Kansas City Royals outfielder Alex Gordon took a step back in 2012 after finally breaking through in 2011. Can he regain his breakthrough form?
Now entering his age 29 season, Kansas City Royals outfielder Alex Gordon was supposed to be smack dab in the middle of his prime. In 2006 after being drafted No. 2 overall in the amateur draft, Gordon overmatched his competition in Double A, slugging .588 and smacking 29 home runs with 111 runs, 101 RBI and 22 stolen bases. He received a quick promotion in 2007 and had a hard time adjusting to big league pitching, hitting .247/.314/.411 with 15 home runs and 14 steals. In 2008 it was more of the same -- .260/.351/.411 with 16 home runs and nine steals.
Gordon then spent the better part of two seasons in the minors before returning to Kansas City and finally breaking through in 2011, hitting .303/.376/.502 with 23 home runs, 101 runs, 87 RBI and 17 steals. So everyone jumped back on the Gordon bandwagon in 2012, and, of course, his power and speed disappeared, as Gordon barely managed a 10/10 season with 14 homers and 10 steals while hitting .294/.368/.455.
So in 2013, the question becomes, should owners expect the Alex Gordon of 2011, or the Alex Gordon of 2012? Let me start off by saying Alex Gordon wasn't bad in 2012. He just wasn't a particularly useful fantasy player, as 129 players had more home runs than Gordon, and 107 had more steals. But, at the same time, only 14 (!) players had a more valuable season than Gordon, according to FanGraphs WAR.
Toward the end of the 2012 season, I presented a comp to Eno Sarris in a FanGraphs chat, comparing Gordon to Nick Markakis. Eno ran with it and wrote up an awesome article on the site. Here's a bit of what he said:
It's a comp that came up last week in my Friday chat, and it's not bad. All by itself, the comp brings to mind the promise of more, the inevitable settling for what you're going to get, and the all-around "meh"-ness of the package.
Not exactly a ringing endorsement for Gordon, but not a damning one either. But could it be we have another Markakis on our hands?
One thing Gordon did better than anyone else in 2012 was hit doubles (ha!, that's so Markakis), with a league-leading 51. That's a good sign heading into 2013, as some of those doubles could turn into home runs. That's not to say 10 of them will, or even five, but the year before, Gordon hit 45 doubles and 23 home runs. So you can see what the distribution of doubles and home runs can do to the perception of the player's season.
Part of the reason for Gordon's home run drop was a decline in his fly ball rate (38.5 percent in 2011; 32.7 in 2012), to go along with a decline in his HR/FB rate (12.6 percent in 2011; 8.5 in 2012). In most circumstances, I'd expect these numbers to climb closer to their career rates -- assuming everything else looks normal -- resulting in a modest boost in power, but the problem is Gordon's also hitting a lot more ground balls than at any other point in his career (1.29 GB/FB rate in 2012; 0.96 career). And with a career HR/FB rate of just 10 percent, again, I don't see the power coming.
It's also troubling to see Gordon's ISO so far off his minor league numbers. In his first season in Double A, Gordon posted a .263 ISO, and prior to being called up toward the end of 2010, he posted a .262 ISO in Triple A. In two full seasons since, those numbers are .200 and, most recently, .160.
As far as Gordon's speed goes, he's never been a terribly fast guy, but in the minors he was at least efficient. That hasn't been the case at the major league level, as he's been caught 18 times in 46 attempts since 2010. In 2013, Gordon should be able to top 10 steals again, but I wouldn't expect anything past 15.
Given how Gordon was once a guy thought to have 30 home run power and, at the least, a couple of 20/20 seasons ahead of him, he's failed to live up to expectations. The Fake Teams consensus outfield rankings has Gordon as the 23rd best outfielder heading into 2013, but I'd be much more comfortable taking him closer to the 30th. I will say this: if Gordon does hit for more power, it's likely going to come at the cost of average, and that might be the best possible outcome for his owners.
But as of right now, Gordon's real life value far outweighs his fantasy value.
Statistics from FanGraphs.