for Gordon, the Royals get his first free agent seasons and perhaps a slight discount. As I said, this is something like a fair deal. Obviously, a deal with substantially more money or other things such as a no-trade clause would favor Gordon, and club options and/or much less money would favor the Royals. A guaranteed fourth year is a trickier issue, as even a player with a fairly balanced skill-set like Gordon is a risk after 30 — the parties would need to strike a balance between compensating Gordon for putting off free agency by yet another season with the risk the Royals would take on by guaranteeing another season. Hey, they can’t all be Yunel Escobar deals, although I am sure the Royals (and every other team) would love it if they were.

Despite all of their missteps in recent seasons, the Royals have enough young talent to potentially contend in 2013 and beyond if they play their cards right and have a bit of luck. The Royals probably do not have a true-talent “superstar” on their hands in Gordon, much less the “next George Brett.” However, although Air Gordon is unlikely to replicate 2011’s under-the-radar awesomeness, he does not have to do so to be a major contributor to the next winning team in Kansas City. If you made it this far, thanks for indulging me. Hopefully, my next two-part, 3000+ word novel will be about that winning team, not a not-quite-superstar-level player.