Alex Gordon in 2012

Bust. Injury-prone. Waste of money. Entering the 2011 season, Alex Gordon was burdened by all of these labels. The Nebraska Cornhusker stud, a Golden Spikes Award winner, number two pick in the ’05 draft and career .321/.438/.578 hitter in the minors, struggled with quadriceps, hip and thumb injuries early in his MLB career and batted just .244/.328/.405 from 2007 to 2010. Moved off third base in deference to Kansas City’s new hot-shot hot corner prospect, Mike Moustakas, Gordon was an afterthought fighting to prove he was still worthy of being in, much less anchoring, a big league lineup.

That all changed during his age-27 season. Gordon stayed healthy while living up to his minor league dossier and former #2 overall prospect status from Baseball America, swatting pitchers for a .303/.367/.502 line in 690 plate appearances. His offensive surge during a season in which run-scoring once again declined meant that his bat was 41 percent better than average (141 wRC+), compared to seven percent worse than average from ’07 to ’10.

The question now, of course, is whether Gordon is here to stay as a .300+ hitter and all-around offensive threat. Was his torrid 2011 a sign of things to come as he’s in what are typically a hitter’s peak seasons, or will he be overvalued in 2012 by euphoric owners who overlook warning signs that his sudden turnaround was too good to be true? The truth likely lies somewhere between those two extremes — Gordon did indeed make progress at the plate, but expecting him to replicate his 2011 season would be a good way to end up disappointed in 2012.

First, the good. Gordon did make more contact and put the ball in play more often in 2011. His contact rate was 76.3 percent from 2007-2010, but he increased that to 78.8 percent this past season. That’s closer to the 80-81 percent league average and helps explain how he reduced his strikeout rate from 22 percent down to 20.1 percent. Gordon came up empty less often against fastballs, curveballs and changeups:

Fastball: 7.8 Whiff% (Whiffs/Pitches Seen) from 2008-2010, 6.6% in 2011
Curveball: 10.5 Whiff% from 2008-2010, 9.7% in 2011
Changeup: 17.8 Whiff% from 2008-2010, 15.3% in 2011

Pitch F/X data from Texasleaguers.com; Pitch F/X data begins in 2008, so that’s why Gordon’s rookie year isn’t included

Gordon didn’t just make more contact, either — it was hard contact. The lefty batter clubbed 23 home runs and had a .200 Isolated Power, or about 40 points above his career average entering 2011. Changes in ISO take on meaning at around 550 plate appearances, so there’s a good chance that Gordon will retain most of his power gains. Bill James, for instance, projects a .191 ISO for Gordon next season.

He also showed that his 2009 labrum surgery on his hip didn’t rob him of his athleticism. Gordon’s success rate wasn’t great, but he did nab 17 bases in 25 attempts and added +4.5 runs of value on the bases overall, tied for tenth-best among all players. Speed isn’t a huge part of Gordon’s game, but the steals are a nice little bonus and his heads-up running means that he doesn’t cost you runs scored by doing something stupid on the base paths.

So, that’s the good. Gordon made more contact against fastballs, curves and off-speed stuff, hit for more power and used his modest speed well. But the royal blue elephant in the room is Gordon’s .358 batting average on balls in play. That was 64 points above Gordon’s career average from 2007-2010. Hitters have some degree of control over their BABIP, but big spikes like that point to regression the next season. I compiled a list of all batters who had a BABIP of .350 or higher while qualifying for the batting title in either 2009 or 2010. Here’s how they fared during the next season:

Every single batter saw their BABIP decline the next season, and the median decline was 48 points of BABIP. Only Ichiro, Votto and Upton managed to reach the .350+ BABIP mark again the next year, and Mauer, Choo and Jackson had a .340+ BABIP the next season. When hitters post ultra-high BABIP totals, they tend to come back down to earth the next year.

It’s not all bad news, though. While it’s highly unlikely Gordon reaches the .340-.350 BABIP range in 2012, there’s reason to believe his BABIP will remain well above average. Gordon’s expected BABIP (xBABIP), based on home runs, Ks, stolen bases, line drives, fly balls, pop ups and grounders, was .331 in 2011. And the high-BABIP hitters listed above had a median .319 BABIP the year after they had a .350+ BABIP.

