In Alex Gordon’s first outfield start in 2010, the year that he was cast off to the minor leagues and undergo a metamorphosis from disappointing third baseman to hopefully not disappointing corner outfielder, he made an error on a catchable ball in his very first opportunity to make a play in the outfield. Gordon started in right field that day, July 23, and went 0-4 in what was a profoundly disappointing gut punch of a start to his new outfield career.
Of course, the amazing thing about this particular blunder is that nobody remembers it. Gordon went on to dominate in 2011, calling his shot Babe Ruth-style, and from 2011 to 2014 was one of the top ten position players in baseball by Fangraphs’ version of Wins Above Replacement.
If you’ve got one memory of Gordon, it’s probably of the unbearably terrifying excitement of his ‘triple’ in Game Seven of the 2014 World Series, or of Gordon’s emphatic game-tying homer in the bottom of the ninth in Game One of the 2015 World Series, or the time he became one with the Chicago White Sox bleachers in such an astounding catch that he broke SportsCenter’s top plays.
That last part is important—Gordon became known as the premier left fielder in baseball, and he has four Gold Gloves to prove it (it should have been five, but ‘Yoenis Cespedes: Gold Glove Winner’ was too big a joke for Rawlings to pass up).
Gordon has played 7,912.2 regular season innings in left field (plus another 31 playoff games’ worth of innings) and only 25 innings in right field. Taking another step to some slightly more complicated math, Gordon has played 316 times as much left field as right field, which is coincidentally the same ratio of John Buck mentioning Madison Bumgarner in his broadcasts compared with the next closest human mentioned.
Gordon has played equal parts left and right field this spring, and even some center field. It turns out, according to MLB.com beat writer Jeffrey Flanagan, that the split is there for a reason:
Alex Gordon said he fully expects to split time between left field and right field this season, depending on stadiums and matchups.— Jeffrey Flanagan (@FlannyMLB) March 29, 2017
My reaction to this, as always, is epitomized by Smeagol:
Or, in words: fantastic, but still a little bizarre.
Since 2010, when Gordon played his first nascent innings in the outfield, Gordon has been one of the best outfielders in all of baseball. Defensive statistics are tricky, but the two most well-respected ones do a pretty good job of measuring it. They are Ultimate Zone Rating (UZR) and Defensive Runs Saved (DRS). Both are measured in runs above or below league average, which is zero. By both UZR and DRS, Gordon has provided the second most defensive value in all of baseball over that time.
Below is the list of the best defensive outfielders in baseball since 2010 who have played at least 1000 innings. DRS and UZR value things differently, so I have the 'composite' column, which is the average of the two (more data is always better than less, after all). The final column is the most helpful: it standardizes the composite defensive values per 1000 innings. Italicized names are former or current Royals.
|Scott Van Slyke||1374||20||15.4||17.7||12.9|
Gordon ranks 20th in this list, but you'll see that Gordon has far and away more innings than anybody else on the lis t not named Jason Heyward. In fact, the next best player who has at least as many innings as Gordon is Jay Bruce, who ranks 91st.*
*Who is dead last on the full list of 224 players, by the way? The answer: Lucas Duda, a whole 23 runs worse than league average per 1000 innings. Raul Ibanez ranks 213th.
But there’s one more component to Gordon’s excellence, and that is his propensity for gunning down runners at the plate. UZR actually constitutes of three components, one of which is the hilariously named ARM (not to be confused with the upcoming Nintendo Switch, ARMS). From the Fangraphs glossary:
ARM (outfield arm runs): Outfielders get credit (plus or minus) depending on what the runners do on a hit or a fly ball out. A runner can stay put, advance, or get thrown out. A fielder will get credit not only if he throws out more than his share of runners, but also if he keeps more than his share of runners from advancing extra bases.
DRS also uses components in its defensive score, and one of them also measures the value of the arm:
rARM – Outfield Arms Runs Saved evaluates an outfielder’s throwing arm based on how often runner advance on base hits and are thrown out trying to take extra bases.
Gordon's arm is what turns him from very good into elite. The following is a similar table as the one above; composite is the average of rARM and ARM, and the final column normalizes that composite to 1000 innings:
This time, Gordon's arm has provided the most raw value out of any outfielder in baseball over the past seven seasons.
Here's the deal about arm strength, though: sometimes you nail a few baserunners trying to take the extra base, and that buoys your ARM rating for an entire year. Gordon has been doing this for seven straight years. Alex Gordon has 72 outfield assists since 2011, eight more than the next closest player. Everybody knows that Gordon will Jason Bourne you out of existence if you try to take another base, but that doesn't stop him from averaging 12 assists per year. Gordon's 20-assist 2011 is tied for the third-highest single season outfield assist total since the 1994 strike. That's elite.
And Gordon's done that all while playing left field! Almost all of the 20+ assist club are right fielders. There's a simple reason for that: right field utilizes a good arm better than left field does.
If you're an outfielder, there are basically only three ways to grab an outfield assist. Those ways are:
- SITUATION ONE - Throwing out a runner trying to stretch a single into a double
- SITUATION TWO - Throwing out a runner trying to go first to third/trying to stretch a double into a triple
- SITUATION THREE - Gunning down a runner at home plate like a boss
And let's have a little visual help here:
Kauffman Stadium is as symmetrical as you get. The uppermost corner of both left field and right field is 330 feet from home plate, and is realistically the furthest you're going to get a throw from an outfielder. If you're a left fielder or right fielder in either situation ONE or THREE, the distance will be the same. In situation THREE, we're obviously looking at a max of 330 feet from corner to plate. In situation ONE, we're looking at a max distance of about 256 feet from corner to second base.
But situation TWO is where things really get interesting. From left field, the max distance is 240 feet. From right field, that max distance jumps all the way to 342 feet, and it is that extra distance where arm strength comes in.
Let's say a ball is caught in left field, oh, 200 feet from the plate on the foul line. A runner on second is not going to tag and go to third base in that instance regardless of the outfielder, because the throw would only be 110 feet--your average throw from third base to first base. But in right field, that same throw is 219 feet, double that of the one in left. Ultimately, all things considered, putting the strong arm in left field is extremely inefficient. Right fielders get more chances to throw runners out based on simple risk:reward ratios that managers and players make all the time, and even if they merely prevent a player from attempting to take third base, that still counts and helps the team.
Will Gordon keep playing left field? Of course. Will more innings in right field be the difference between the playoffs and sitting at home again? Probably not. What it does mean is that Gordon will be used more efficiently this year than he traditionally has, and for this team, every little bit helps.
Plus, you know you want him to throw out a runner at first base. I do! Gordon's sure done everything else.