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Alex Gordon: Who Are You?

Shameless self promotion: I felt it necessary to announce that I have finally joined this thing called Twitter. Okay, so it’s not exactly new to me, as I have multiple business accounts, but never felt the need for a personal one. So yeah, for you Twitterers reading this, follow me @MikePodhorzer if you dare. I’ll try to be entertaining (twittertaining?).

It doesn’t feel too long ago that Alex Gordon was one of the most hyped prospects of the moment, vaulted from a fantastic season at Double-A in 2006, and then wOBA’d a somewhat disappointing .316 during his rookie campaign. Nearly all of his improvement in his sophomore season came from a jump in walk rate, as his minor league patience finally translated. Then he stunk it up and received all of 406 at-bats (also partly due to a hip injury) over the following two years. In 2011, the long awaited breakout finally arrived. Then he took a step back this season and we’re back questioning who exactly is Alex Gordon?

In Gordon’s first and only minor league stop before his Major League debut, he showed fantastic power, ISO’ing .263 and swatting 29 home runs in just 486 at-bats. Aside from a stint at Triple-A in 2010, that huge power has yet to reappear. In three of Gordon’s four full seasons with the Royals, he has hit between 14 and 16 homers, never posting an ISO above .172. He also sports a career HR/FB ratio of just 10.0%, which is right around the league average. I don’t think this was the Gordon people were expecting, and I certainly wasn’t either.

There is a glimmer hope though — he hit 45 doubles in 2011 and 51 this year. As I have mentioned several times in other player reviews, a high doubles rate coupled with a lower home run total could signify just a random distribution of extra-base hits. One years it’s 35 doubles and 20 homers, the next year 30 doubles and 25 homers. The fact that Gordon is smashing doubles all over the place (he actually led baseball in the category) is a good sign that his power hasn’t completely disappeared.

Before getting to the distance data, it is also worth pointing out his FB% trend. From a high of nearly 48% in 2008, that rate has dropped every single season, to a low of just about 33% this past year. From a real baseball standpoint, this isn’t so bad, as those fly balls have become line drives, which should help Gordon maintain an inflated BABIP. But I, and many others I presume, expected Gordon to eventually be a 30 home run hitter. That’s not going to ever happen while hitting only 33% of balls into the air.

Since 2011 was his better ISO and HR/FB rate year, let’s compare that season’s average fly ball and home run distance to this year’s. In 2011, that average distance was 288 feet, a mark that’s above the league average and matches well with Gordon’s HR/FB rate that year. In 2012, that distance fell, but only to 285 feet, so the drop was rather minimal. It certainly shouldn’t have led to the loss in HR/FB rate that he suffered. Given the multitude of doubles and the distance data, I would feel fairly confident projecting a rebound to at least the 11%-12% HR/FB ratio range next year.

Aside from the power potential, he has stolen double digit bases nearly every full season, though he has just average speed. That increases the risk of a sudden drop-off, so a projection near his 2012 mark would appear safest. It’s always tough to bet on repeat high BABIP marks as Gordon has been able to pull off the last two seasons. He has hit a lot of line drives, which suggests the high BABIP marks at legit, but he still has some batting average downside given his history. Even with the recent BABIP success, his career average is a more normal .324 and his career batting average sits at a less beneficial .269.

Gordon should definitely come cheaper in next year’s drafts than he did in this year’s. Any batting average downside appears to be offset by his power upside, and I still get the feeling that a major breakout of the 30 home run variety could still come.