Another way of looking at the issue is to take Gordon’s high-BABIP 2011 and then regress it toward the league average. Adam Dorhauer in The Hardball Times Annual 2012 found that for a hitter’s implied BABIP talent to be roughly halfway between his observed rate and the league average rate, you need about 754 balls put in play. Gordon put 452 balls in play in 2011 (or 60 percent of the total needed for a 50/50 split between hitter talent and league average production). So, if we weigh Gordon’s 2011 BABIP at 30 percent and the league average BABIP (.295) at 70 percent, we get a .314 BABIP for Gordon. His career BABIP after his big 2011 is exactly .314.

Alex Gordon won’t turn back into a pumpkin in 2012. His contact and power gains, as well as his sneaky-good wheels, make him a good bet for a .270-.280 average, an OBP in the .350s a slugging percentage north of .450 and 15 or so steals. But what you have to ask yourself is, how high of a pick are you willing to pay for production that might be similar to Michael Cuddyer circa 2011? Gordon is a quality player, but he’s in a bigger pool of talent now as an outfielder and won’t come cheap with fond memories of 2011 close at hand and his previous prospect pedigree. You’ll never hear the word bust associated with Gordon again, but superstar would be stretching it, too.




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A recent graduate of Duquesne University, David Golebiewski is a contributing writer for Fangraphs, The Pittsburgh Sports Report and Baseball Analytics. His work for Inside Edge Scouting Services has appeared on ESPN.com and Yahoo.com, and he was a fantasy baseball columnist for Rotoworld from 2009-2010. He recently contributed an article on Mike Stanton's slugging to The Hardball Times Annual 2012. Contact David at david.golebiewski@gmail.com and check out his work at Journalist For Hire.


6 Responses to “Alex Gordon in 2012”

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  1. Aaron says:

    Wow, great chart. Sometimes I feel like BABIP is not used correctly and this really helps give context to what type of BABIP we can expect to come down. Think you are dead on with Alex Gordon but was most intrigued by this chart!

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  2. cs3 says:

    your list makes it appear as if only 3 players had a BABIP over .350 for 2 consecutive seasons from 09-11
    Ichiro, Votto and Upton.
    am i reading that right?

    and is it true that not a single player in all of baseball who had a BABIP of 350 or higher, improved that number the following season?
    if so, what is the highest BABIP that actually improved the next year?

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  3. Mike says:

    IF you set the line at .350 BABIP, there are approx 20-30 players who have EVER had a .350+ BABIP and then a HIGHER one in the following year and they all tend to be A-list HOFers. That’s not surprising in the least bit. Here’s who i looked up (and reflects by thinking on the greatest hitters ever + plus my childhood hero the Big Hurt)

    Here’s a sampling

    Ty Cobb did four times

    Hornsby did it three times (man that man could rake–he hit over .400 three times)

    Gwynn did it twice

    Mantle did it once, Teddy Ballgame once, Gehrig once, Musial once, Fox once, Joe Jackson once

    Ruth never, Frank Thomas never, Bonds never, DiMaggio never,

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  4. cs3 says:

    Ya the guys like Bonds, Pujols, Ruth etc never did it because big time power guys always have really low BABIP relative to their batting average.
    Rememebr, HRs dont count as balls in play. (Which is a pretty stupid way to calculate things if you ask me)

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    • Paul says:

      This is exactly why Gordon’s high BABIP last year doesn’t have that much bearing on his overall projection. He was among the league leaders in HR distance, and in the second half he really started hitting for more over the fence power. It’s a mistake to call that luck or random variation. Through June he was really feeling his way through a total swing revamp. In the second half he was staying on slow curves on the outer half and just flicking them over the 400 sign in left-center. If he maintains that approach, I think 30 HRs is easily within reach, at which point a .330 BABIP is just trivia.

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  5. Frank says:

    Nice article. I figured I’d look up the reason Gordon had a high BABIP and saw he had 49 extra base hits, which suggests a lot of deep fly balls, and deep fly balls have a waaay higher BABIP than average. Sure enough he had a .225 BABIP on fly balls which is around 8% over the norm, I think. I wonder if there is a way of predicting if a guy will continue to hit deep consistently, or if some of those deep hits will turn into home runs since it seems his power was increasing in the second half of 2011.

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