About 10 days ago I was on the radio with Kevin Kietzman and Danny Clinkscale, and towards the end of the interview the talk turned towards Alex Gordon, who for the second consecutive year is failing to live up to expectations. Two years ago Gordon was the Minor League Player of the Year, the year after he was named the College Player of the Year. He was the #1 prospect in the land the year after he was the #2 draft pick in the land. Playing for
For two months last year, it looked like the Alex Gordon of 2006 had been secretly replaced by Folger’s
But here we are, past the halfway point of Gordon’s sophomore season, and nothing has changed. His final numbers last season, even with the atrocious start, were .247/.314/.411; he’s hitting .250/.333/.406 this season. Given that offense is down significantly in the
So the question is: should we officially be worried about Gordon now? As Clinkscales asked me on the air, how many times has a player who had TWO disappointing seasons to start his career gone on to become a superstar?
Among my many talents is not, unfortunately, the ability to think quickly on my feet, particularly in front of a live audience. While I came up with a weak answer by bringing up Mike Schmidt as a third baseman who struggled mightily as a rookie before having a breakthrough sophomore years, I couldn’t think of a single player who, like Gordon, played every day right out of the chute, but didn’t have the light bulb go on until season #3.
But this might not simply have been a problem with coming up with the right answer in ten seconds or less. Because even afterwards, I still couldn't come up with a list of players who had immense potential but took a little longer than usual to reach it – the kinds of players you want Gordon to be lumped in with when we look back at his career in 15 years. So I decided to research it.
Keep in mind, I’m looking for a player whose trajectory is very similar to Gordon’s; plenty of star players take years to reach their potential. Someone like Nate McLouth, for instance, is having a breakthrough season in his fourth attempt, but he’s a totally different player – a 25th-round pick, an undersized guy who broke into the majors as a fourth outfielder type but never go the chance to play every day until this season. (By the way, why has no one made the comparison of McLouth to Brady Anderson yet? Both are speedy white guys who showed some secondary skills but didn’t hit much as part-time players, McLouth for three years, Anderson for four.
So I devised a list of players who:
1) had their rookie seasons between 1961 and 2000;
2) were 23 years old as a rookie;
3) batted over 400 times in their rookie season;
4) hit between .240 and .265;
5) had an OBP between .300 and .340;
6) slugged between .360 and .460.
I ended up with a total of 17 players, the most recent of whom being Carlos Febles, of all people. (Carlos the Lesser hit .256/.336/.411 as a rookie, though keep in mind that was at the peak of the Juiced Ball/Bat/Body era.) Let’s split those 17 players into four groups.
Group 1: Not that good to begin with.
Buck Rodgers hit .258/.309/.372 as a rookie catcher for the LA Angels in 1962, and that would prove to be the best season of his career. Byron Browne was a rookie outfielder for the Cubs in 1963, and hit .243/.316/.427. Over the next year he would bat just 85 times, for three different teams.
Rick Schu hit .252/.318/.373 as the Phillies’ third baseman in 1985, quite an accomplishment for a guy who was signed as a non-drafted free agent out of high school, but he would never bat more than 300 times in a season again. Febles started battling injuries his sophomore season and was never the same.
Group 2: Takeoff in Year Two. Sort of.
Bill Melton really doesn’t fit well into the three other groups, but he’s not a great fit here either. He was a rookie third baseman for the White Sox in 1969, and hit .255/.326/.433. After hitting 23 homers as a rookie, he would hit 33 each of the next two years, and after the 1971 season had to be considered one of the best young players in the game. But he got hurt and missed much of the 1972 season, gave the Sox three good years from 1973 to 1975, then was out of the game within two years, his career over just after his 32nd birthday. I’m not sure what the story was here, to be honest. Melton had a short peak, but it was a pretty nice peak.
Larry Walker hit .241/.326/.434 as a rookie for the Expos in 1990, but technically he wasn’t a rookie because he had spent an entire year on the DL while in the minors, and in those days time spent on the DL counted as service time. As a result of
Group 3: The plodders. The list you don’t want Gordon to wind up on, the guys who showed promise their first two seasons but never built on it.
Dick Green was a rookie second baseman for the
Jim Lefebvre hit .250/.337/.369 as a rookie second baseman for the Dodgers in 1965, which was enough to win him Rookie of the Year honors. In 1966 hit .274/.333/.460 with 24 homers, making the All-Star team. But that would be his high-water point; Lefebvre continued to hit around league average for the next five years, but after playing second base his first two seasons the Dodgers started jerking him around, having him play third base some, and after a poor season in 1972 his playing career came to a sudden end at age 30. His contributions to baseball were far from over, as he would become a long-time coach, manage for three teams, and sire an occasionally self-righteous broadcaster. (Seriously, Ryan – tone down the rhetoric a little, okay?)
