As One Star Rises in Kansas City, Another Resurges

Earlier this afternoon Dave raised an interesting point regarding newly promoted Royal Eric Hosmer. Plenty of prospects have produced high BABIPs in the minors, which has led to results that simply aren’t sustainable in the majors. Among the BABIP casualties he lists is Alex Gordon, former top prospect turned bust, who is now ripping through the league with a .385 wOBA. Yet much of his success this season rides on his .380 BABIP.

This is clearly — wait for it — unsustainable. Gee, how did I ever come to that conclusion? Of course, if it were merely a matter of inflated BABIP driving Gordon’s success, he wouldn’t warrant a further look. You could glance at the number on his player page, see that it’s out of line with his career totals, and write him off as lucky and a severe regression candidate. But it’s not that simple. BABIP is not composed 100% of luck.

As we’ve learned by this point, different types of hitters will produce different results on balls in play. Some guys hit more on the ground, and they’ll probably produce higher BABIPs, since more grounders go for hits than fly balls. Guys who hit a ton of line drives will also produce higher BABIPs, but LD% can be a fickle beast. In any case, we do know that there are limitations on BABIP. For instance, only seven players since 1970 (min. 2,000 PA) have produced a career BABIP over .350. It’s safe to say, then, that marks above that are probably going to come down — but not necessarily within the same season. To avoid rambling further, I’ll sum it up with: BABIP is a complicated beast, and we can’t make blanket assumptions based on it.

To get an idea of why Gordon’s BABIP is so high, we have to look at other aspects of his hitting profile. His BABIP has spiked this year, from a career .302 mark to .380, so clearly something is different than in the past — even from, say, 2008, when he was actually a half decent hitter. For that we can look at his contact rate, and yeah, that jumps off the page. He’s putting a ton more balls in play this year than in years past. His 7.2% walk rate and 19.2% strikeout rate are both down considerably from his career totals. Putting it together, here is his balls in play percentage ((AB-K-HR+SH+SF)/PA) from his debut in 2007 through his first 138 PA this season.

2007: 65.6%
2008: 63.6%
2009: 62.4%
2010: 62.3%
2011: 72.5%

It follows, then, that his contact rate is up. He has made contact 80.3% of the time when swinging, up from 76.6% in his career. That leads to a dip in swinging strike rate, which is at 8.5%, down a full two points from his career rate. While most production numbers haven’t yet stabilized, swing data has. If Gordon has made changes that lead to fewer swings and misses and better contact, perhaps he has become a guy who will produce a higher BABIP than he had in his first few seasons. This jibes with xBABIP, which has him at .331. That’s a significant drop-off from .380, but it’s also a jump from his career .302 BABIP.

There might appear to be worrying signs, even in the somewhat stabilized swing data. Gordon does have a 28% O-Swing rate, which is well above his 24.7% career mark. But in the past year and change we’ve seen a jump in the league average O-Swing%. While it used to hover around 25%, it was at 29.3% last year and is at 28.3% so far this season. In that way, Gordon is right around league average, which is roughly where he’d been previously in his career. If that rate is concerning in any way, it’s because we’re looking for changes in his profile, and this is something that has stayed consistent.

Sometimes, players can change. That might be temporary, but every so often we find a player who recognized a problem and works to correct it. So far this season it appears Gordon has done that. It’s not just the results, but rather a seemingly altered approach. It has allowed Gordon to make more contact, which has led to some quality, if somewhat lucky, results. But the changes aren’t all luck. There has been enough of a change in his discipline and contact numbers that we might be seeing something real here, even if that .380 BABIP will drop. The Royals have a rising star heading to join the team this evening, but a just as important, if quieter, story is the re-rise of Gordon.

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Joe also writes about the Yankees at River Ave. Blues.

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