FanPost

AHHHHHH Breakout!

Last years’ performance by Alex Gordon was in some ways shocking and in others completely expected. Gordon was a stud in college, the minor league player of the year, and then quickly became something of an enigma due to struggles/injuries. In 2011 he finally put together the type of stats people, especially us Royals fans, were expecting. Now the big question is if he will continue that success in 2012 and beyond, or if last year was a fluke.

Last years’ performance by Alex Gordon was in some ways shocking and in others completely expected. Gordon was a stud in college, the minor league player of the year, and then quickly became something of an enigma due to struggles/injuries. In 2011 he finally put together the type of stats people, especially us Royals fans, were expecting. Now the big question is if he will continue that success in 2012 and beyond, or if last year was a fluke.

In looking at this question I started by going to baseballreference.com and pulling all position players in the expansion era (1961 and on) who were between the ages of 23 and 29, played in at least 50 games, and had an OPS+ north of 50. This gave me almost 9000 player years. My goal was to find players who had breakout years in their mid to late 20s (24-29), and I focused on hitting since Alex does not play a premium defensive position as long as he stays in left field. Gordon’s OPS+ went up by almost 61% from 2010 to 2011, so I searched all the data for instances where someone improved their OPS+ by 50% or more in one year. That narrowed the list down to 289 players and 1450 player years. From there I further reduced to try and get rid of improvements that were not akin to Gordon’s. There were five main reasons why I chose to eliminate someone at this point:

<!--[if !supportLists]-->1. <!--[endif]-->They had already had a very good hitting season prior to their big OPS+ jump, which actually subdivides into two sub-groups. Some of these players had big improvements after a down year (Justin Morneau for an example), or they went from good to great (Carl Yastrzemski went from 119 to 193 in 1967).

<!--[if !supportLists]-->2. <!--[endif]-->The breakout occurred in the player’s first couple of years as a major leaguer (Bernard Gilkey, Bobby Abreu). Gordon is in his 5th season although a couple of those years were not full seasons. Some of the people cut or included by this criterion were fairly subjective when dealing with partial seasons.

<!--[if !supportLists]-->3. <!--[endif]-->The breakout year had to have an OPS+ greater than 120. Gordon’s was 140 and I only wanted people putting up significantly above average years.

<!--[if !supportLists]-->4. <!--[endif]-->A breakout in 2011 meant I had no data after the breakout, so these were eliminated. They included Gordon, Jacoby Ellsbury, Peter Borjous, and Pablo Sandoval. Ellsbury, Borjous, and Sandoval would have been eliminated anyway due to rules 2, 3, and 1 respectively.

<!--[if !supportLists]-->5. <!--[endif]-->Other – Mostly part-time players, but also a few oddities like the two different Brian Giles creating a false positive.

In the end only 37 players were left, and even some of them are borderline. This shows just how odd Alex Gordon’s trajectory has been. My hope was that there would be enough to run some regressions to give a baseline for what to expect out of Alex next year. I tried this, but with such a small sample size there was no significance in any of my right hand side variables (breakout OPS+, BABIP in breakout year, age, year, pedigree) when using OPS+ in the year after as the dependent variable. That means that what I can tell you is going to be mostly anecdotal, but maybe we can learn something from looking at these 37 players. Here are the names:

Adrian Beltre

Al Weis

Angel Pagan

Bill Freehan

Bob Oliver

Brian Roberts

Carlos Beltran

Cleon Jones

Derrek Lee

Ed Kirkpatrick

Ellie Rodriguez

Elliott Maddox

Eric Karros

Gorman Thomas

Hal McRae

J.T. Snow

Jason Bartlett

Jay Johnstone

Joe Christopher

John Bateman

John Jaha

Jose Bautista

Jose Guillen

Ken Henderson

Kirby Puckett

Matty Alou

Mike Davis

Mike Jorgensen

Mike Shannon

Pete Rose

Phil Nevin

Rance Mulliniks

Rich Aurilia

Rico Petrocelli

Robin Yount

Roy Smalley

Ryne Sandberg

The names here are quite the mixed bag. Hall of famers such as Sandberg, Yount, Rose, and Puckett show that Gordon could still be a very good player for years to come. The problem is that a couple of these guys, Puckett and Rose, pretty much had all of their struggles in their first two full seasons and then became the fantastic players we remember, so they almost didn’t make the list (granted there are some like Brooks Robinson who fell just on the other side of the cut too). It was also nice to see some good former Royals like Beltran and McRae, and of course any time you have an Alou show up during anything baseball related I take it as a good omen. Joey Bats probably deserves a mention too, but I will discuss him more later. There are also names that frighten me. I’m looking at you Jose Guillen and Rich Aurilia. More of the names would be scary if I was familiar with them, but I don’t remember much prior to the 90s. From here I will do three analyses. First I will look at how these players did in the year after their breakout, then I will discuss their long-term success, and finally I will discuss those with track records prior to breakout that most resemble Alex.

