Monday, December 19, 2011

Alex Gordon - Sudden Superstar

Long before there was Eric Hosmer and Mike Moustakas, there was Alex Gordon. And while the former two along with Lorenzo Cain (and others) form the core of the hopes of Kansas City fans, Alex Gordon finally took his rightful place as a star in Major League Baseball. And Gordon did so far out of the spotlight accorded the two young phenoms. And it was totally unexpected. The only real recognition his season begat was that he somehow upset everyone's favorite to win the Gold Glove in left field (Brett Gardner of the Yankees). Would most casual fans know that Alex Gordon had the ninth highest fWAR in the majors last season (not counting pitchers)? Doubtful.

This writer remembers when Gordon was getting the prospect hype currently garnered by Hosmer and Moustakas. He was the first round pick of the Royals and second overall of the 2005. Justin Upton was selected ahead of him and rightly so. But Gordon was going to be the next big thing. Except it didn't happen.  Just two years after finishing his college career at Nebraska, Gordon was the starting third baseman for the Royals in 2007. He had had only one full season in the minors in 2006 and was rushed to the majors. Understandably after being rushed to the majors, he was underwhelming. While he was a better third baseman than written about, it was his bat that didn't spark much admiration. He hit .247 his first season and only collected a .314 on-base percentage.

2008 was better. Gordon increased his walk percentage and despite his .260 batting average, he finished that season with .351 on-base percentage. And yet, he was falling out of favor with Trey Hillman, his KC manager at the time. Then came 2009.

By April 15 of 2009, Alex Gordon was batting .095. He had injured himself sliding into second on April 11 but still played two more games. But there was obviously something wrong and he underwent surgery on his hip on April 17. The operation laid him up for twelve weeks. After a brief rehab, he was back with the Royals  in mid-July and slowly raises his batting average to a high of .224. But Gordon slumped again and after a game on August 17, then batting .198, Gordon was optioned to the minors where he remained until the minor league season was over. He was added back to the Royals when the rosters expanded and he hit upon his return. But it was too late and his final slash line for 2009 was: .232/.325/.378. His line drive percentage fell that season to under fifteen percent.

By the spring of 2010, there were whispers that Alex Gordon was a bust. His first two seasons weren't as bad as they seemed and understandable for a guy with no experience thrust into the majors full time. But 2009 seriously damaged his standing. To make matters worse, he then broke his thumb in Spring Training in 2010. After starting that season on the disabled list, he was activated and saw his first action on April 17. He obviously wasn't right and by May 1, he was batting .194 with only one homer and one double to his credit. He was sent to the minors.

Gordon might have remained in the minors the rest of that season, but David DeJesus got hurt in late July (another thumb) and Gordon got the call. He had been converted to the outfield by that time in the minors as by that time, the Royals had this Moustakas kid who was going to be the future at third base. So Gordon returned in late July and stayed the rest of the season. Gordon played every day the rest of the season but it never jelled for him and his final slash line after 281 plate appearances was: .211/.315/.355. The whispers grew deafening.

By the spring of 2011, Gordon was an afterthought. Nobody expected anything from him and nobody even talked about him. But as the season broke, Gordon was the starting left fielder. His first game of the season didn't bode well. He went 0-5 with three strikeouts. The home fans weren't happy with their opening day left fielder. But in his fourth game, an extra-inning affair against the Angels, Gordon went 4-6. The following day against the White Sox, he went 3-5 and hit his first homer. He went 2-5 his next game and never looked back. By the end of April, Gordon was batting .339!

Gordon slumped in May and his batting average fell to .275 by May 19. But he finished May well and was consistently good at the plate through the rest of the season. His final slash line for 2011 was .303/.376/.509. That was good for a 140 OPS+ which easily led the team. He hit 23 homers and added four triples and a terrific 45 doubles. Plus, he was terrific in left with twenty assists and was excellent on the base paths. A star was born. Or was he reborn? His wOBA, which has been a woeful .294 in 2010, finished at .382 for the 2011 season.

After being left for dead after 2010, Alex Gordon became a star in 2011. His season in many ways mirrors the season that Jacoby Ellsbury had for the Red Sox. Both resurrected from injuries and lost time and whispers to become young stars. But what does the future hold? Bill James and Fans projections have him falling off again in 2011. Their projections still show him to have a valuable season, but they both expect him to be far less impressive than he was in 2011. His BABIP of .358 in 2011 might lead to those tame projections. But Gordon hit the ball hard in 2011. His line drive percentage was 22 percent. If he keeps hitting bee-bees all over the field, there's no reason to think he can't duplicate the success he had in 2011.

Kansas City fans have a lot to look forward to in 2012. They have an exciting young team. Hosmer and Moustakas and Cain rightly inspire hope for a long-moribund franchise. But their best player is Alex Gordon, the Hosmer of 2007. Gordon became one of the best players in the majors in 2011. The sky is now the limit for him going forward.

1 comment:

Thomas Slocum said...

He was talked about as the next George Brett. That's been by the boards for a while now but for a player, highly touted or otherwise, to improve markedly in his third full big league season is hardly unusual (had Alex not essentially lost 2009-10 to injury and loss of confidence - his in himself, others in him - he might well have turned this corner in '09; he was on that track after '08).

Likewise, for a player to have his career year in his age 27 season is also not unusual. That fact, coupled with Bill James' reliance on two previous seasons to project the upcoming one, explain why he's expected to slide back some. It's a safe prediction but I'd suggest that Alex won't see any of his slash lines off by more than 10 points, if off at all, in 2012.