A quick look at the WAR leaderboard on FanGraphs reveals a couple players you’d expect at the top of the list (Mike Trout, Troy Tulowitzki), but also one you might not expect: Alex Gordon has accumulated the third-highest WAR among position players in baseball this season.
Although Gordon had resuscitated his career after being labeled a prospect bust, it’s safe to say most people don’t think of the Royals outfielder as one of the three best position players in MLB. And from an offensive standpoint, they are right. Gordon’s value at the plate has been nowhere near that of Trout’s, Tulowitzki’s, or Yasiel Puig’s.
But baseball players provide value beyond their production at the plate, and the various components that go into calculating WAR demonstrate why Gordon has been so valuable for Kansas City in 2014.
As Gordon’s WAR components show us, he has been a defensive monster:
In fact, Gordon has been baseball’s most valuable defensive player through Thursday, according to FanGraphs. Even more remarkable, though, is that Gordon has been so great defensively while playing left field, a position not normally associated with slick, game-changing defenders.
Beyond Jason Heyward, who has always been well regarded defensively, the list of MLB’s best defenders in 2014 is filled with center fielders and middle infielders—the likes of Jackie Bradley Jr., Billy Hamilton, and Zack Cosart. Yet Gordon has been able to provide such immense value on defense, even though he gets penalized -7.5 runs in FanGraphs’ WAR calculations for playing left field.
Has Gordon really been this valuable defensively for the Royals? Compared to hitting and pitching statistics, defensive stats are notoriously unreliable, especially over a half or even full season’s worth of data.
Even still, Gordon is on pace to set a career-best mark in defensive runs saved. Similarly, his UZR (24.8) and UZR/150 totals (36.5) already represent career highs and are nearly double that of his previous career bests in those categories.
The funny thing is, Gordon was a poor defender at his first position in the big leagues, third base, and has only blossomed as an elite defensive player since moving to left field full-time back in 2011. But this has been Gordon’s best season on defense by quite some margin, and it is fair to wonder how certain we can be in saying the Royals’ left fielder has been baseball’s most valuable defender in 2014.
Regardless, Gordon’s production on defense has clearly been a big part of Kansas City’s push for a playoff spot this season. Inside Edge fielding data at FanGraphs also indicates Gordon has been spectacular out in left field. According to Inside Edge, Gordon has made nearly every play this season that was labeled as routine or likely for an average left fielder. Even more impressive, though, Gordon has made roughly two-thirds of the plays deemed to be "50-50" chances and 45% of his opportunities on plays labeled as "unlikely" by Inside Edge scouts.
Although we can’t say for certain that Gordon is far and away baseball’s best fielder, it is pretty clear, from a number of defensive metrics, that he has been an elite defender in left field this season. In fact, Gordon is on pace to have the best defensive season for a left fielder dating back to 1990. The list, like that of baseball’s top defenders this year, includes mostly shortstops and center fielders, with players like Andruw Jones and Rey Ordonez topping the chart. Gordon will be the rare left fielder to enter such esteemed defensive company.
Gordon’s play this year demonstrates a big leaguer can provide heaps of value in places outside the batter’s box or pitcher’s mound. He might not have a household name like Trout and Tulowitzki, but Gordon is having the best season of his career at the age of 30 thanks in large part to his elite defense in left field.
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All statistics courtesy of FanGraphs.
Alex Skillin is an editor at Beyond the Box Score. He also writes for SB Nation's MLB hub and The Hardball Times, among other places. You can follow him on Twitter at @AlexSkillin.