Other than Zack Greinke‘s historic season, the 2009 Royals had little go right. Billy Butler was one non-Greinke bright spot. After a disappointing 2008, Butler raked in 2009, hitting .301/.362/.492 (.369 wOBA). He even became the everyday first baseman despite questions about his defense, beating out celebrated glove-man Mike Jacobs.
The Royals’ other “Savior,” Alex Gordon, has not quite (ahem) lived up to expectations. Hailed as “the next George Brett” upon being drafted in 2005, Gordon started at the hot corner on Opening Day 2007 and received a standing ovation. Things went downhill from there, as Gordon ended 2007 with a .317 wOBA. In 2008, he posted a merely decent .344 wOBA. Gordon got seriously injured to start 2009 , struggled upon returning, got demoted, and finally limped to a .321 wOBA (although 189 PA tells us next to nothing). The current attitude of many is understandable: Butler is The Man, and Gordon is a question mark at best.
Butler is clearly superior to Gordon as a hitter, and his minor league performances always indicated a higher offensive upside. But it is curious that so many smart people following the Royals have so readily hailed Butler’s 2009 as an awesome breakthrough while saying “meh” to Gordon’s decent 2008. Why is this curious? Because despite the glaring offensive disparity, we live in the Age of WAR. Let’s compare each player’s best season so far: Butler’s 2009 vs. Gordon’s 2008.
Butler’s 2009 value was excellent offensively at 21 runs above average. It was less impressive defensively. Despite looking better than expected, Butler posted a -6.7 UZR at first base (with a -12.6 overall positional adjustment). Butler’s overall WAR for 2009: an above-average 2.4.
Gordon’s 2008 value was more evenly distributed. +7.7 runs hitting, but only -3.0 UZR. However, the latter was accumulated while playing the much-more-valuable 3B. Altogether Gordon had a 2.6 WAR in 2008. It is obvious why many were down on Gordon’s 2008 relative to the Butler’s awesome 2009. Wait, what? Gordon was actually slightly more valuable in 2008 than Butler was in 2009?
Not really. After all, FanGraph WAR doesn’t currently include baserunning (other than SB/CS, which are included in wOBA/wRAA). Looking at the non-SB elements of baserunning using Baseball Prospectus’s EqBRR, as Erik did, we find that Butler was one of the worst baserunners in baseball in 2009 at about five runs below average, putting his WAR at about 1.9. In 2008, Gordon was about +3, which puts his WAR at about 2.9. So Gordon’s 2008 wasn’t “slightly” more valuable than Butler’s 2009, it was significantly more valuable. In fact, once baserunning is fully taken into account, Butler’s 1.9 WAR 2009 isn’t even quite as good as Gordon’s 2.1 WAR from his “disastrous” 2007.
My point is not about the relative value of Butler and Gordon going forward. Batting generally improves the most in the early 20s (whereas fielding and baserunning are relatively static), and Butler is two years younger than Gordon. There are legitimate questions about Gordon’s future given his performance and health. My intent is neither to run down Butler nor celebrate Gordon. One might respond that “Gordon’s value was primarily due to defense, position and baserunning!” But that is exactly the point — those things matter. Despite living in the Age of WAR, informed observers sometimes still focus on only one aspect of a player’s performance. And that can lead to a gap between a perception of one value disparity and the reality of the opposite.
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