Tuesday, March 10, 2009

Why Alex Gordon will be Mr. Royal in 2009..

Well, with no game today there's little Royals news.  I'm fine with this because I have all the more opportunity to delve into a mini-series I'll be doing called the "Breakout candidate of the year".  I'll do a candidate for the infielders, one for the outfielders and one each for the starters and relievers as well.

Today I'll start off with my breakout candidate amongst the infielders, none other than Alex Gordon.  

The pressure put upon Alex Gordon from the moment the average fan started researching the 2005 draft is well documented.  Not only is Alex from a city less than 3 hours away from Kansas City, you needn't look any further than Alex's younger brother, Brett, named of course after George Brett, to understand how his whole life has been centered around the Royals.  In the same way that Derek Jeter is "Mr. Yankee", Alex Gordon is "Mr. Royal".

Let's step back for a minute and take a look at Alex Gordon's career path.  In 2005, Alex was a junior at the University of Nebraska.  Alex had his best success during his Junior season, posting a ridiculous .372/.518/.715 line with 19 home runs in 273 at bats.  Alex did 38 times but also walked 63 times.  He also was hit by a pitch 16 times, for his third straight season in double digits.  I think all of these numbers are important.  The sheer fact that Alex, very well knowing he was competing for a top 5 draft pick, let himself get hit by a pitch 16 times is very representative of his playing style.  Alex isn't flashy, he doesn't wear his heart on his sleeve, he just goes out and does his job.

After his junior year, Alex was taken 2nd overall by the Kansas City Royals.  Alex was selected behind Justin Upton, who was taken by the Arizona Diamondbacks.  It's important to remember, however, that the 2005 draft was the year of the 3rd baseman, as 3 college 3rd baseman were selected in the first 5 picks of the draft.  Selected 4th overall by the newly named and relocated Washington Nationals was Ryan Zimmerman out of the University of Virgina.  And selected directly after Zimmerman was 3B Ryan Braun out of the University of Miami (FL.).  I find it interesting that the Nationals also selected a "home town" player.  I'm not sure if it was by choice or if they simply believed they were taking the best player overall, but I think it's important to remember.

Well, to do a career comparison of these three players right now might be a bit unfair, but it's worth noting that Gordon is easily the least accomplished of the three.  Sure, Zimmerman has had a bit of injury problems (so has Gordon), and Ryan Braun has moved off of third base and into the outfield for defensive concerns, but let's be honest, wouldn't having Braun in LF and Teahen at 3B be better than Gordon at 3B and Teahen on the bench?  I'd like to think so.  

Braun has won the NL ROY award, a Silver Slugger award, has participated in a Home Run Derby, and has been an starter in an All Star game.  Zimmerman has finished 2nd in the ROY voting.

Okay, well the past is the past, and hindsight is 20/20.  But we have Alex Gordon, and I think that isn't all that bad.  For one thing, having a home town kid with a great story has increased interest in the Royals.  Buuuut, having a player hit 71 home runs in his first 2 seasons would probably increase interest (and winning) a lot more.  Anyway, we have Alex Gordon so let's go with that.  Let's look at how he was developed.  Alex skipped all minor league levels and went straight to AA. (Brilliant!).  Alex did play the whole season in AA in 2006, which is important, in my opinion.  In 130 games Alex posted a .325/.427/.588 line with 101 RBI and 29 home runs, clearly dominating his league (although still not slugging .600).  Alex clearly proved that he was ready for AAA.  However, in 2007, Alex was awarded the starting 3B job for the Royals out of Spring Training.  Big mistake.

Not only did giving Alex the 3B job in 2007 cause Mark Teahen to move to the OF, it also severely hampered Alex's development.  The sad thing was that the exact same rushing process had happened to Mark Teahen just 2 years earlier.  Mark was all set to spend a whole season in AAA finishing his development in 2005 when Chris Truby (who?) broke his hand in Spring Training, all but dooming Mark to being mis-developed.

See, I think development is very important to a player's career.  It is important for him to fail and succeed at each level in order to learn what he must do to succeed at the highest level.  If you take a player with gobs of talent but a whole in his swing and thrust him from one great year in AA to the Majors when he is fresh out of college where he was named the best college player in the land, you are all but condemning him to failure.

