Sunday, August 24, 2014

Stretch Run.

The Royals have just completed a 30-game stretch unlike any they have played in over 30 years. Less than five weeks ago, the Royals were 48-50, having responded to Ned Yost’s prediction that they were “a second-half team” by losing their first four games after the All-Star Break. They were in third place in the AL Central. They were eight games behind the Tigers.

Before losing this afternoon they were 72-56, the farthest above .500 they’ve been since a single day in 1994, the final game of their 14-game winning streak that year. They made up an unbelievable 11 games on the Tigers in 33 days, and even after today’s misstep they lead the division by two games. They’re just 1.5 games behind the Orioles for the #2 seed. All this thanks to the franchise’s first 24-6 stretch since August 27th, 1980. To give you some perspective, George Brett went 1-for-3 that day to drop his average to .406.

(This was the day after his legendary 5-for-5 day that got his average back over .400. It would stay over .400 until September 4th, and got back to .400 one last time on September 19th. And remember, Brett was hitting .247 on May 21st.  From May 22nd to September 19th, Brett hit – this is not a misprint – .445 over a 77-game stretch. Narrow that down a little from May 27th to August 30th – a 63-game stretch – and Brett hit .469. Other players have had better years, but I’m not sure anyone has ever quite so good for quite so long as Brett was that summer.)

I remember 1994, and the dizzying winning streak out of nowhere (Bob Hamelin’s walk-off homer in this game is one of my most indelible memories as a Royals fan.) I do not remember 1980, which is not surprising given that I turned five years old that summer, although I have no doubt that season had a huge impact on me becoming a fan of the team.

The point is, I have literally no memory of the Royals playing this well for this long, and if you’re under the age of 40, neither have you. It may be a long, long time before we see it again. Put it this way: if the Royals just win six of their next nine games, they will have accomplished Dayton Moore’s goal of “winning 15 out of 20” back-to-back. So yes, I’m questioning everything I thought I knew about this team, about Dayton Moore, about Ned Yost, about the James Shields trade (notice I’m not calling it the Wil Myers trade). Everything.

If you didn’t get the memo, the New York Times kindly asked me if they could run an abridged version of my article on Sung Woo Lee, and I was more than happy to oblige. Also, I covered the Royals for Grantland last week, and tried my best to explain how they’ve turned things around without resorting to Supernatural Koreans or #RoyalsDevilMagic. (Also, for a more detailed rundown of the Season of Sung Woo, here’s a great summary.)

Frankly, the only thing that hasn’t been perfect about this last month is that I haven’t had nearly enough time to write about it. I intend to make amends for that going forward. If this is the last season of Rany on the Royals, I want to go out with a bang, not a whimper, and the Royals are doing their damndest to accommodate me. And, yes, make me look like an imbecile at the same time, but you can’t have the former without the latter.

- With the Royals suddenly everywhere – on the cover of Sports Illustrated last week, hosting their first ESPN Sunday Night baseball game since 1996 next week – the baseball world has just as suddenly woken up to the fact that, hey, Alex Gordon is pretty good.

The Royals ascension to first place has coincided with Gordon briefly leading the major leagues in Wins Above Replacement according to Fangraphs. This has sparked a lot of discussion, some from critics of WAR who thinks it’s ridiculous that Alex Gordon is the Most Valuable Player in baseball, even though no serious analyst (at least none that I’ve seen) is actually arguing that Gordon should win the MVP award.

For one thing, Fangraphs’ version of WAR is just one version – fWAR – and the other version, as calculated by Baseball Reference (bWAR), doesn’t have Gordon ranked nearly so highly. (Gordon is ranked 5th among AL position players, and 8th when you include pitchers.) The difference mainly stems from how much value you place on Gordon’s defense. Baseball Reference has him as “just” the best defensive outfielder in the American League; Fangraphs has him as far better than that.

I think, given the relative lack of reliability of defensive stats, that Baseball Reference’s conclusion is more reasonable. It’s hard for any left fielder to be worth more than 20 runs above average with a month left to play, especially since word has finally gotten around baseball that YOU DO NOT RUN ON ALEX GORDON. Gordon got just his seventh baserunner kill of the year this afternoon, after having at least 17 assists in each of the last three years, becoming the first left fielder in at least 60 years (as far back as we have defensive data broken down by position) to kill 17 baserunners or more in three consecutive seasons.

On the other hand, it’s not like Gordon’s defensive numbers this year are an enormous outlier. He’s won three Gold Gloves in a row on merit. He was a third baseman until he was 26 years old, and he’s making a case for being one of the best defensive left fielders of his generation. That’s insane.

But that’s Alex Gordon, whose dedication to his craft – his legendary diet, his workout routine, his work ethic – makes me proud just to have watched him all these years. Four years ago he was considered a bust by a wide swath of both fans and industry types; I went against the grain when I wrote here that Gordon still had a chance to live up to expectations, and that was three years before he broke out.

