Alex Gordon, Superstar? Part the First

[Part Two is now posted here]

Near the end of his miserable 2010 season, Alex Gordon issued a proclamation: “I’m going to dominate next year.” Later in the off-season, Gordon was more circumspect: “What did you want me to say, I was going to do okay?” Understandably, this bit of bravado generated much mockery. After decent-but-uninspiring performances during his first two major-league seasons in 2007 and 2008, during 2009 and 2010 the one-time “next George Brett” endured injuries, demotion, miserable major-league performance when healthy, and a position shift to left field in order to accommodate the next next George Brett Mike Moustakas. (To be more precise, Moustakas is the next next next George Brett, if you count former Royals third baseman and current hitting coach Kevin Seitzer. Mark Teahen does not count. He is the next Jason Giambi, remember?)

Gordon’s 2011 performance received relatively little attention in 2011, but it is safe to say that no one is laughing at him. Although Gordon may not have received the attention that other players in the American League with similar performances, or even of his other teammates having better-than-expected seasons, in 2011 Gordon was a monster. This two-part post will try to put his season in a bit of perspective to get a sense of how good it was, and, more importantly, try to get a sense for how good Gordon “really” is going forward.

As a fan of the Royals and Gordon, I have been monitoring his season very carefully, but have superstitiously held off writing about it at length in order to avoid a “jinx.” As I watched, I kept expecting him to fall off, but he just kept hitting, playing good defense, and taking the extra base. There is no point in dwelling on things you can look up on his player page, like his 6.9 WAR or his 141 wRC+ (.303/.376/.502).

Some may see this as a “good” but not “great,” season. After all, rookie sensation Eric Hosmer had a 114 wRC+, Jeff Francoeur had a 20-20 season, and Frenchy, Melky Cabrera, and Billy Butler all had 40 or more doubles. Is it only on a “Royals Scale” that Gordon had a good season? From the lack of attention he received, one might think so. So before estimating his true talent and what the Royals should do about it, it is worth examining is how Gordon’s 2011 performance compares to both his current peers in the league as well as recent Royals history.

First of all — yes, a number of other Royals hitters had surprisingly good seasons. But let’s put this in perspective: if you take the WAR of the two highest Royals other than Gordon — Francoeur (2.9, and, yes, in my face) and Cabrera (4.2) — they add up to 7.1; for practical purposes, that is the same as Gordon. If you question the defensive metrics, then let’s just look at offense. According to batting runs above average, the two most productive Royals hitters other than Gordon, Butler and Melky, had a total of 36.5 batting runs. Gordon by himself had 35.5.

I will not get into the case for Gordon getting some down-ballot MVP votes. It may or may not interest you to know that Gordon had the best season among American League left fielders by a substantial margin, or that only National League MVP candidate Ryan Braun had a better season among all major league left fielders. Gordon’s 141 wRC+ was the seventh-highest in the American League. Was Gordon simply the best performer on a bad team? Let’s see how Gordon’s 2011 compares with the best position players on the current playoff teams:

Ryan Braun, 7.8 WAR, 179 wRC+
Ian Kinsler, 7.7 WAR, 128 wRC+
Curtis Granderson, 7.0 WAR, 146 wRC+
Alex Gordon, 6.9 WAR, 141 wRC+
Ben Zobrist, 6.6 WAR, 131 wRC+
Justin Upton, 6.4 WAR, 140 wRC+
Shane Victorino, 5.9 WAR, 135 wRC+
Albert Pujols, 5.1 WAR, 148 wRC+

For another bit of comparison, how about The Greatest Pitcher in the History of Whatever, Justin Verlander, whose 7.0 out-WARed Gordon by 0.1 in 2011?

To put it mildly, the Royals have not had much success or many great players since, well, you-know-who. However, they had a few very good players over the last couple of decades. Most Royals fans remember the good offenses (accompanied by horrific pitching, of course) of the early 2000s led by the likes Johnny Damon, Carlos Beltran, Jermaine Dye, and Mike Sweeney. If you compare Gordon’s unadjusted 2011 numbers to their best seasons, may not seem all that impressive. However, the league run-scoring environment was much different a decade ago, and Kauffman Stadium was more favorable to hitters during that period (the fences were moved back after the 2003 season). The best way to compare Gordon’s 2011 production to those players is by using park-adjusted batting runs above average (the “Batting” line in the player value sections). Gordon’s 35.5 batting runs above average is the most since Danny Tartabull‘s 47.7 in 1991.

What about WAR? Well, a number of the position players mentioned above had some great overall seasons, but Gordon’s 6.9 WAR in 2011 just edges out (of course, WAR is not this precise a measure, let’s just go with it for now) Carlos Beltran’s 6.8 WAR in 2003 for the most valuable season by a Royals position player since… wait for it…

…George Brett in 1985 (8.8 WAR).

Gordon’s 2011: the best offensive season by a Royal in 20 years, the best season by a position player 25 years. That should at least get him a cool nickname like, say, Air Gordon.

That is a long historical excursion, and it probably will not ever convince some disappointed fans who have curious notions of what makes a good player and what is expected of a player with Gordon’s “draft status.” There are at least two franchises who wish that former #1 pick overall Delmon Young, for example, had turned into as big a “disappointment” as Alex Gordon, for example, but that is neither here nor there at this point.

A slightly more “reasonable” group of fans are probably thinking that if Gordon can just maintain this, he can stay in their good graces. If you are here, I hope you realize at this point that that is neither fair nor realistic. But that brings us (hopefully) more rational folks to the more important issues (such as his 2011 BABIP, fielding, and aging among them) — how good can Gordon be expected to be go forward, and what should the Royals do about it? I will address those issues in Part Two.

[Note: I’ve been thinking about this stuff for a months, but I should acknowledge that Jeff Zimmerman posted something along similar lines last week. He knew I was planning a big post-season post on Gordon, too. Revenge will be mine, Zimmerman!]

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Matt Klaassen reads and writes obituaries in the Greater Toronto Area. If you can't get enough of him, follow him on Twitter.

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WAR is a bit skewed for starting pitchers, so the comparison to Verlander might not hold up. But Gordon scared the hell out of me this whole season…actually the entire Royal’s lineup did.