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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.