Monday, March 25, 2013

2013 Opening Day Preview, Part 4.

#10: Alex Gordon

It sound weird to say this, given all the drama and agitas that accompanied Gordon’s first four years in the majors, but at this point, he seems to me to be one of the most reliable and consistent players on the entire roster.

Last year he hit .294/.368/.455, and there’s no reason why he can’t sustain that performance. His numbers were all down slightly from 2011, but the only real difference was that he turned nine home runs into a triple and six more doubles. If you just take out his 2009-2010 seasons, his career looks like a smooth progression from College Player of the Year to Minor League Player of the Year to decent rookie to promising sophomore to, finally, a true major league star. He’s 29 years old now, but given that he’s a fitness freak, given his skill set (both power and speed), and given the position he plays, he’s probably a better bet to age gracefully into his 30s than anyone else on the team.

For what it’s worth, he’s raking in spring training, against relatively high-caliber competition. (His “opposition quality” metric at baseball-reference, a new stat that weights playing time in spring training against the opposition you face – so that we can differentiate the player who’s performing well against guys who were in A-ball last year – is 9.4, which is almost major-league quality. Most players have a rating between 8 and 9.)

And it’s time to finally ask the question: is Alex Gordon the most underrated player in baseball?

As Exhibit A, the prosecution presents the following list, of the players with the most Wins Above Replacement over the last two years:

Player             bWAR

Justin Verlander   15.9
Ryan Braun         14.5
Miguel Cabrera     14.2
Ben Zobrist        14.0
Robinson Cano      13.4
Alex Gordon        13.3
Dustin Pedroia     12.5
Clayton Kershaw    12.5
Cliff Lee          12.5
Andrew McCutchen   12.3
Adrian Beltre      12.3

Over the last two years, Alex Gordon has been the sixth-best player in the major leagues. But if you were to ask the casual fan, I doubt he’d make the list of the six best players in the AL Central. And frankly, the writers aren’t much better. In 2011, Gordon got three 10th-place votes for AL MVP. Last year, he got none. In neither year did he make the All-Star team. Josh Hamilton was the starting left fielder for the AL both years. Aside from the fact that Hamilton played nearly as much center field as left field the last two years, Hamilton’s value over the last two years combined (6.9 bWAR) was less than Gordon’s value in 2011 alone (7.1 bWAR).

Go to your average fan and assert that Alex Gordon is a better ballplayer than Josh Hamilton. Wait for the laughter to die down. It may take a while.

In The New Bill James Historical Baseball Abstract, James writes this under the entry for Darrell Evans, who he ranked as the 10th-best third baseman of all time:

“Darrell Evans is, in my opinion, the most underrated player in baseball history, absolutely number one on the list. There are at least ten characteristics of an underrated player:

1. Specialists and players who do two or three things well are overrated; players who do several things well are underrated.

2. Batting average is overrated; secondary offensive skills, summarized in secondary average, are underrated.

3. Driving in runs is overrated; scoring runs is underrated.

4. Players who play for championship teams are often overrated; players who get stuck with bad teams are often underrated.

5. Players who play in New York and LA are sometimes overrated, while players who play in smaller and less glamorous cities are sometimes underrated, although this factor is not as significant as many people believe it to be.

6. Players who are glib and popular with the press are sometimes overrated, while players who are quiet are sometimes underrated, although, again, this factor is not as significant as many people think it is.

7. Players who play in parks which do not favor their skills are always underrated. Players who play in parks which favor them – hitters in Colorado, lefties in Yankee, pitchers in the Astrodome – are always overrated.

8. Hitters from big-hitting eras (the 1890s, the 1920s and 1930s) are overrated in history, and pitchers from the dead ball era and the 1960s are overrated. Pitchers from the big-hitting era and hitters from the 1960s are underrated.

9. Undocumented skills (leadership, defense, heads-up play) tend to be forgotten over time. Everything else deteriorates faster than the numbers.

10. Anything which “breaks up” a player’s career tends to cause him to be underrated. A player who has a good career with one team will be thought of more highly than a player who does the same things, but with three different teams. Switching positions causes a player to be underrated. A player who plays 1,000 games at third base and 1,000 games at second base may be underrated, because it’s harder to form a whole image of what he has done.”

Let’s go through the list one by one.

1. Gordon’s skill set is extremely diverse. He hits home runs but not a lot of home runs. He led the league in doubles last year. He draws walks. He hits for a high average. He plays great defense. He doesn’t ground into a lot of double plays. He doesn’t have one signature skill; his signature is that he has a lot of skills.

2. Gordon has actually hit for a good average the last two years, but had never hit above .260 before that; his career average is still just .269.

3. Gordon has been the leadoff hitter for most of the last two years, which of course means he’s going to score runs more than he’ll drive them in. He has 159 RBIs the last two years, but 194 runs scored.