George Wright was a fourth-round pick of the Rangers in 1977, and was a rookie outfielder for them in 1982, when he hit .264/.305/.377; the following season he played in every game, hit .276/.321/.424, and even received a tenth-place MVP vote. He would hit .243, .190, and .202 the next three years, and his career was over. I must confess I’ve never even heard of this guy, although that may be because when I think of George Wright, I think of the guy who, you know, helped invent professional baseball.
Gabe Kapler was a late-round find for the Tigers, who drafted him in the 57th round in 1995. He hit .245/.315/.447 as a rookie in 1999, then was traded to
Group 4: The late bloomers.
Here’s the important list, the one that we hope Gordon can be added to in the future. In chronological order:
As much as I like the Lou Brock comparison for Gordon, I like the next one even better. If the amateur draft had been instituted a year earlier, Bobby Murcer would have been an almost sure-fire first-round pick. He was dubbed the next Mickey Mantle from the day he signed, as he had the misfortune of hailing from the same state (
Von Hayes was a seventh-round pick of the Indians in 1979, and made the majors for a cameo in 1981, hitting .257/.346/.394 in 109 at-bats. As a rookie outfielder in 1982 he hit .250/.310/.389, with 14 homers and 32 steals. Hayes was nonetheless so highly regarded that after the season the Phillies traded five different players for Hayes straight-up. (We can finally put that trade to rest – one of the five was Julio Franco.) Hayes hit just .265/.337/.370 in his first year in
Ron Gant was a fourth-round pick of the Braves in 1983, and in 1988 hit .259/.317/.439 as their rookie second baseman (yes, second baseman), finishing fourth in Rookie of the Year voting. (It’s always fun to remember where some sluggers started their major league careers. Gary Sheffield was the Brewers’ shortstop once upon a time. Danny Tartabull played 24 games at shortstop for
Craig Biggio, like Gordon, was a first-round pick, and two years after he was drafted he was in the Astros’ lineup as their catcher, hitting .257/.336/.402 as a rookie. He hit .276/.342/.348 as a sophomore, his homers dropping from 13 to 4. You know the rest of the story – after three years behind the dish he moved to second base, he started to hit for power at age 27, and from 1994 to 1998 he was one of the four or five best players in baseball. He was never the same after that, but held on long enough for 3000 hits and the inevitable parade in
Biggio’s teammate Luis Gonzalez was taken in the fourth round in 1988, and hit .254/.320/.433 for the Astros in 1991. He slumped to .243/.289/.385 as a sophomore, and Vegas had taken the odds that he would still be in active in 2008 off the board. Gonzalez hit .300/.361/.457 in his third season, and was a good solid player for the next five years, but let’s be honest: no one saw what was coming. After the 1998 season the Tigers traded him straight up for Karim Garcia, for God’s sake. From 1999 to 2003, Gonzalez hit .314 and averaged 33 homers and 87 walks a year. He won’t go to the Hall of Fame, but if he was inducted, he’d be far from the worst outfielder there.
Ray Durham was a fifth-round pick of the White Sox in 1990, was called up early in the 1995 season and hit .257/.309/.384 as a rookie. As a sophomore, he hit .275/.350/.406, which was an improvement but still not anything to write home about in that era; his OPS+ went from 83 to 95. As a junior, he hit .271/.337/.382, but his durability and speed still made him an asset at the position. Then in 1998 he turned his game up a notch; he tacked on about 15 extra-base hits and 20 walks a season, and had an OPS+ above league-average for nine straight years. He was basically the prototype for Orlando Hudson, with a better bat and more speed but a much worse glove. He’s had a heck of a career.
When I started this study, I didn’t expect to analyze every single player that compared to Gordon – I figured I’d just find two or three guys who went on to greatness and see if Gordon’s profile fit theirs or not. What I found surprised me, in a good way. For one, I would have expected to find dozens of guys who had a rookie season similar to Gordon’s, given the wide parameters I set up – instead I found just 17. But what’s really remarkable is how many of those players went on to great career, even though nearly all of them did not have a breakout season in their second year. Just two out of the 17 had a star-caliber sophomore year, and both examples (Melton and
But if you can simply follow up a solid rookie season with a roughly equivalent performance as a sophomore at ages 23 and 24, the odds are still very good that you will eventually go on to have a very fine career. Eliminate the first two groups, and we have 11 players who, like Gordon, have followed up their rookie seasons with more of the same.
