Alex Gordon, Superstar? Part the First

[Part Two is now posted here]

Near the end of his miserable 2010 season, Alex Gordon issued a proclamation: “I’m going to dominate next year.” Later in the off-season, Gordon was more circumspect: “What did you want me to say, I was going to do okay?” Understandably, this bit of bravado generated much mockery. After decent-but-uninspiring performances during his first two major-league seasons in 2007 and 2008, during 2009 and 2010 the one-time “next George Brett” endured injuries, demotion, miserable major-league performance when healthy, and a position shift to left field in order to accommodate the next next George Brett Mike Moustakas. (To be more precise, Moustakas is the next next next George Brett, if you count former Royals third baseman and current hitting coach Kevin Seitzer. Mark Teahen does not count. He is the next Jason Giambi, remember?)

Gordon’s 2011 performance received relatively little attention in 2011, but it is safe to say that no one is laughing at him. Although Gordon may not have received the attention that other players in the American League with similar performances, or even of his other teammates having better-than-expected seasons, in 2011 Gordon was a monster. This two-part post will try to put his season in a bit of perspective to get a sense of how good it was, and, more importantly, try to get a sense for how good Gordon “really” is going forward.

As a fan of the Royals and Gordon, I have been monitoring his season very carefully, but have superstitiously held off writing about it at length in order to avoid a “jinx.” As I watched, I kept expecting him to fall off, but he just kept hitting, playing good defense, and taking the extra base. There is no point in dwelling on things you can look up on his player page, like his 6.9 WAR or his 141 wRC+ (.303/.376/.502).

Some may see this as a “good” but not “great,” season. After all, rookie sensation Eric Hosmer had a 114 wRC+, Jeff Francoeur had a 20-20 season, and Frenchy, Melky Cabrera, and Billy Butler all had 40 or more doubles. Is it only on a “Royals Scale” that Gordon had a good season? From the lack of attention he received, one might think so. So before estimating his true talent and what the Royals should do about it, it is worth examining is how Gordon’s 2011 performance compares to both his current peers in the league as well as recent Royals history.

First of all — yes, a number of other Royals hitters had surprisingly good seasons. But let’s put this in perspective: if you take the WAR of the two highest Royals other than Gordon — Francoeur (2.9, and, yes, in my face) and Cabrera (4.2) — they add up to 7.1; for practical purposes, that is the same as Gordon. If you question the defensive metrics, then let’s just look at offense. According to batting runs above average, the two most productive Royals hitters other than Gordon, Butler and Melky, had a total of 36.5 batting runs. Gordon by himself had 35.5.

I will not get into the case for Gordon getting some down-ballot MVP votes. It may or may not interest you to know that Gordon had the best season among American League left fielders by a substantial margin, or that only National League MVP candidate Ryan Braun had a better season among all major league left fielders. Gordon’s 141 wRC+ was the seventh-highest in the American League. Was Gordon simply the best performer on a bad team? Let’s see how Gordon’s 2011 compares with the best position players on the current playoff teams:

Ryan Braun, 7.8 WAR, 179 wRC+
Ian Kinsler, 7.7 WAR, 128 wRC+
Curtis Granderson, 7.0 WAR, 146 wRC+
Alex Gordon, 6.9 WAR, 141 wRC+
Ben Zobrist, 6.6 WAR, 131 wRC+
Justin Upton, 6.4 WAR, 140 wRC+
Shane Victorino, 5.9 WAR, 135 wRC+
Albert Pujols, 5.1 WAR, 148 wRC+

For another bit of comparison, how about The Greatest Pitcher in the History of Whatever, Justin Verlander, whose 7.0 out-WARed Gordon by 0.1 in 2011?

To put it mildly, the Royals have not had much success or many great players since, well, you-know-who. However, they had a few very good players over the last couple of decades. Most Royals fans remember the good offenses (accompanied by horrific pitching, of course) of the early 2000s led by the likes Johnny Damon, Carlos Beltran, Jermaine Dye, and Mike Sweeney. If you compare Gordon’s unadjusted 2011 numbers to their best seasons, may not seem all that impressive. However, the league run-scoring environment was much different a decade ago, and Kauffman Stadium was more favorable to hitters during that period (the fences were moved back after the 2003 season). The best way to compare Gordon’s 2011 production to those players is by using park-adjusted batting runs above average (the “Batting” line in the player value sections). Gordon’s 35.5 batting runs above average is the most since Danny Tartabull‘s 47.7 in 1991.

What about WAR? Well, a number of the position players mentioned above had some great overall seasons, but Gordon’s 6.9 WAR in 2011 just edges out (of course, WAR is not this precise a measure, let’s just go with it for now) Carlos Beltran’s 6.8 WAR in 2003 for the most valuable season by a Royals position player since… wait for it…

…George Brett in 1985 (8.8 WAR).

