Alex Gordon has been a frequently visited subject by many fans and media since 2005. After five years of analysis, it’s safe to say Gordon is nothing short of an enigma. Many have already written him off as a bust and would rather stuff him in Omaha, closing another painful chapter written by the old regime. A player with the pedigree of Gordon, recent success or not, should yield a better organizational label than ‘scapegoat.’
Gordon’s baseball success began early in his high school days. Twice he took home the Gatorade Nebraska Player of the Year for his handy work at Lincoln Southeast High School in Lincoln, Nebraska.
As a Husker , Gordon hit the national scene as a legitimate left-handed bopper. He was a two-time first team All-American and Big 12 Player of the Year. In his senior campaign Gordon swept the collegiate baseball awards harvesting the Dick Howser Trophy, Golden Spikes Award, the Brooks Wallace Award and the ABCA Rawlings Player of the Year. Not to mention, he was an ESPY Award Finalist for the Best Male College Athlete.
The Royals made Gordon the second pick in a talent packed 2005 amateur draft. Immediately, he drew comparisons to another hard-nosed left handed hitting third baseman well known around these parts.
Gordon was sent directly to AA Wichita, where he promptly destroyed the Texas League. He posted a .325, 22 SB, 39 2B, 29 HR, 101 RBI, line which was good enough for another year sweep of postseason awards. A year after his collegiate domination, Gordon earned his first professional credentials with the 2006 MLB.com AA Offensive Player of the Year Award, Baseball America Minor League All-Star, Texas League Player of the Year Award, and Baseball America Minor League Player of the Year Award.
After such an impressive two year span of baseball success, the Royals felt it was time to see it translated into similar big league accomplishments. With less than 500 professional at-bats, Gordon was an integral piece in the Royal’s plans for a 2007 turnaround which coincided with the signing of Gil Meche, and the big league premier of Billy Butler.
Gordon took over third base on April 17, 2007, at the age of 23. The comparisons to George Brett only intensified. Many Royals buffs were quick to point out when Brett was 23 he placed second in the MVP voting. While comparisons to Hall of Famers are usually unfair, this one is an extreme case.
The ones making the comparisons failed to realize by the time Brett was 23 he already had over 1,000 MLB at-bats, not to mention over 1,000 Minor League at-bats. Brett had signed out of high school, allowing him five seasons of professional ball before his breakout 1976 season.
Asking someone to perform comparably to a person with four years less professional experience is ludicrous in any profession. Add on the steep learning curve and physical demands of the MLB and it becomes a nightmare for all involved.
As it turned out all three produced respectably for the Royals, not many others did which lead to another 90+ loss effort. Meche was an All-Star, Butler put up nice numbers for a rookie DH (.292, 23 2B, 8 HR, 52 RBI), and Gordon managed .247, 14 SB, 36 2B, 15 HR, 60 RBIs. Pretty impressive, but Gordon was quickly overshadowed by the numbers produced by his classmates in the 2005 draft.
Ryan Braun (5th pick) and Troy Tulowitzki (7th pick) finished first and second in NL Rookie of the Year voting respectively. Four of the top seven picks in the 2005 draft became All-Stars (Braun, Tulowitzki, Justin Upton, and Ryan Zimmerman). With a front loaded draft class, Royals brass expected similar results from their selection.
2008 showed steady progress for Gordon at the plate. He posted career highs in nearly every offensive category with 50 less at-bats than in 2007, due to an August DL stint for a strained right quad. Injuries would quickly become the story of Gordon’s career.
2009 was slated as Gordon’s breakout year. He had established himself as a big leaguer and was poised to fulfill all of the hype he generated. Instead he played the first week before a torn labrum in his right hip derailed his career. He made it back to the big club shortly after the All-Star break, but was a shadow of his former self. He posted forgettable numbers in only 164 at-bats.
2010 began with a broken right thumb in Spring Training. He was activated shortly after the beginning of the season, but was quickly shipped to Omaha after 31 at-bats. At this point Royals management all but threw in the towel on the top pick, moving him to the outfield to make way for the ‘new next George Brett,’ Mike Moustakas. If it weren’t for David DeJesus fearlessly fighting with the centerfield wall for a Derek Jeter shot, Gordon would have been banished to Omaha for the foreseeable future.
In his time in AAA Gordon throttled Pacific Coast League pitching (.315/.442/.577, 20 2B, 14 HR, 40 RBI, 68 GP). Gordon has mashed at literally every level of organized baseball, except the MLB. What gives?
Generally guys coming into MLB don’t have instant success like Braun, Tulo, and Zimmerman. Those guys are freaks; usually players don’t see their talents translate into big league numbers until their second or third time through a Major League schedule. Let’s take a look at five mystery players through their first two MLB seasons (about 1000 AB).
Player A – .248/.313/.461, 44 2B, 45 HR, 153 RBI, 876 AB
Player B – .235/.320/.413, 38 2B, 30 HR, 102 RBI, 716 AB
Player C – .253/.332/.421, 71 2B, 31 HR, 119 RBI, 1036 AB
Player D – .259/.352/.467, 56 2B, 45 HR, 168 RBI, 947 AB
Player E – .291/.329/.408, 58 2B, 13 HR, 136 RBI, 1131 AB
The point of this exercise is to prove how steep the learning curve in MLB is, specifically with young sluggers. In Gordon’s 2007 debut he had success against fastballs, yielding a 1.8 wFB. According to Fangraphs any pitch type with the prefix ‘w’ denotes runs above average. Gordon could handle a fastball, but performed well below league average on every off-speed pitch. Gordon suffered worst against sliders (-5.1 wSL), curveballs (-3.7 w CB), and split finger fastballs (-2.1 wSF).