I’m not taking credit for that; when you’re optimistic about practically every highly-touted Royals player of the last 25 years, you’re going to be vindicated occasionally just by accident. I thought Gordon would become a very good player, but I figured that he’d eventually hit 30 homers as a slugging third baseman. Instead he’s become a guy who hits 15-20 homers and is the best defensive left fielder in baseball. It’s a credit to him that when he wasn’t able to find success the way he was ordained to, he found a different path to becoming a star.

And now comes word that Gordon, who is only under club control for one more season but has a player option for 2016 at just $12.5 million, intends to play under that option. Make no mistake: if Gordon plays as well next season as he is this season, the bidding for him will start at 5 years and $75 million and go up from there. He’d be walking away from a few million dollars, and taking the risk that at age 32, an off-year might cost him tens of millions more after the season.

Which is why I’m hopeful that Gordon’s comments lead to a different scenario, one in which he and the Royals agree to a long-term contract that replaces his player option. That may happen this winter; while the track record of players signed to extensions two years before free agency (think Justin Verlander, or Ryan Howard) is pretty crappy, when you’re signing a guy just one year before he can walk away, the risk/reward ratio is pretty balanced.

And I think the risk with Gordon is a lot less than with Verlander or Howard, because he’s not a pitcher, and he’s a fantastic athlete who takes phenomenal care of his body. He doesn’t strike me as the kind of hitter who will fall apart at age 32, but the kind of player who will have a long, graceful decline into his late 30s. Think of Carlos Beltran, who lost foot speed and bat speed but had the athleticism to change his approach as he got older, drawing more walks and hitting for more power. I wouldn’t blink an eye about committing a five-year contract to Gordon after this season that would keep him in a Royals uniform through 2019.

The irony is that in this sabermetric age, Gordon’s hidden value is not so hidden anymore, and even with a hometown discount it remains to be seen whether the Royals are willing to pay $15 million a year to keep him. Twenty years ago, Kevin Appier was the most underrated pitcher in baseball, but that very underratedness allowed the cash-strapped Royals to re-sign him to a four-year extension after the 1995 season for far less than he was truly worth. In another era, Alex Gordon might be the most underrated player in baseball. But not in this era. And not with the Royals in first place.

I don’t want to take too much focus away from what the Royals are doing in the here and now. But Gordon is the heart and soul of this franchise, their best player and their role model. It’s not a coincidence that the Royals are playing their best baseball in 34 years while Gordon is on a tear at the plate, hitting .327/.384/.549 from July 21st through yesterday. Everything about this past month feels like a dream, so why not dream about Gordon being paired with Salvador Perez under contract for the rest of the decade; about him finishing his career with Kansas City; even about 4 being retired under the scoreboard along with 5, 10, 20, and 42?

Nearly a decade ago, in the pages of Baseball Prospectus 2007, I wrote, “He`s a lifelong Royals fan whose brother was named after George Brett, so this could be the start of a beautiful relationship.” I could only hope it would be this beautiful, or last this long. In a season that feels like a fairytale, I’m still rooting for the fairytale ending.

- More to come; I’ve got literally thousands of words bubbling to the surface, but like the Royals, I need to pace myself and finish strong.


Unknown said...

Loving this! I just hope Ned doesn't have PTSD in September from his last playoff run in Milwaukee...If Gordo would take a 5/75 contract, I wouldn't hesitate one bit in doing it. His skill set will age well. What he will lose in speed, he will make up in power, and his defense will be plus until he is in his late 30s. Just my humble opinion. Rany, don't abandon us after this year - it's just starting to get fun again!

KHAZAD said...

Appier is STILL the most underrated pitcher in Royal's history.

GregN said...

White Sox fan here, but pulling for the Royals big time.
Couldn't be happier for y'all!

Unknown said...

Maybe too technical a question, but:
how do DRS and UZR (the differing defensive metrics used in b and fWAR) assign value to a baserunner NOT trying to take the extra base on a ball hit to left field? Having a runner not attempt to go first to third or second to home isn't as valuable as throwing him out certainly. But it is valuable nonetheless, and I wonder if one system attributes that more to the fielder than the other does.

dman said...

I coughed out some coffee reading you were also at that game in 1994. What an unbelievable game that was. How down everyone was after the White Sox got up one in the top and then the hammer's HR. That is hilarious.

Matt E said...

A hopeful comp would be Torii Hunter, correct? Great athleticism, above-average power. Hunter had 21.8 combined oWAR for age 32-37 seasons.

KHAZAD said...

I share your hope that the Royals would sign Gordon to an extension before his decision about the 2016 season come up.

It is nice to hear him say that he intends to exercise the 2016 player option, but it doesn't mean anything. It is not a contract or anything for him to say it now in an interview, it is just good PR.

Drew Milner said...

David Hecht, exactly what I was thinking.

Unknown said...

5/75? No way. I wouldn't be surprised to see Gordon get 5/110.

Choo got 7/130 and Ellsbury got 7/153. 5/75 is what BJ Upton got 2 years ago. I can honestly see Gordon getting even more than that 5/110 I posted above, especially if it's the Yankees versus the Red Sox bidding on him.