Gordon’s 2011: the best offensive season by a Royal in 20 years, the best season by a position player 25 years. That should at least get him a cool nickname like, say, Air Gordon.

That is a long historical excursion, and it probably will not ever convince some disappointed fans who have curious notions of what makes a good player and what is expected of a player with Gordon’s “draft status.” There are at least two franchises who wish that former #1 pick overall Delmon Young, for example, had turned into as big a “disappointment” as Alex Gordon, for example, but that is neither here nor there at this point.

A slightly more “reasonable” group of fans are probably thinking that if Gordon can just maintain this, he can stay in their good graces. If you are here, I hope you realize at this point that that is neither fair nor realistic. But that brings us (hopefully) more rational folks to the more important issues (such as his 2011 BABIP, fielding, and aging among them) — how good can Gordon be expected to be go forward, and what should the Royals do about it? I will address those issues in Part Two.

[Note: I’ve been thinking about this stuff for a months, but I should acknowledge that Jeff Zimmerman posted something along similar lines last week. He knew I was planning a big post-season post on Gordon, too. Revenge will be mine, Zimmerman!]

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Matt Klaassen reads and writes obituaries in the Greater Toronto Area. If you can't get enough of him, follow him on Twitter.

32 Responses to “Alex Gordon, Superstar? Part the First”

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  1. tjtigers15 says:

    WAR is a bit skewed for starting pitchers, so the comparison to Verlander might not hold up. But Gordon scared the hell out of me this whole season…actually the entire Royal’s lineup did.

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  2. GiantPain says:

    Alex Gordon, superstar?

    Is he the one that you say he are?

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  3. FanGraphs Supporting Member

    I just thought about Danny Tartabull!

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  4. Awesome says:

    Can Alex play 3B? Was the move absolutely neccesary? If he can play even a slightly below average 3B he would have been at 8+ WAR and been in the thick of the MVP discussion.

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    • ecp says:

      He really had gone downhill as a third baseman; check the metrics. He’s a pretty dandy left fielder, though.

      Still, even if he had played third, I imagine he would have been largely unnoticed anyway. The prevailaing opinion is still to disregard anything any Royal does. They are an afterthought to mainstream fans. Gordon absolutely should have been the Royals All-Star this year, and he was even overlooked for that.

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      • joe says:

        He had a UZR of 1.0, minus the armR component… I wonder how his UZR is going to hold up when his rngR was -2.1 (while this is volatile I suspect armR is far more volatile although I have never seen any UZR related variation studies published)

        He’ll still be a good player if his bat holds up (though he may regress a bit if his .358 BABIP is unsustainable); but I wonder if he’s can be +10 type fielder with a negative range for an extended period of time.

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    • DavidCEisen says:

      If he was a slightly below average 3rd baseman (-2 UZR or so) he would have lost ~1.2 WAR from fielding. The positional change would only be worth 1 WAR. So as a 3rd baseman he would have been worth less, assuming he is a slightly below average third baseman.

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  5. scobes15 says:

    Gordon moving forward worries me and thus the fan reaction to him does as well. He’s almost surely going to take a step back offensively – which could be a result of both regression and the manager moving him lower in the lineup to accommodate a more lead-offy looking batter – and that will certainly lead to a chorus of Royals fans (they same Royals fans that claim they were in support of him all along, even though they weren’t) again proclaiming that he’s a bust.

    That being said Gordon will still be much better than Frenchy, but Frenchy takes naked BP so clearly he’s more valuable.

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  6. Hurtlocker says:

    One pretty good year does not equal superstar, being able to duplicate the effort year in and year out does. Reserve judgement at this point.

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    • Awesome says:

      Is 6.9 WAR the new “pretty good”

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      • Hurtlocker says:

        Isn’t an 8.0 or above an MVP type year?? Then 6-7 may be be pretty good?? 4-5 good, 2-3 average?? Just asking.

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      • Awesome says:

        Maybe it is semantics but I would argue that “pretty good” is below “good”, and that “very good” might be the term you are looking for.

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    • JT Grace says:

      I was getting ready to say the same thing. He had a great year this after a horrendous year last season. I want one more season of success before I say that he is a future star.

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  7. John Houser says:

    I clicked on the you know who link, and was shocked it was George Brett. That guy sucked, I assumed it was going to be Bruce Chen. Perhaps Matt is preparing himself for the pain of Chen leaving.

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  8. mister_rob says:

    I’m learning alot today on FG. Justin Verlander’s season = not historical, but Alex Gordon’s….yes
    Back to your Royals, I find it absolutely fantastic that they traded a (comparitvely) expensive DeJesus to the “brilliant” Billy Beane, and replaced him with a couple FG whipping boys for next to no money and they thoroughly outproduced him

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    • rbt says:

      Agree that was great, but have you looked at what they actually got for DeJesus? Oy.

