The Value of Alex Gordon Not Using His Arm

There aren’t many plays quite like the challenging of an outfielder’s arm. If you think about it, hitters don’t really have a choice, when they’re in the box. Runners don’t really have a choice, when a ball’s hit to an infielder. But when the ball goes to an outfielder, runners can opt in to an arm test, wherein they attempt to beat the ball to a bag. It’s a challenge of arm against legs, and when the arm emerges victorious, it can make for some memorable moments. Just this past weekend, Marcell Ozuna went crazy in consecutive innings. Less recently but more memorably, the Angels made the mistake of challenging Yoenis Cespedes. Outfielders with the best arms tend to be outfielders who rack up the most kills.

Alex Gordon‘s always had a great arm. Alex Gordon’s always piled up the kills. Between 2011 – 2013, Gordon led all outfielders in UZR’s arm rating. He led all outfielders in DRS’ arm rating. He led all outfielders in assists, with 54. The next-best was Jeff Francoeur‘s 40. Gordon was drafted as a third baseman but he’s become an all-around star in left field. This season, Gordon has just five outfield assists, almost halfway through. The last three years, he’s finished with 20, 17, and 17. This season, Gordon’s also on pace for career-best arm ratings. Alex Gordon is showing the value of having a gun you seldom use.

Rewind to the very beginning of April. The White Sox were in Kansas City, and Alexei Ramirez pulled a grounder down the line into left field’s foul territory. Gordon scooped the ball up.

Gordon1.gif.opt

Said the White Sox broadcast:

Harrelson: There’s a rule that is just a conceded double, but not with Gordon out there.
Stone: There’s one guy in this outfield you don’t want to run on.

Ramirez hit a possible double, and aggressively rounded first to see if he could go for a double. He looked up, saw Alex Gordon, and slammed on the brakes. Ramirez still wound up with a hit, but he wound up with half the total bases he probably expected to get.

And this is where Gordon’s numbers are really outstanding. In the past, he’s racked up a lot of value by throwing runners out. So far, he’s racked up a lot of value by having his arm serve as a deterrent. Some assists, certainly, have still been there. And Gordon has yet to be charged with a throwing error. But the bulk of his arm value is coming from his not having to even use his arm.

Here’s some data you might not have ever looked at before. Sure, there are assists, but there are also holds, where a runner doesn’t advance an extra base. That’s the other way for an arm to be valuable, and Gordon so far has been extraordinary in this regard. Let’s go over a simple rundown, shall we? On Gordon’s 2014 performance in left field:

  1. Single with a runner on first. So far, Gordon has held the runner 96% of the time. The league average is 80%.
  2. Single with a runner on second. So far, Gordon has held the runner 77% of the time. The league average is 36%.
  3. Double with a runner on first. So far, Gordon has held the runner 58% of the time. The league average is 54%.
  4. Fly out, runner on third, less than two out. So far, Gordon has held the runner 43% of the time. The league average is 24%. (The sample here is also really small.) (I feel stupid using percentages.)
  5. Fly out, runner on second, less than two out. So far, Gordon has held the runner 100% of the time. The league average is 89%.

This completely ignores assists. This is just about runners challenging or not challenging, and so far, Gordon has held the runner 82% of the time, overall. The league average is 63%, so if you’re content with simple math, you could equate that to about 16 saved bases. A different way of looking at this: against Gordon, there’s been a 14% advance rate. The league average is 35%. Every saved base has a run value, and some of the saved bases are home plate. A saved base in this regard is less impactful and less dramatic than an assist, in that it doesn’t create an out, but value is value and Gordon’s on track for a career high.

There are obvious issues with this data. Not every opportunity is created alike, and maybe Gordon has been defending against unusually slow runners. Maybe the balls in play he’s been fielding have made it extra unlikely for a runner to try to move up. With this sort of data, you want bigger sample sizes to try to get greater evenness of opportunities, and it’s worth noting that, just last season, Gordon had an overall 67% hold rate. His numbers held pretty steady before jumping up in 2014, so it would be strange if runners only just now suddenly lost the will to be aggressive. The short of this being, there are error bars, as there are whenever you break something down to the core components. It stands to reason runners don’t like challenging Gordon; it stands to reason we don’t know his current true-talent level, in terms of holding runners without advance.