THE YEAR AFTER:

On average the change in OPS+ of the year following breakout was -19.4 points, and the range of outcomes went from -70 to +17. Also, only six of the 37 players had a better year the next year. Almost as many (5) fell far enough to be below average the year after breaking out. This means that there is a lot better chance that Gordon takes a step back this year than a step forward, and that the downside movement tends to be more severe, while any gains tend to be minimal. If this does happen to Gordon don’t worry too much, all of the HOFers on the list took a step back too. Really there does not seem to be any rhyme or reason to the next year’s performance beyond the fact that almost everyone goes backward, but most remain above average hitters, which should at least be some comfort if you want Gordon to do well in the future.

LONG TERM SUCCESS

First the good news Alex Gordon fans, most of these players went on to have long and at least semi-productive careers. The average tenure in the big leagues post-breakout is about 7.5 years, and that is slightly low since a handful of the guys are still playing. Also, 89.2% of the sample was an above average hitter at least one of those years and 75.7% had two or more above average years after their breakout. Almost half were above average hitters 5 or more times over the rest of their career. Even better, a little over 40% managed an OPS+ greater than 140 at some point after their breakout season. The bad news is that almost 30% of the players never did much of anything again, and some completely disappeared within a couple of years. I looked at all of those I marked as pedigreed (first round picks like Alex) and the worst of the "big" prospects in this case played 6 more years with half of them being above average. If that is the basement for Gordon going forward, especially with some of the ceilings available, then sign me up. There is a good chance Alex will be playing for a long time to come and being productive. Just how productive though?

MOST LIKE ALEX

Jose Bautista-

Actually he isn’t as close of a comp as the next three, but I thought he deserved his own section. Joey Bats came up and floundered around in the majors for six years with a few 90ish OPS+ years that showed some ability, and then bam! In 2010 he exploded for an OPS+ of 164 and even more awesome, his BABIP that season was .233, yeah that’s right, he was very UNLUCKY in his breakout season, and just to prove it his next year was even better. Okay, he isn’t the best matchup for Gordon, let’s move to the three that really seem to fit.

JT Snow-

Snow had a cup of coffee at 24 followed by OPS+es of 95, 63, 112, and 81 before his breakout (135). This is very similar to Gordon’s three mediocre and one slightly above average seasons before finally putting it together. Snow went on to 11 more seasons, seven of which he was an above average hitter, and he had one more really big season late in his career where his OPS+ was 146.

Eric Karros-

The fact that Eric Karros and JT Snow had similar career arcs seems fitting to me based on collecting their baseball cards as they broke into the league. Karros had a similar career after as well with nine more seasons, seven above average, but his peak season after the breakout was an OPS+ of 132.

Robin Yount-

Finally, the guy that makes my Royal homerism hope that maybe Alex is going to turn into the true stud we all were expecting. Yount’s breakout for our purposes has been defined as his 24 year-old season, which is younger than Gordon because of Alex going to college. Still, Yount debuted at 18 so he spent a lot of time in the majors prior to that season and struggled through it all (albeit at shortstop). More important is that he had another breakout a couple years later at 26 and was pretty much awesome from then on. He was consistently above average and had a couple of times where he jumped up to an OPS+ above 150. I am putting him here as the Gordon ceiling. There is still hope that Gordon has a run of around 10 years where he is a very good baseball player with HOF potential. It isn’t likely, but it isn’t impossible either.

CONCLUSION

After looking at all of the mid-to-late 20 breakouts over the past 40 years it looks like those who breakout in a similar manner to Alex Gordon tend to be useful players for at least half a decade after the fact, and it is even more likely if they were high draft picks like Alex. If he ends up being like Karros and Snow, the two most similar career arcs in my opinion, then the Royals will have a solid major league player for the next five to ten years with another year or two were he could be All-Star caliber, but not a perennial stud. If the talent that everyone saw in Gordon when he was drafted manifests though, then we might be talking about a solid decade of very good to great seasons that could make everyone forget about his early struggles. The chances of that happening are very low, but not out of the question.

This FanPost was written by a member of the Royals Review community. It does not necessarily reflect the views of the editors and writers of this site.

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