March 8, 2010
Thumb Down For Gordon
When the Kansas City Royals announced third baseman Alex Gordon would miss the next three to four weeks with a fractured thumb, it was just another pothole on the road to success for the former second overall draft pick (2005). Gordon’s 2009 was the Lost Season, as he hit the disabled list after undergoing hip surgery after appearing in just seven games. At least Gordon was in good company—the surgery he had was the same procedure performed on Alex Rodriguez and Chase Utley. While those two came back and eventually enjoyed some success, Gordon struggled, ultimately ending up in Triple-A Omaha. Lost Season, indeed.
One thing the hip injury didn’t disrupt was Gordon’s contact rate. It has been a rock-steady 75 percent each year since he reached the bigs. It’s impressive that he’s been so consistent, but saying that is kind of trying to look at the glass half full. The 75 percent contact rate is well below the major-league average of 80 percent. Besides, of the 80 hitters in the American League who qualified for the batting title last summer, only 10 of them fell below the 75 percent threshold.
The low contact rate isn’t helpful, but it’s not a deal breaker if he can hit for power. In Gordon’s first two seasons where he had regular playing time, he managed 15 and 16 home runs, respectively. He has modest power, but really nothing to get excited about. Then, after returning from the hip injury last year, his power all but disappeared for a stretch—he went 52 plate appearances after returning before he collected his first extra base hit. Here’s how his power numbers have looked since his rookie campaign.
Don’t be fooled by Gordon’s improvement in home runs per at-bat from last year. He hit two home runs in his final two games of the season. If you throw those games out, his HR/AB rate was an unseemly 39.3. His limited playing time meant a two-game rally sliced that much off his HR/AB ratio. The ultimate in small sample size.
As I mentioned earlier, Gordon’s issue last year wasn’t a lack of contact. It turned out it was a lack of solid contact. His line-drive rate, which had been around 20 percent in his first two seasons, dipped to 13 percent. His batting average on balls in play dropped to .276, and his ISO was at a career low .146. The good news was that it couldn’t get much worse.
With a mediocre track record, Gordon still represented some risk to fantasy owners, but those depressed numbers from last year meant he had potential to become a bargain on draft day. The gains he realized from his first to second season—and discarding the "lost season" of his third year—made him a sleeper candidate for 2010.
And now the broken thumb. As a left-handed hitter with an injury to the thumb on his right hand, it’s conceivable he could return and have difficulty regaining grip strength that, in turn, could affect his power. Will Carroll pointed me to Brandon Phillips, who suffered a less serious thumb fracture last year (he missed only a handful of games) yet experienced a drop in his power production. Phillips hit a home run every 29 at bats for the Reds last year, his lowest rate since 2006. His contact rate was up and his gap power was still decent—he hit 30 two-baggers, which was a career high—but you’re not paying for doubles. It's also worth noting that Phillips is a right-handed batter and suffered the injury to his right thumb.
Even with sleeper status, Gordon was an option on draft day in AL-only leagues prior to his injury. The uncertainty surrounding him now is enough to remove him altogether except in the deepest of leagues. He wasn’t going to hit for average, and now this injury will likely affect his home-run power. PECOTA pegged Gordon for 16 home runs with a .258 batting average and 53 RBI, which was right in line with his performance in his first two seasons. The average and the RBI totals sound about right, but with this injury, I’d take the under on the home run total.
If you’re looking for third-base options, Alberto Callaspo will now get most of the time at the hot corner in spring training (with a few cameo appearances by Josh Fields) for the Royals, and he will likely open the season there. However, once Gordon is ready, he’ll be back at third. Kansas City has far too much invested (not financially, but the fact they can’t afford to have such a high draft pick fail) in Gordon to throw in the towel.