But this is why Gordon’s numbers are where they are. His assists are present, but down. He has yet to make a throwing error. And runners have more or less stayed put, instead of putting Gordon’s arm to the test. Maybe down the stretch, they’ll run a little more often, as the sample size balances out. But, let’s go back to that April White Sox/Royals game. The batter after Alexei Ramirez doubled.

Gordon2.gif.opt

One way or another, Alex Gordon’s arm is going to accumulate its value. How it does that is up to the runners.



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Jeff made Lookout Landing a thing, but he does not still write there about the Mariners. He does write here, sometimes about the Mariners, but usually not.


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Impossibles
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Impossibles
2 years 4 days ago

That last play just seems like a stupid send. He was out by a mile.

tz
Guest
tz
2 years 4 days ago

And Escobar making a perfect relay has to help a lot. In fact, does the infielder get any part of the UZR runs saved on a relay like that? A good/bad relay could make a ton of difference, though you’d have to come up with a way to split the credit fairly.

Anon21
Guest
Anon21
2 years 4 days ago

I’d go so far as to say that the infielder is generally more responsible for the success or failure of the relay play. Not always, of course–sometimes an outfielder’s great play off the wall is the difference.

tz
Guest
tz
2 years 3 days ago

If the infielders get no credit for quality of relay throws, I can see why Roberto Alomar’s defensive stats look low. He had a SS arm and made the relay throw as well as any infielder I’ve seen. Part of the Gold Glove package.

Chris Sabo's goggles
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Chris Sabo's goggles
1 year 10 months ago

Leaving out the relay component of UZR is spitting in the face of Robbie Alomar.

Big Mike
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Big Mike
2 years 2 days ago

Granted, but I think you also miss the point that if Ramirez had been running from second, instead of first, he would have been home before there ever was a relay.

Ryan
Guest
Ryan
2 years 4 days ago
george
Guest
george
2 years 3 days ago

no one uses their lack of speed to their advantage better than miguel cabrera!

Belloc
Guest
Belloc
2 years 3 days ago

They Royals clearly did not benefit here from Gordon not using his arm.

BMB
Guest
BMB
2 years 4 days ago

“Single with a runner on second. So far, Gordon has held the runner 77% of the time. The league average is 36%.”

That’s ridiculous. Here are the stats from B-R by team (not by player). So no team is even close really. Seattle has a converted infielder at LF too in Ackley. He’s held 7 of 10 runners. Dodgers and their rolling cast of LF are third.
Tm Opp Held Kill Held %
KCR 22 17 1 77.27%
SEA 12 8 0 66.67%
LAD 23 14 0 60.87%
MIN 20 10 0 50.00%
SFG 14 7 0 50.00%
PHI 20 9 0 45.00%
BOS 25 11 0 44.00%
HOU 25 11 0 44.00%
MIL 19 8 0 42.11%
TEX 29 12 0 41.38%
TBR 15 6 0 40.00%
ARI 23 8 1 34.78%
CIN 12 4 0 33.33%
LgAvg 21 7 1 33.33%
COL 25 8 0 32.00%
NYM 25 8 2 32.00%
CLE 22 7 1 31.82%
STL 19 6 0 31.58%
OAK 13 4 3 30.77%
PIT 23 7 2 30.43%
WSN 20 6 0 30.00%
TOR 21 6 3 28.57%
NYY 22 6 1 27.27%
BAL 19 5 0 26.32%
DET 27 7 1 25.93%
ATL 20 5 0 25.00%
CHW 28 7 1 25.00%
MIA 23 5 1 21.74%
LAA 14 3 0 21.43%
SDP 14 3 0 21.43%
CHC 25 5 1 20.00%

KCDaveInLA
Guest
KCDaveInLA
2 years 4 days ago

“They say that the best weapon is the one you never have to fire. I respectfully disagree. I prefer the weapon you only have to fire once.”

