The tweet above was referencing Billy Butler and Alex Gordon, and more specifically their climb up the Kansas City Royals’ historical hierarchy. It led, as most thought-provoking tweets do, to a lengthy discussion about who are the ten best Royals ever, a debate which has no concrete resolution. While that discussion in itself can be fascinating, what I want to focus on today is whether Butler and Gordon really are on pace to join the all-time Royals greats, and what kind of production they’ll need to get there.
Maybe it’s because I so thoroughly enjoyed his barbecue sauce last night, but I’d like to start with Butler. In Royals history there are two very good comps for Butler in my opinion, Hal McRae and Mike Sweeney. Like Butler, both were doubles machines that were best suited to play DH. Since Butler has just crossed over 3500 career plate appearances, I thought we’d take a look at all three after approximately that much time with the Royals. It should be noted that while Sweeney’s career with the Royals also started at age 21, McRae was a 27-year-old that had spent four part-time seasons with Cincinnati. As a final disclaimer, I would place McRae in my top ten Royals of all-time while I believe Sweeney falls just short. Here is the production for the three up to this point in Butler’s career.
As you can see, Butler matches up pretty well through approximately 3500 plate appearances with the main difference being the era that Sweeney played in and WAR. Now let’s look at what Sweeney and McRae did over the next five seasons…
This takes us to the end of Mike Sweeney’s career with the Royals while McRae had four seasons left as mostly a part-time DH. While their raw numbers are fairly similar, McRae’s OPS+ accounts for the differences in era and the difference in WAR reveals how much time Sweeney spent on the DL. Both players saw a slight dip in their OBP% but McRae’s SLG% jumped while Sweeney’s lagged. Butler is at the beginning of his prime as a power hitter, which means we could see a slight dip in OBP% and an increase in SLG%, but I thought it would be interesting to look at how Butler would compare like if he simply had five more seasons with similar statistics to his previous five. Here are the numbers for McRae and Butler in their Royals’ careers compared to what Butler’s numbers could look like five years from now:
What the chart above shows, I believe, is that Butler is on pace to be in this discussion for the best DH in club history, and one of the ten greatest Royals of all-time. The encouraging thing for Butler is that he is just at the beginning of his prime and could very well improve upon his numbers over the last five years. The final factor may well come down to winning. As you can see also see above, there is not much difference between Hal McRae and Mike Sweeney’s Royals’ career numbers. The difference is something you can’t see above, winning. If Butler matches these totals and the team loses another 450 games over the next five years I would say he’ll be looked at much more like Sweeney. If he leads this club back to the postseason for the first time since McRae was actually playing, there is little doubt he will be viewed amongst the Royals’ greats.
Comparisons are a little bit harder to find for Alex Gordon simply because he’s a very unique player. Offensively, Gordon does not have one skill that stands out but he’s seemingly “good” at everything. He’s not a base swiper on the level of Willie Wilson, he doesn’t have the power numbers of Danny Tartabull, but he has turned into one of the most valuable players in baseball because of his ability to do everything well. I’ve chosen two players to compare Gordon with, Amos Otis and Carlos Beltran. Otis is, in my book, a lock for the top ten Royals ever, while Beltran is just on the outside simply because he falls short in the areas of longevity and contributions to a winner. I stuck with the same statistics for this comparison but it bears mentioning that both Beltran and Otis were much more proficient base stealers than Gordon.
At first glance it looks like Gordon is well behind Beltran after nearly 3200 at bats, but a quick glance at OPS+ shows that Gordon compares to his era just as well if not better. It also bears mentioning that both Beltran and Otis played for better offensive teams than Gordon ever has and played a more premium defensive position (at least for this portion of their careers) than does Gordon. Beltran played only another half season with the Royals before being traded to the Houston Astros, and in my book one reason he’s not amongst the Royals’ greats. Otis, on the other hand, still had his best offensive season ahead of him (1978) and spent another ten years in a Royals’ uniform. With Gordon likely to be much more expensive than Butler when he hits free agency, I’m only going to project him out until he’s no longer under club control. Here’s what his numbers could look like assuming he comes close to his production from the last two years.
With Gordon being two years older it isn’t quite as likely that he maintains this level of production for the next four seasons, but I’m not sure he has to to pass Beltran and Otis. Of course, much like Sweeney, Butler and Beltran, Gordon has yet to sniff the postseason while Otis played in 22 postseason games in blue and hit .478 in the 1980 World Series. Otis also had three Gold Gloves at age 27 while Gordon has two at 29, but I think there’s a good chance Gordon catches him this season.
If there’s any conclusions I can draw from all of this it’s that:
A) Ross was spot on with his tweet last Sunday (although not quite as right as he was when he coined the nickname Country Breakfast) especially if either or both of these players finish their career in Kansas City.
B) Gordon is much closer to joining the greatest Royals of all-time than is Butler, which is something no one would have thought three years ago.
For arguments sake, my Top Ten Royals of All-Time read like this: George Brett, Willie Wilson, Amos Otis, Frank White, Bret Saberhagen, Kevin Appier, Hal McRae, Dan Quisenberry, Mark Gubicza, and Zack Greinke. Feel free to tell me why I’m wrong below.