There is a certain clause in this contract, however.  If that player has so much talent then he might be able to fight through the failure and thrive in the majors for a long time.  Mark Teahen was able to fight through his early failures and have one good half season, and two very average/below average seasons after that.  Alex Gordon, however, still has a chance at stardom.

Let's take a look at where we are so far.  Alex Gordon was voted the best college player in 2005.  He was selected before the two Ryans, and after success at AA in his first season of pro ball he was rushed to the big leagues despite: A. not having seen one pitch at the AAA level, B. having an incumbent 3rd baseman who was coming off a season in which he was one of the better AL hitters in the 2nd half and C. having rushed the previously mentioned incumbent just 2 years earlier to his detriment.  

So here it is, Opening Day 2007 and the bases are loaded, no outs.  Curt Schilling and his splitter are on the mound and Alex Gordon walks up to bat amidst a standing ovation.  Alex fights off some pitches and works a full count.  He fouls off some nasty pitches and then.. strikes out swinging.  As he saunters back to the dugout the whole crowd feels a little more than a little disappointed, a feeling they were trying to get rid of, being fans of the worst franchise in baseball for the last 15 years or so and everything.

This is always going to be a memorable moment for Royals fans in Mr. Royal's career, however, it doesn't have to be the most important one.  Would Alex Gordon's career to this point be different if he had hit a first pitch home run in that at bat instead of striking out?  Maybe, but probably not.  Alex still was rushed to the big leagues and still needed time to develop.  

2007 was a year that saw Alex hit very poorly out of the gate, and right before he was getting ready to get sent down to AAA, he turned it on.  

Alex hit just .173 in April and .195 in May, but he turned it around to post a .327/.383/.500 line in June.  Something interesting about these averages is the BABIP that go along with them.  In April, for instance, Alex had just a .240 BABIP, very low.  In May it was just .239.  But in June and August, his two best months that year, Alex had a BABIP of .372 and .338, respectively.  Just something to keep in mind.

Alex finished his rookie campaign with a line of .247/.314/.411, including an OPS+ of 87.  Not bad for a defensive whiz SS, but unacceptable for a top of the draft, power hitting 3B.  The one saving grace of Alex's rookie year was that he was by all accounts, very above average defensively.

In 2008, Alex was better, as most would have expected and hoped.  In the first half of the season Alex hit .253/.334/.407, not great, but very much better than his rookie year (except for slugging, of course).  However, in the second half of the season Alex went on a tear, hitting .277/.392/.496 in 41 games.  Sure, he went down with injury in the middle of his hot streak, but I think that 41 games and 167 plate appearances are enough to have at least a little bit of hope.  The most encouraging thing about Alex's hot streak is that it probably is not his peak performance.  I don't think anyone would be completely surprised if Alex posted a .280/.415/.575 line at some point in his career.  Those are numbers that far exceed how he performed in the second half of last season.  

The point is, Alex, unlike Mark Teahen, is always going to have a chance for stardom.  Alex and Mark do have a lot of things in common, they are similar defensively at 3b, they both like to take walks and are prone to striking out, but they also have one big difference, and that is their hitting style.  Mark Teahen's at his best when he is driving pitches that are out over the plate the other way.  Alex Gordon has a problem with getting to pitches that are out over the plate very often.  Alex Gordon is at his best when he is pulling pitches that are inside and driving pitches the other way when they are out over the plate.  Neither Gordon or Teahen will probably ever hit for a high average, as they both have giant holes in their swings (Gordon's is out over the plate and down, Teahen's is in and down).  But if at some point either of them can learn to cover the plate better I think they both could succeed.

Sorry, I didn't mean to turn this into a story about Mark Teahen, we're talking Alex Gordon, Mr. Royal.  No offense, George Brett.  

As a synopsis, this is why I think Alex Gordon will have a breakout season in 2009:

He was clearly rushed from the moment he was drafted, both in the minors and to the big leagues.

He has the skill set (power, walks, defense) that enable him to be a superstar.

He has a good background and the drive to succeed for this franchise (something VERY few players have).

All of us Royals fans REALLY REALLY want him to do well!

The moral of the story is that this is not a make or break year for Alex Gordon, the Royals have too much invested in him and he has improved from his first year to his second.  However, I do think that a step forward is much more likely than a step back at this point, and if Alex can focus on doing well each at bat, the sky's the limit for him.

Thanks for reading.

Editor's Note:

The Dutch team just knocked the DR out of the WBC.. Nice.

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