Scott
Guest
Scott
2 years 4 days ago

That’s how Dad did it, that’s how America does it… and it’s worked out pretty well so far.

Zak
Guest
Zak
2 years 4 days ago

Why is he not in Right Field? I see no reason why he and Aoki couldn’t switch positions? I just figure, wouldn’t it make more sense to have the better arm in RF (Though I believe Aoki is no slouch in the arm department as well).

saucypony
Member
saucypony
2 years 3 days ago

Gordon came up an a 3B, so they just opted to keep him on the same side of the field when he shifted to the OF to maintain some sense of familiarity in his transition. Also, Jose Guillen was in RF when he made the switch.

lester bangs
Guest
lester bangs
2 years 4 days ago

A great question, Zak. I wonder if part of it is being used to a side of the diamond and the shape of the game from that angle. Maybe it’s tricky to move to the other side of the diamond. Maybe it’s just wanting to leave a player where he’s comfortable. Or maybe it’s the Royals missing an opportunity.

Sam
Guest
Sam
2 years 4 days ago

I believe that when Gordon initially moved to the OF, the Royals had Franceour out in RF. Franceour’s arm was probably equal to Gordon’s, so at that time they just left him in right, and Gordon went to left. Now, with Franceour’s departure, the Royals are probably just leaving Gordon in LF b/c he’s comfortable there. If someone’s won 3 straight gold gloves (soon to be 4) in LF, probably the safest bet to leave him there, even if he has the arm for RF. I really can’t blame the Royals for doing this. You *may* add some value by putting his arm in a position where it can have slightly more impact, but that’s offset by the brief value dip he’d suffer while “learning the ropes” of a new position.

Marsupial Jones
Guest
Marsupial Jones
2 years 3 days ago

Gordon had already made the switch to LF the year before Frency came to KC. it seems more likely that they wanted to keep him on his familiar side of the field. Seems to be fairly common line of thinking when switching 3b to OF.

Nevin
Guest
Nevin
2 years 3 days ago

Jose Guillen was in right when Alex made the switch to the outfield. He was a lumbering oaf by the time he got to KC, but that arm was still golden. Then came Frenchy, and Alex was entrenched. As to Aoki being “no slouch” in the arm department – that’s incorrect. He’s a tremendous slouch. He’s a trainwreck in general with the glove.

dtpollitt
Member
Member
dtpollitt
2 years 4 days ago

Fantastic article, thanks Jeff.

Josh M
Guest
Josh M
2 years 3 days ago

In that first gif he really gets himself in great position to make a throw as well. A lot of OFs wouldn’t have been able to cut off the ball like that.

TKDC
Guest
TKDC
2 years 3 days ago

This is a good point. From a pure arm strength standpoint, he might not be the top guy, but “arm strength” as it is measured for outfielders includes getting to the ball and getting set to throw quickly, which he clearly does among the best.

stevenam
Guest
stevenam
2 years 3 days ago

That’s what separates Juan Lagares in CF for the Mets as well; he’s got a strong and accurate arm, but he charges the ball so well, and always puts himself in the optimal position for the throw. It’s a pleasure to watch… unless you’re looking to take an extra base.

Steve
Guest
Steve
2 years 3 days ago

Any park factors for this? I would think size of left fields would make a big difference. Or, for example, singles to left in BOS are not equal…if they bounce off the wall.

Mr Punch
Guest
Mr Punch
2 years 3 days ago

On the deterrent effect, and Steve’s point: Dwight Evans had a great arm, but wasn’t run on often because everyone knew it. Manny Ramirez didn’t have as big an arm but could make the “line drive” throw from LF – and actually had years (in BOS and CLE) with more outfield assists than Evans ever had, because he was run on. I saw Carl Yastrzemski, a converted IF, throw a runner out a first on a ball off the wall (after decoying a catch). Brock Holt, an unconverted IF, is throwing well from the outfield this year.

Mr Punch
Guest
Mr Punch
2 years 3 days ago

Oops – I meant, throw a runner from first out at second.

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