Four of those 11 would go on to have disappointing seasons – Green, Lefebvre, Wright, and Kapler. Green and Lefebvre were both second baseman, and there is a long chain of evidence that second basemen do not develop as well as players at other positions.
George Wright really doesn’t belong on this list; he was never well-regarded to the best of my knowledge, and to my mind resembles Darryl Motley more than Alex Gordon. That leaves Kapler, who serves as a cautionary tale that there are no sure things with prospects.
But even Kapler was a 57th-round pick. Gordon’s pedigree is impeccable, which puts him in with the guys in group four. Biggio was a first-rounder, and Murcer would have been. Brock might have been; he was a black player who attended a traditionally black school in 1960, so he might have fallen in the draft through no fault of his own. The other draft-eligible players all went between the fourth and seventh rounds, although all of them were signed out of high school – all of them may have been first-round picks if, like Biggio, they had gone to college instead.
If there’s a red flag here, it’s that the parameters I selected are slightly favorable to Gordon – he hit .247/.314/.411, which is about the midpoint of the range I selected, but he played in
Based purely on his rookie performance, Gordon’s a little out of his depth. But factor in his track record, his pedigree, his second-half performance…I don’t think it’s incorrect to lump him in with these other guys.
Seven of the 11 players would go on to have stellar careers; two of the 11 went on to be Hall of Famers. Gonzalez hit his stride late in his career – it does the Royals no good if Gordon becomes a perennial All-Star in his 30s – but the other six guys would be named to an All-Star team or finish in the top
I don’t know about you, but I feel a lot better about Gordon than I did when I started this study. Sometimes we get so wrapped up in what a player isn’t doing – in Gordon's case, hitting left-handers – that we overlook what he is doing. Gordon isn’t hitting lefties (.193/.273/.220), but by the same token, he’s hitting right-handed pitching very well (.276/.358/.490). I think batting him third against LHP is nuts – Hillman finally seems to agree – but against RHP, I think batting him third is wholly appropriate. Gordon is striking out at the same rate he did last year, but his walk rate is up almost 50%. When he gets ahold of one, he still hits the ball farther than any Royals hitter from the left side since George Brett.
Honestly, I think what bothers Royals fans more than Gordon’s performance is his attitude. When a guy with Gordon’s demeanor is playing well, he’s praised for being stoic, for not letting himself get swept up by the highs and lows in the game from day to day. When he’s not playing well, he gets ripped for not caring. But this is something we simply can’t know as fans. Sure, it looks bad when Gordon takes three straight pitches for strikes in the bottom of the ninth of a tie game, then trudges back to the dugout, as he did on Tuesday. But it’s easy to be fooled by the perception that someone is trying hard, when in reality we have no idea who’s working out in the weight room after the game, who’s spending the extra time working on defensive drills, who’s eating right and getting eight hours of sleep every night. Castigate Gordon for his work ethic if you think he deserves it – just don’t rip him because of the look on his face.
A few years ago the Royals had another player that was immensely talented, but also very quiet in the clubhouse, a stoic personality who didn’t seem to get overly upset when things didn’t go well, and it led a lot of people into thinking that he just didn’t care. It didn’t matter when Carlos Beltran won Rookie of the Year honors, but when he hit like crap as a sophomore and missed half the season with an injury, the whispers started. They hit a crescendo when Beltran refused to report to the team’s spring training camp to rehab – remember that?
And for the first half of 2001, he hit as badly as he did as a sophomore. On June 24th, he was hitting .249/.294/.372, with seven homers all year. On June 20th, I brilliantly wrote in a Rob & Rany dialogue that “even I’m beginning to give up on” Beltran. (Ten days later, after Beltran had a six-game stretch when he went 11-for-23 with five homers, I asked for forgiveness, pointing out that Beltran had changed his stance back to his 1999 form and that had made all the difference. Hey, don't tell me I don't know which way the wind is blowing.)
But halfway through his third season, Carlos Beltran looked like a bust, like the rookie hype was a mirage. Three months later he would finish with the best season of his career, and his superstar projection was back on track, a projection he has mostly justified since. But even years later, when Beltran had a terrible first season with the Mets, people close to the team argued that Beltran couldn’t handle the pressure New York. But just because a player doesn’t provide a good quote or throw his helmet after a bad at-bat doesn’t mean that they aren’t working their ass off to get better.
So let’s lay off Gordon for now. I still think the best is yet to come.
(Please tell me this makes up for my long absence, right?)