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    • camelot says:

      Any why is beane’s fault dejesus had a career worst yr? Will they miss mazzaro and marks from that deal? They did replace mazzaro’s potential rotation spot by signing brandon mccarthy for 1million, who had the lowest FIP in the AL i believe and made a solid under the radar trade for moscoso. Does the “genius” get credit for those moves?

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    • DavidCEisen says:

      Where did someone claim that Gordon’s season was historic–other than in the context of Royals baseball? People on the internet are whiny.

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  9. Paul says:

    If you just look at the stats, there is only one (this is not BA) that sticks out a whole bunch, and that is BABIP. Does a .358 BABIP always indicate regression? Nope. As long as we’re talking about WAR, remember that part about hitters being able to control balls in play?

    Gordon was good from the outset this year, but he advanced a great deal as a hitter over the course of the season, I’m extremely bullish going into next year. It was a classic case of Ron Shandler’s “skills consolidation” and it was a lot of fun to watch. I probably watched at least 50% of God’s, err George Brett’s ABs and Gordon is so similar now it’s scary. If you watch him day in and day out, it’s shocking that his SO% is so high (even though it’s a career low).

    The evidence doesn’t fit the narrative of Gordon not being appreciated for his season. He plays for the Royals. They’re still shitty. And they are physically located west of the Adirondacks, which is not just an argument for recognizing Royals players who are good. The Royals television broadcasters consistently noted toward the end of the season that this was now Alex’s team. Considering that half of the broadcast team is Frank White, who could run for mayor and win in a landslide, those are not mere words.

    Matt is absolutely right that Gordon dominated this season. But there is more. Oops, I just gave away Part 2…

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    • cthabeerman says:

      A .358 BABIP does indicate regression will likely occur…If you look at all the careers between 1980 and today, you’ll find one player that’s had a better career BABIP than .358. It’s Austin Jackson, and that’s through just 304 games.

      Derek Jeter has maintained a .355 BABIP for his career, lower than the Gordon most recent mark, but still quite amazing given the length of time he’s been able to uphold that BABIP. Votto and Kemp are also better than .350 for their careers.

      But let’s look at individual seasons. In the past five, 72 times has a player BABIP’ed better than .350. 56 players have achieved the feat, only 14 did it twice, and only two (Michael Young and Ichiro Suzuki) have done it three times (Votto and Kemp each were close in other seasons, coming in at better than .345).

      The chances of Gordon maintaining a .358 BABIP moving forward are incredibly slim, even if a player has some amount of repeatable control over this statistic. He could do it twice, or maybe even three times, but it’s almost certainly not going to be an every year thing. 75% of the players that have done it in the past five years have not repeated the feat during this time period.

      In summation, though hitters do have some control over BABIP, doing better than .350 repeatedly is certainly not a common achievement. If that’s going to be your argument for the projection of extended excellence, you may want to find something else that supports this opinion.

      Incidentally, Gordon is one of the 42 players that hasn’t done it twice in the past five seasons. If he had been, perhaps the argument would hold a little more water, but he’s never even come close at the major league level.

      Keep in mind, also, that I am a huge Gordon fan, having lived in Nebraska most of my life and in Lincoln while he played for the Cornhuskers. I hope he can repeat this amazing season, but BABIP likely isn’t the best indicator for the continued excellence we’re hoping for.


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      • Paul says:

        Sorry, I could have saved you a lot of time by completing the sentence with “regressing to the mean.” Given his skill set, Gordon could easily have a .340 BABIP next year and have a better year overall.

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      • Scott M says:

        Paul, a .340 BABIP for Gordon next year is possible, but not likely.

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      • Paul says:

        A .340 BABIP is not likely for anybody. The title of the article includes the word “superstar,” so we’re in the right tail here.

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  10. CircleChange11 says:

    The whole OF is due some regression.

    KC could make some good moves pitchingwise and simply have them negated by just good ol regression … and have some incorrectly evaluate the Royals “progress”.

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  11. JG says:

    Wow, the Verlander smearing is just getting petty at this point. What did that add to this article other than bitterness? (bWAR also has Verlander as worth 2.6 wins more than Gordon, just for reference… Get it? Reference?)

    BTW, Cabrera has the most WAR on the Tigers (who are, in fact, a playoff team), and it’s more than Gordon’s.

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  12. DrT says:

    BABIP has more value for pitchers. Other teams’ fielding, Kaufman Stadium itself may also play a role in keeping BABIP’s greater than average for Alex. So does strength of lineup and lineup position, which determines what pitches you might see, and the decline of other division teams and pitching quality. The key is that Gordon is hitting more grounders and liners than pop flies and fly balls which speaks to Seitzer as hitting coach [and the above comments about Brett like approach to hitting] . There is no reason Gordon can’t hit .290 90 25 90 20. Both KC and keeper fantasy teams that drafted him will be happy with that in 2012.

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