Through May 10, 2019, Alex Gordon was hitting .291/.381/.545, good for a 138 wRC+. His .382 wOBA was 77 points higher than his below average offense the year before, and a whopping 113 points higher than his disastrous 2017 season. It was a contract year, too. Rany Jazayerli, perhaps the game’s most famous Royals fan, made a remark on Twitter at the time on how strange Gordon’s career had been. He was right.
After a prestigious college career, Gordon was selected second overall in the 2005 draft behind Justin Upton, and ahead of Ryan Braun, Andrew McCutchen, and Troy Tulowitzki, two of whom went on to win MVP awards. The Royals drafted him as a third baseman whom they expected to have an “impact bat.” Obviously, things didn’t quite pan out that way.
Gordon raked in the minors but struggled at the plate over his first four years in the majors. Adding fuel to the fire was his subpar defense at third base. He already was not hitting enough for third, so moving him down the defensive spectrum would make his offensive struggles even worse compared to others at the position. Regardless, the Royals decided to make him the starting left fielder in 2011.
Well, it was a colossal success. Gordon had the best season of his career. He hit .303/.376/.502, and his 140 wRC+ was the 19th-best among qualified hitters. Somehow he also became an 80-grade defender in left field, and would continue to be so for at least the next three years. His 7.3 WAR ranked in the top ten in the AL.
His offense never again came close to his 2011 levels, but overall from 2011-2014, he hit .283/.356/.453 and accumulated 23.8 WAR. According to the Play Index, that ranked as the sixth-best total in that time frame. (The funny thing is that Mike Trout tops that list even though he was only worth half a win in 40 games in 2011!)
Enjoying a windfall of cash after winning the 2015 World Series — not that then-owner David Glass needed it — the Royals decided to bring back Gordon in free agency. It was a questionable decision at the time, seeing as he was about to turn 32 and was coming off an unremarkable regular season where he played only 104 games. Furthermore, a lot of his value came from his elite defense, which could drop off at any time for a player of his age. Small sample size caveats apply, but his defensive metrics in 2015 were already way down compared to his previous four seasons.
Despite all this, the Royals re-signed Gordon to a four-year, $72 million deal. I wish I could remember what I thought of the deal in January 2016, but though I never wrote about it, I imagine that my thoughts were at least slightly critical for the reasons I mentioned above.
As I am sure you are well aware of, the contract was somewhat of a disaster. In 2015, Gordon hit .271/.377/.432, good for a .351 wOBA and 122 wRC+, which is not especially great for a corner outfielder, but still pretty good. In 2016, the first year of his new deal, his wOBA dropped by almost 50 points. He did suffer a wrist injury on May 22nd of that year, but he was still only hitting .211/.319/.331 at the time.
Gordon’s offense cratered in 2017, hitting a lowly .208/.293/.315. His 62 wRC+ was the fourth-worst among qualified hitters, and his slugging average was the worst. He was pressing more at the plate, too. He had a walk rate of at least 10 percent in each of the previous three years, but it had fallen to 8.3 percent, which is roughly an average rate. His value was below replacement level and totaled just half a win over the first two seasons of his contract.
Thankfully, Gordon’s offense bounced back over the following two seasons, but not to the levels one would want from a starting corner outfielder, even when factoring in his defense. After his hot start to the 2019 season, he hit just .258/.333/.348 the rest of the way and finished with a slightly below average 96 wRC+. In total, he was worth just 4.1 WAR over the entirety of the four-year contract. The Royals re-signed him to a one-year, $4 million contract for 2020, because why not?
I understand how someone could be very critical of how Gordon’s contract turned out, but I look at it differently. First of all, it is not like he was causing any financial hardships for David Glass and current owner John Sherman. It is also very important to point out that Gordon was woefully underpaid for his best years, as is quite common for players on their rookie contracts, and he had a team-friendly extension included in that too.
Through 2015, the Royals paid Gordon about $41.3 million for 31 WAR. That is obviously a ridiculously high amount of production for what they paid. The grand totals are now 35.1 WAR for about $103.3 million. I am an opponent of the $/WAR model, but you can’t deny that less than $3 million per win is incredibly good.
You can criticize Gordon’s free agent contract if you want, but the truth is that Gordon has still been woefully underpaid for his career production for the Royals no thanks to the game’s broken economic system. Personally, I choose to see his free agent contract as one that helped reimburse him for his relatively low pay for his high productivity in his prime.
Gordon is a unique player in that you rarely see elite defenders in the corners. Usually they get moved to center field and/or don’t hit enough to stay there. In the DRS era which started in 2003, his 116 DRS in left field is the second highest of any corner outfielder. I am sure you are not surprised that the winner of this category is Jason Heyward with a 137 DRS in right field. The next highest is Josh Reddick at “only” an 85 DRS, almost all of which came in right field. Rounding out this four-man list is Carl Crawford with a 68 DRS in left field. (As an aside, Aaron Judge could make this list on the pace he is going! He is just so athletic.)
If we open this up to the entire live-ball era, meaning that we have to go to the less accurate Total Zone rating, there are two players at the top of the list who should surprise no one. The legendary Roberto Clemente was worth 201 runs in right field. Barry Bonds had 173 runs in left field. Carl Yastrzemski was known far more for his bat than his glove, but he was actually worth 135 runs in left field.
Obviously Gordon doesn’t compare at all to the players above, so let’s take a look at a few players who do. Jesse Barfield played from 1981-1992 and was worth 148 runs in right field, though he was a better hitter than Gordon with a career 117 wRC+. Brian Jordan played from 1992-2006 and was worth 139 runs in right field. His career is much closer to Gordon’s, as he had a 105 wRC+ and 32.9 career WAR.
Unsurprisingly, it is more common to see the better defenders stick to right field instead of left, but Bonds and Yaz did play left field. Outside of all time greats, there is Crawford, who compares very well to Gordon before leaving the Rays. Luis González was an excellent left fielder in his prime who was worth 117 runs from 1991 through 2001. However, offensively he compared more closely to Barfield because of his 18 wRC+.
I hope Gordon can have a strong finish to his career. Whether he does or not, there are not many who can say they had a similar career or skill set. With teams understanding the value of defense, I don’t want to say that we will never see another player like him, but they will be few and far between.
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Luis Torres is a Featured Writer at Beyond the Box Score. He is a medicinal chemist by day, baseball analyst by night. You can follow him on Twitter at @Chemtorres21.