These numbers show how big league pitchers utilize their nasty off-speed pitches against young hitters. Even a premier amateur player like Gordon couldn’t handle big league breakers. Top competition combined with facing pitchers multiple times in a season cause major problems for youngsters. Let’s see if you figured out any of our mystery players.
Player A – Justin Morneau
Player B – Troy Glaus
Player C – Alex Gordon
Player D – Pat Burrell
Player E – George Brett
Surprised? With the exception of Gordon, this group of ball players turned into middle of the order threats for years. Combined they have produced 21 All-Star appearances, 7 Silver Slugger Awards, and two MVPs.
It is becoming clear, Gordon’s career has fallen victim to bad luck and bad timing. Injuries are a part of the game, which can’t be avoided. Gordon’s string of injuries came at the worst possible time in his career development. He had finally made the consistent and necessary adjustments to flourish against big league pitching.
MLB players are creatures of habit. Their pre-game warm-ups, at-bat routines, and day-in, day-out schedule become rituals. If they become upset, players fall into ruts, slumps. The easiest way to maintain routines is consistency. When professional athletes meld their talent with meticulous preparation rituals, superstars are born through consistency (Albert Pujols).
Gordon had earned consistency through two mediocre big league seasons. On the verge of stardom, Gordon’s health problems arose. In effect, he hasn’t been allowed a sustained and consistent opportunity in either Kansas City or Omaha since 2008.
Since new faces have taken over the Kansas City front office, many of the people responsible for making Gordon a Royal are gone. With no personal or emotional attachment to Gordon in the front office anymore, watching how he is utilized in 2011 and beyond should be intriguing.
The writing was on the wall at the beginning of the season when the Royals decided the best options to round out their infield were Chris Getz and Alberto Callaspo. Neither come close to the talent Gordon possesses, yet they were deemed as better candidates to earn the Royals wins.
Reviewing the list of players who have won the awards Gordon has is startling (Golden Spikes Award, Dick Howser Trophy, Brooks Wallace Award, and Baseball America Minor League Player of the Year Award). The players on these lists continually make up All-Star teams and will continue to for years. The people who awarded these players weren’t mistaken when they inducted Gordon, his talent is undeniable.
At the age of 26 Gordon’s shot at super stardom is slim. With his prime years ahead of him though, he could still prove to be a worthwhile MLB player. Kansas City was a tumultuous place to begin his career, but at this point it may be the best situation for Gordon. With low expectations for the 2011 and 2012 seasons, it allows ample opportunity for Gordon to prove himself on a big league level for good.
Since his 2007 debut Gordon has made significant improvements to his plate discipline and approach. He has cut down on his swing percentage by 6%. Even though the improvements aren’t seen in standard statistics, this has caused Gordon’s contact rate to jump (most notably on pitches out of the zone – 2007/ 50%, 2010/ 62%). The percentage of strikes seen and swinging strikes for Gordon have both fallen. This has caused Gordon’s BB% to double since his rookie campaign.
Baseball Reference offers player comparisons with similar career stats. Loyal Royals fans should recognize two comparable players to Gordon which Baseball Reference suggests. Royals’ outfielder Darryl Motley and Minnesota Twins/New York Yankees third baseman Graig Nettles performed similarly through the age of 26.
Motley – (Age 21-26) .245/.281/.405, 19 SB, 60 2B, 44 HR, 158 RBI, 1253 AB
Gordon – (Age 23-26) .244/.328/.405, 29 SB, 87 2B, 45 HR, 161 RBI, 1442 AB
Nettles – (Age 22-26) .243/.337/.416, 11 SB, 43 2B, 66 HR, 182 RBI, 1451 AB
Despite the similarities, Motley and Nettles had severely different career paths after the age of 26. After snagging the last out of the 1985 I-70 World Series, Motley was dealt to the Braves the following summer for pitcher Steve Shields. Motley managed 18 at-bats in two brief stints with Atlanta, and then never saw a MLB roster again.
After three years with both the Twins and Indians, Nettles caught on with the Yankees. He became an integral part of a line-up which troubled Kansas City for years. After a slow start to his career, Nettles went on to appear in six All-Star games and finished in the top six of MVP voting twice. All of these accomplishments came after Nettles turned 30. He went on to enjoy a 22 year career amassing 390 HR and 1314 RBIs, winning two World Championships.
Even though Gordon has sputtered through his first four big league years, don’t follow conventional wisdom and toss him into baseball oblivion. Although I loathe professional athlete’s guaranteeing a win or promising super star performances, Gordon’s self-proclamation of ‘domination’ in 2011 causes a pause for reexamination. I see the comments not as a desperate plea from a media hungry, overpaid athlete, but a supreme talent trying to regain the confidence and consistency he had a few short years ago.
“I’ve shown flashes, but something that’s bothered me is I haven’t been consistent,” said Gordon in an interview with Bob Dutton of the Kansas City Star. “I show flashes, and then I go into a little bit of a slump that kind of erases what I did. I just need to figure out how to be consistent and put it all together throughout the year. I feel comfortable in left field. I was struggling at third, and it was taking too much out of me. My numbers aren’t where I want them to be. I’m not producing like I want to produce.”
After his declaration Gordon acknowledges his troubles at third. Being able to publicly divulge performance problems shows growth. George Brett’s shadow proved to be too much even for a pure bred ball player like Gordon.
2011 will most likely be the last chance for Gordon in Kansas City. For a man so dominant at every level he’s played at, it’s hard to believe Gordon won’t adapt his skills to a big league atmosphere. Trade rumors will surely swirl around Gordon this winter, but I wouldn’t be so eager to get this guy off the roster. No matter what happens, the next two years will be vital. In 20 years they will be the difference between fans remembering him as a part-time contributor, like Motley, or a veteran All-Star performer, like Nettles.