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In Brief Praise of Alex Gordon and his Crazy Season so Far

May 21, 2013

As long as he’s playing in Kansas City, as long as he’s playing on a not-very-good team, as long he’s continually compared to what he projected to be coming out of college, as long as he’s unfairly held up to the moniker of Second George Brett, Alex Gordon is not going to get the press he deserves.

But he’s really, really good.

As a junior at the University of Nebraska in 2005, Gordon swept the three big college awards: the Dick Howser Trophy, the Golden Spikes Award, and the Brooks Wallace Award. The Royals selected him second overall that June behind the Diamondbacks’ no-brainer pick of Justin Upton.

(That 2005 draft gets a ton of press and rightfully so. The first 12 picks included seven All-Stars Upton, Ryan Zimmerman, Ryan Braun, Ricky Romero, Troy Tulowitzki, Andrew McCutchen, and Jay Bruce, along with Gordon, Jeff Clement, Mike Pelfrey, and Cameron Maybin. The only player who didn’t make the majors out of the first 12 was Wade Townsend. You’d have to go back to 1986 for a group of first 12 picks in the ENTIRE DRAFT play in the bigs. Drafting, over the last decade, has gotten a lot more precise in that first half of the first round.)

Gordon immediately was saddled by the media and the destitute Royals’ fanbase with the responsibility of being George Brett’s heir and leading KC to a new golden age. He seemed to live up to it pretty quickly, lighting the Texas League on fire the following year,  leading the pack with a 1.016 OPS and improbably swiping 22 bags. He ranked in the top five in the TL in ten major offensive categories, won Baseball America’s Player of the Year Award, and the following spring, Sports Illustrated led off a balls-sucking fluff piece about him by essentially calling him the second Brett:

“Through high school and college, Gordon played third base (just like Brett), batted lefthanded (just like Brett) and accumulated hits at a prodigious pace (just like Brett). Gordon was the second overall pick of the 2005 draft, taken by the Royals, the same team that had drafted Brett in 1971. Gordon even has a brother named Brett, and it is not a coincidence.”

brett           (Gordon, left; Brett, right)Gordon

He broke camp in the bigs the following year, got a standing ovation before his first at-bat  … and then the waiting began. Glimmers of hope led to slumps, injuries, faded dreams, and eventually, once-hopeful fans writing scathing things about him. On May 1st, 2010, batting .194 with a .323 slugging percentage, Gordon was demoted to the minors. The deeper analysts (Hardball Times and FanGraphs) were not fans of the move, noting his value not readily evidenced in simple slash lines, but Gordon stayed on the farm for two months, and the former plus-defender at the hot corner was moved to the outfield. Gordon returned to the bigs in July and hit marginally better for the rest of the year, but his final batting line was still pretty awful.

But there were hints of a turnaround. His miserable batting average was greatly hindered by a .254 BaBIP; this, combined with a strong 23.2% line drive rate suggested some piss-poor bad luck out there. And he was acclimating well to the positional shift.

The following season, Gordon’s 7.3 bWAR (Baseball-Reference WAR) / 6.7 fWAR (FanGraphs WAR) was good enough to rank him among the best players in baseball. He batted .303 with a .503 slugging. He led all outfielders with assists and all left fielders in putouts, winning a Gold Golve. He finished 22nd in MVP voting. And nobody f-ing noticed that he was one of the best players in baseball.

Last season he hit for less power, but became the best fielding left fielder in baseball, winning the much more advanced Fielding Bible Award, whose nominators said that Gordon “lapped the field with his 24 runs saved defensively, his nearest competitors being Martin Prado of Atlanta with 12 and Tampa Bay’s Desmond Jennings with 9 runs saved. Gordon was a unanimous choice for the 2012 Fielding Bible Award, finishing first on every single ballot cast by the panelists.”

This season, Gordon has a very bad walk rate, he’s hitting a lot more groundballs, and he’s swinging at a lot more stuff outside the strikezone. But he’s once again in the top 25 players in baseball. He’s batting over .350, and already has six games this season with three or more hits. This, compared to just seven games in which he’s gone hitless.

Yes, he’s basically just as likely to have three hits in a game as he is to get an 0-fer.

Gordon’s HR/FB rate is the highest it’s been … as, strangely, is his infield hit rate. He’s batting .405 in May. He’s hitting the ball all over the field. He’s destroying lefthanders (batting .431 against them), despite being historically weaker against them. In “high leverage” situations, he’s sporting a 1.095 OPS.

It’s crazy to think that Gordon didn’t make the All-Star Game in either of the last two seasons, and he won’t be voted in by the fans, not with wunderkind Mike Trout technically counting as a left fielder this season. But he’ll get there as a reserve, unless Jim Leyland carries a grudge against Gordon’s 968 OPS vs. Detroit last season.

Will Gordon regress against southpaws for the rest of the year? Maybe. But he’ll also draw more walks. Just watching him square up and unload against some balls this year, I can completely envision him challenging Brett’s .390 mark, living up to that once-assumed comparison.

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From → Prospects, Stats

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