4. Check.

5. Check.

6. Gordon is a very pleasant individual and certainly not combative with the media, but he’s a man of few words.

7. Kauffman Stadium is not a pitchers’ park overall, but it is a very tough park for power hitters, which cuts against Gordon’s primary skill when he reached the majors, and forced him to adjust his batting approach as a result.

8. Not really relevant, since we’re talking about a player who’s underrated in his own era.

9. A significant amount of Gordon’s value is in his defense – he’s won Gold Gloves the last two years, and deservedly so – and that’s a big reason why his overall value is not appreciated.

10. Gordon’s career has been broken up by his struggles in 2009 and 2010, which included a position switch and a remedial course in the minor leagues. I suspect a big part why he’s so underrated is simply that people have the Gordon of 2007-2010 in mind when they think of him. And because he was so highly touted, I think his failures hit people harder – he was already written off as a bust before he turned his career around.

In essence, Gordon is the best example of the Post-Hype Sleeper in baseball today.

So what we have is a player who’s a top-ten value in all of baseball even though no one thinks of him that way, and who ticks off pretty much every box on the How To Be Underrated At Baseball checklist. Does that mean Gordon’s the most underrated player in the game?

No, because of the guy two slots ahead of him on the list above. Ben Zobrist might have a lower Q rating than even Gordon, even though Zobrist has been a better player for a lot longer. Gordon, at least, was the #2 overall pick out of college and the best prospect in the game once upon a time. Zobrist was a sixth-round pick, and while he hit .318 in the minors, his career high in home runs was seven. In his first shot at the majors, he hit .224/.260/.311; the following year, in 97 at-bats he hit .155. (And in one of the worst moves of my fantasy career, I released him from my Stratomatic team after his sophomore season. Oops.)

Since then Zobrist has hit .267/.367/.462. He plays for Tampa Bay, so while he’s played for a perennial contender, he also plays in one of the worst markets in the game and in a ballpark which masks his excellence. Gordon has changed positions once in his career; Zobrist changes positions once or twice a week, and has legitimate Gold Glove talent in both right field and second base, which is an exceptionally rare skill set. Gordon makes around $10 million a year on his long-term contract; Zobrist makes $5.5 million this year, with club options for $7 million and $7.5 million for 2014 and 2015.

So no, Alex Gordon is not the most underrated player in baseball. He might be the second-most, though.

#9: Second Baseman

I am slightly disappointed but not the least bit surprised that the Royals have selected Chris Getz to start at second base over Johnny Giavotella. I think Giavotella is the better player, because he’s a career .331/.397/.477 hitter in Triple-A, and because he’s only played 99 games in the major leagues, and because he’s nearly four years than Chris Getz, who by the way still has never hit a home run in the three years and 254 games he’s played for the Royals.

Am I 100% certain this is the wrong decision? No. I can’t deny that in his 376 plate appearances in the majors, Giavotella has hit .242/.271/.340, which is even worse than Getz’s career line of .257/.314/.316. Getz does have some other inherent advantages. He bats left-handed, which provides some lineup balance, because of the other eight starters, five bat right-handed, and only Gordon, Hosmer, and Moustakas bat from the left side. Having six right-handed bats approaches the point of being a tactical disadvantage*.

Getz is also a better baserunner (probably 2-3 runs over the course of a season) and a better defender. The defensive advantage is probably overstated, not because Giavotella is great – he isn’t – but because Getz is only average at best himself. Baseball Info Solutions has Giavotella at 5 runs below average in his career (about 9 runs over a full season), but they also have Getz at 17 runs below average in his career, which is around 6 or 7 runs a year. He looks like Frank White when put next to Yuniesky Betancourt, which is why the perception in Kansas City is that he’s a well-above average defender.

*: I’ve mentioned this right/left balance problem before, and in writing this it occurred to me – this wouldn’t be such a problem if the Royals had a switch-hitter or two in their lineup, and it feels like they always used to have at least one.

So I checked, and…it’s true. Since Willie Wilson entered the lineup in 1978, the Royals had at least one switch-hitter play 95 or more games EVERY YEAR from 1978 to 2004. They weren’t always good – David Howard was the sole entry in 1995 – but there was always at least one. Wilson, UL Washington, Kurt Stillwell, Brian McRae, Felix Jose, Jose Offerman, and Carlos Beltran helped keep the lineup balanced. As recently as 1997, the Royals had three switch-hitters in their lineup – Offerman, Chili Davis, and Bip Roberts.

But since 2004, only two switch-hitters have played in 95 games: Alberto Callaspo in 2009, and Melky Cabrera in 2011. (Wilson Betemit came close.) I don’t know if the Royals just got lucky all those years, but they could really use a guy like that in their lineup. Just another reason to love Adalberto Mondesi.

Anyway, I think going with Getz is a mistake, but I’m not certain. What I’m certain about is that I shouldn’t have to be uncertain. Last year the Royals gave Yuniesky Betancourt 43 starts at second base, almost all of them while Giavotella languished in Omaha. Give that playing time to Giavotella, and either he would have hit (and wouldn’t have had to fight for a job this spring) or he wouldn’t (and we’d have more confidence that Getz is the right choice.) The bad decisions of years past continue to echo in 2013, when they might actually matter.

