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

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.

Some Thoughts on “42”


Tom Alston, the first black Cardinals’ player.

Despite the title, this is just one thought on 42. And it’s not even about 42. It’s about the generations — well, one player, really — of black and Latin ballplayers that broke the color barrier of the lily-white ballfields of MLB and its affiliates.

Jackie Robinson’s (and Larry Doby’s and Hank Aaron’s and etc.) trials are well-documented. The new god-making movie on the two years of Jackie’s life only scratches the surface of what he went through. There were really only two scenes of the out-and-out threat facing him: one, in Sanford, Florida when rumors of a mob coming forces him to move locations (the scene ends with a somewhat humorous button); and the second, when Branch Rickey takes out three folders full of death threats sent to Robinson just halfway through the season. Read more…

Phil Hughes and the Modern Athlete

So here’s this great quote from this New York Times article about how Yankee pitcher Phil Hughes, who visited hoity-toity Europe this winter:

Having never been anywhere but Canada and Mexico, Hughes said he was enthralled by much that he saw. They toured London and saw Big Ben, Westminster and the changing of the guard. Then it was on to Paris, where Hughes discovered escargot. He visited the Louvre and saw the Mona Lisa, at least for a minute.

“I’m not big into art and stuff like that,” Hughes said. “So we just kind of made a beeline for the Mona Lisa.”

I always wince a little when I read something like that.  Read more…

George Bellows, American Artist and Shortstop


George Bellows,
“Sweeney, Idol of the Fans, Had Hit a Home Run”

The National Gallery in Washington D.C. currently has a wonderful retrospective of George Bellows in its main wing.

That sentence has nothing to do with baseball. Yet. Bellows is a favorite artist of mine, his explorations and character studies of early 20th-century New York, the underclasses, the boxing matches in seedy bars, the tenements, as well as his later works on the sea and Woodstock.

I went to the exhibit today and found out that Bellows, one of the main figures of the Ashcan School of Art, one of the major artists of turn of the century America, could very easily have become a famous baseball player. And now I have a new favorite artist. Read more…

A Most Unlikely No-Hitter

ImageI’m a tremendous Mets fan. Huge. Not that I have to defend my stake as an uber-fan, but:

*I was at one of the NLCS games in 1986 against the Astros (no, sadly, I don’t have mementos signifying which one, but I do have a fantastic/lame picture of myself with a lifesize Dwight Gooden cutout at the stadium from that evening). I was at John Rocker’s return to Shea, Rick Ankiel’s meltdown, the final Game 5 of the Subway Series surrounded by Yankee fans in the upper deck. I was at a Louisville sports bar surrounded by Cardinal fans when Endy Chavez went airborne and Carlos Beltran froze. I have the 1986 Mets videotape and get misty whenever Wild Boys plays, and remember exactly where I was when Backman dove outside the line to get to 1st. I suffered through Bobby Bo, Vince Coleman, Juan Samuel.

This is all to say that I missed the first eight innings of Johan Santana’s no-hitter Friday night. I was on stage, because I’m an actor. And that’s what I do. I got off stage (the show was only 75 minutes) to a text from a friend and fellow Met fan – who was also at that Louisville sports bar with me – telling me to get to a television. I saw the final inning. Thank God. And even if Santana’s arm falls off his next outing, it was worth it. It was.

But this post isn’t about Johan Santana’s blessed no-hitter. This is about somebody else, well, somebody else’s game. Read more…

Render unto Adam Dunn What is Adam Dunn’s


I offer this to praise Adam Dunn, not to bury him. Which seems weird, because the thing  that spurred me to write this was an anti-record that he didn’t break. On Friday, May 11th, Dunn had the opportunity to tie the major league record for most consecutive games with a strikeout. He was at 36, and was one game shy of the record set by pitcher Bill Stoneman from 1971-72. But Dunn instead went 2-for-2 with a double, homer, and two walks. Boo.

Yes, boo. Nobody’s paying attention to Dunn this year. Hell, with the exception of last season, it seems like nobody pays attention to Dunn. And that’s kind of sad. He’s having a great year so far. OBP just shy of .400, SLG over .600. He’s already matched his homer total from last year, with 11 through Saturday’s game.

They paid attention last year. Because Dunn had an atrocious, repulsive, asshat 2011. Just terrible. I imagine if I were a White Sox fan, and I watched him play day after day, batting .159 for the year, with a slugging percentage of .277 — worst in the American League for players with 400 or more at-bats — I would break all of my fingers, solely to keep myself from jamming them down my throat and throwing up. Read more…

Harperite or Troutist?


Rivalry! Rivalry! Please?

The injury to Ryan Zimmerman and the general uselessness of a disgruntled, aging, and underperforming Bobby Abreu led to a seismic development in MLB fandom last week, with the promotions of Bryce Harper and Mike Trout.

Though Trout enjoyed his still-qualifies-for-rookie-status 120 at-bats last summer, these two outfielders, both born in the early ‘90s, both ambitious, focused, and sporting hyper-natural talent, could have their promotions become a bellwether turning point for the league. Not because of Harper’s “once in a generation” power, or Trout’s omni-likable talents, but because of their extreme youth combined with their projections over their careers, as well as the era they blossomed out of.

The two are the youngest – and already two of the most talented – players in their respective leagues, Harper at 19 and Trout at 20. In 2005, Matt Cain started seven games at the age of 20 and Felix Hernandez started 12 games at the age of 19. But for the combined star power and future potential of the two youngest in the leagues? Maybe 1984, with Dwight Gooden and Jose Rijo (yes, he broke in with the Yanks). But really, you may have to go back to 1926, when teenagers Mel Ott and Jimmie Foxx were patrolling the field, but neither of them became everyday players until two years later. Read more…