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April 20, 2011

Fantasy Beat

To Buy or Sell on Alex Gordon

by Craig Brown

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He once carried so much fantasy promise. Former first round draft pick—and second overall selection—Alex Gordon was as can’t miss as they come. In his final season at Nebraska before joining the professional ranks, he swept the major collegiate player of the year awards. Upon playing his first full professional season in the Royals organization at Double-A Wichita, he won the Texas League Player of the Year Award and was tabbed the minor league player of the year by Baseball America. In our 2007 BP Annual, we were downright giddy with anticipation:

The number-one prospect in baseball. After a stellar college career and a Golden Spikes award, Gordon went straight to Double-A in his pro debut and hit for average and power, commanded the strike zone, stole bases with both frequency and efficiency, and showed good defense at a key defensive position. The only drama left with Gordon is whether he will push Mark Teahen to the outfield on Opening Day, or if the Royals will let the Omaha native perform in front of the hometown crowd for a few months first. He`s a lifelong Royals fan whose brother was named after George Brett, so this could be the start of a beautiful relationship.

The beautiful relationship quickly turned dysfunctional.

After reaching 600 plate appearances in his first season, injuries and poor performance prevented him from earning regular playing time at the major league level in each of the next three seasons. You would be forgiven for ignoring Gordon on draft day this year. After all, the former “can’t miss” prospect had fallen well short of the mark, putting up a career line of .244/.328/.405 through his first four seasons. All numbers were well short of the major league average line of .266/.344/.418. The subpar career had Gordon plummeting down fantasy boards and led PECOTA to project a batting average of .248 with 16 home runs, 60 RBI and a .269 TAv—hardly an endorsement for a fantasy roster.

Except Gordon is in the process of turning that projection (and every other one) on its ear. Entering Tuesday’s action, the Royals left fielder was hitting a robust .353/.380/.515, and picked up a single in his first at bat of the evening, pushing his hitting streak to 13 games. He has collected 24 hits with nine of them going for extra bases. He has scored 14 runs and driven in 12, and has been a key cog in the Royals offensive surge in the early portion of April. And, most surprisingly, he’s turned into a fantasy asset.

The question: can he sustain this scorching start?

Gordon is also picking up RBI like crazy. Currently, he’s driving home 29 percent of all baserunners. That is an impressive total, even when you account for the small sample size of mid-April. For reference, here are the early leaders (minimum of 50 PA) in scoring baserunners:

Mark Teixeira – 32 percent

Mark Reynolds – 30 percent

Alex Gordon – 29 percent

Mike Aviles – 29 percent

Travis Snyder – 29 percent

The net result for Gordon is 12 RBI through his first 15 games of the season. Last year, he played in a total of 74 games and drove home just 20.

A lot of his improvement has to do with the fact he has moved up in the batting order. Last year, he hit mostly in the sixth and seventh positions in the lineup. This April, he has hit exclusively out of the third spot in the order. Not that pitchers needed any kind of incentive, but Gordon was easy to pitch around last year with Yuniesky Betancourt and his final line of .259/.288/.405 following him in the lineup. This year, along with hitting higher in the order, comes the luxury of hitting ahead of Billy Butler, who is currently applying the scorched Earth theory to opposing pitchers to the tune of .368/.493/.544.

The shift in position in the lineup neatly dovetails with what looks to be a new approach at the plate. Simply put, Gordon isn’t so selective anymore.

From Texas Leaguers, here is the strike zone plot for Gordon on the pitches he’s taken in the young season.

Now let's compare his start to 2011 to a similar stretch from last season—the first 18 days of September where he hit .214/.389/.405.

At first glance, it certainly looks like Gordon was taking a few more strikes during this stretch. And the numbers bear this out. Overall in 2010, Gordon swung the bat at 67 percent of pitches that, given the perfect umpire, would have been called strikes. This year, he has pushed that number to 70 percent. It’s a modest increase, but coupled with what has been described as a free and more flattened swing, Gordon is now putting the ball in play like he has never done before.

Entering this season, an Alex Gordon plate appearance ended with the fielders doing work just 64 percent of the time. So far this year, he has put the ball in play at a rate of 75 percent. In turn, his contact rate has jumped from 78 percent in 2010 to an above average 82 percent this year. Should he maintain this level of contact (and we obviously have a long way to go in the season) it would be the first time in his career he has finished with a contact rate above the league average. (The current league average for contact rate is 80.8 percent.)

Perhaps his new swing is taking a toll on his power. Obviously, Gordon has never met his power expectations, but his positive start has masked a deficiency in the home run department—he has hit just one home run on the season. Coming from a player who averages one long ball every 33 at-bats, this qualifies as a full blown power outage. His spray chart from this season shows a dearth of deep fly balls. The green plots in the gaps were line drives that split the outfielders for doubles. Remember, those plots mark where the defender actually fielded the ball.

It’s difficult to pinpoint exactly the problem with Gordon’s power. He has always been more of a fly ball hitter, but so far this season, he is putting the ball on the ground almost 45 percent of the time. Perhaps the flattened swing is leading to a little less loft and a lot less power.

While Gordon’s power has disappeared, nowhere is his new approach more evident than in the total number of pitches he sees per plate appearance. Here are his averages going back to his rookie year of 2007.

2007 - 3.79

2008 - 3.92

2009 - 3.90

2010 - 4.03

2011 - 3.39

This isn’t some glacier-like change in how he handles his plate appearances. Gordon has made a complete overhaul to both his swing and his approach at the plate.

As you would expect, the new aggressiveness has taken a toll on his walk rate. Again, entering the 2011 season, Gordon was walking just a touch under 10 percent of all plate appearances. This year, he has drawn just three walks in 71 PAs through Monday—good for a 4.2 percent walk rate.

That rate is rotten, with a capital R. So far his elevated batting average and .434 BABIP are carrying his OBP. The aggressiveness at the plate is fine, but it yields results that are unsustainable. There is no way he can continue being a productive hitter if he sees only 3.4 pitches per plate appearance. Nor can he continue to contribute if he doesn’t maintain a healthy OBP, which means he will have to elevate his walk totals to counterbalance the inevitable fall of his batting average.

Still, it’s a heckuva start. About the only thing Gordon hasn’t done so far is steal bases. He remedied that on Tuesday by swiping a pair of bags in the first inning against the battery of Carlos Carrasco and Lou Marson—they were his first attempts in 43 opportunities on the season. When Gordon broke in, the steals were supposed to be a fantasy bonus (In his rookie campaign, he swiped 14 bags in 18 attempts). Last season, he was a dreadful one for five.

From “can’t miss” to “washed up,” Gordon has made it a habit of confounding the prognosticators at just about every turn. For each of his first four seasons, it was on the negative side of the ledger. He is off to a great start this season, but for him to remain a fantasy asset beyond the season’s opening month, he’ll have to make some adjustments to his approach.

The average will definitely fall and the loss of power is troubling. The one constant (as long as the Royals exhibit a modicum of patience with the top half of their lineup) will be his RBI opportunities. But that alone won’t be enough for him to sustain his fantasy value. If you’re looking to deal, now would be an ideal time to sell high. 

Craig Brown is an author of Baseball Prospectus. 
Click here to see Craig's other articles. You can contact Craig by clicking here

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