The good news is that whether Getz hits or not, the Royals are almost certain to get a better performance overall at second base than they did last year. Last year, Royals’ second basemen combined to hit .256/.289/.359, and that includes Irving Falu’s fluky 18-for-50 performance at the position. But even worse, they combined to be 15 runs below average on defense. Thanks go yet again to Yuni, who in barely a quarter season’s worth of playing time managed to be 10 runs below average by himself. It’s almost as if letting the worst defensive shortstop in the majors play second base on a bad ankle is a terrible idea.

If Getz doesn’t hit, they’ll give Giavotella another shot, and if they don’t because he’s not hitting or because he’s traded, they’ll give playing time to Falu, or Miguel Tejada, or Christian Colon. Regardless, it will be hard for them to get a worse performance from second base than they did in 2012. Even if it looks like they’re going to try.

#8: James Shields

I’ve explored every angle of Shields already, so there’s not much more to say. If he’s healthy he’ll be valuable. How valuable he is comes down to 1) whether he can avoid the extremely poor results on BABIP that he had in 2010 and 2) whether his significant home/road splits throughout his career in Tampa Bay are exaggerated.

He has a 3.89 career ERA, and I think expecting 200 innings and an ERA around 3.9 is realistic. That makes him a valuable pitcher, and probably the best one on the Royals. It doesn’t make him an ace, or a game-changer, or worth a top-five prospect in all of baseball. If he can get that ERA down to 3.15, his mark over the last two years, then we’re talking.

#7: Mike Moustakas

There’s a limit to how valuable you can be when you play a corner position and have an OBP south of .300. To his credit, Moustakas approached that limit, contributing in other ways – 34 doubles, 20 homers, and stellar defense which may have been the most shocking (in a good way) development of the season.

There’s almost certain to be some improvement going forward. Moustakas is just 24 – he turns 25 in September – and the vast majority of players who establish themselves as an everyday player in the majors by the time they’re 23 will improve over the next 3-4 years. How much improvement is the question. Moustakas was worth nearly 3 bWAR last year because of his defense, but between the fact that he’s never fielded that well before, and the fact that defensive skills erode earlier than offensive ones, we have to assume he won’t be quite that good with the glove going forward.

There is also the matter of a knee injury last season, which he quietly played through even though he hit just .201/.262/.316 from August 10th on. Prior to that point, he was hitting .260/.312/.455. His perseverance is admirable, but the fact is that you’re probably not helping your team much when you hit .201, even if you are playing great defense. If the Royals could get a .260/.312/.455 line from Moustakas over the entire season this year, they’d take that, with a hope of further improvement to come.

For all the attention Eric Hosmer gets as the key to the Royals’ future, it’s quite possible that Moustakas will have the better career owing to his position and defense. And while neither one is likely to sign a long-term deal that buys out free agency years, owing to the fact that Scott Boras is their agent, I’d place Moustakas’ odds of such a deal at “slim”, not “none”. He already turned down Boras’ advice once, agreeing to the Royals’ $4 million offer out of the draft at the last moment. He’s not giving the Royals the Salvador Perez treatment, but I wouldn’t be shocked if the Royals were able to buy out one year and get him signed through 2018 by next winter. I’m sure they’d like to, as otherwise they’re looking at the specter of losing both Moustakas and Hosmer in the same off-season.

#6: Lorenzo Cain

I feel like Cain is talked about less than anyone else in the lineup, even the second base mess. It’s understandable given that he couldn’t stay healthy last year; once you get that injury-prone label it’s hard to break. On the other hand, Cain played a full season in Omaha in 2011, and played 127 games at three different levels in 2010. Since turning pro, the only other season he didn’t play at least 125 games (remember, minor league seasons run only 140 games) was 2009. Hopefully, last year was a fluke.

It’s also worth remembering that in 110 career games in the majors, Cain has hit .281/.327/.412. He has some pop (21 doubles, 8 homers) and a lot of speed (17-for-18 in steal attempts). He has a very good defensive reputation, and the numbers suggest that “very good” is an understatement: he’s been worth 19 runs above average in basically two-thirds of a full season.

Put it this way: you know how much I/we rave about Salvador Perez? How the mind boggles at the fact that in 115 career games, Perez has been worth 4.2 bWAR, which is practically an MVP-caliber pace? Well, in 110 career games, Cain has been worth 4.0 bWAR.

No, I don’t think that’s sustainable, because I don’t think his defensive numbers are sustainable. But be honest: you didn’t know he had been that effective in his career. I sure didn’t, and I get not paid to know this stuff.

Cain turns 27 next month – the most common age for a career year. If he stays healthy, that Torii Hunter vibe he gives off at the plate may reflect itself on the stat sheet as well. If you’re looking for a reason to believe that the conventional wisdom on the 2013 Royals is wrong, look no further than a breakout season from The Painkiller.