Take a step back in time with me. It’s January 6th, 2016. The Royals are fresh off back-to-back World Series appearances and, more importantly, still flying high after a Plaza Parade celebrating their first World Championship in 30 years. I don’t know about you, but that seems so far away now it’s hard to fathom. There, we will find the signing of one Alex Gordon to his current contract.
Reactions were pretty one-sided here at RR. In short, it was loved.
The deal, a 4-year, $72 million dollar pact, was widely praised. Overall, it seemed like the Royals got a good player at a below-market rate, but more importantly a home-town hero was staying. Euphoria was high, it felt like the Royals may be destined for glory with the band essentially back together for 2016.
But you know what they say. The best laid plans of mice and men...
Alex Gordon has been bad since this signing. Not just bad, but in some instances historically bad. In 2015, the contract year for Gordon, he posted 2.7 fWAR in 104 games. In the three years leading up to that, he was worth an average of 5.3 fWAR each season. Gordon was the premium defensive player in baseball, winning multiple Gold Gloves and the Platinum Glove in 2014 (award for best defensive player in the league), and carried a career .269/.348/.435 triple slash going into the contract.
The price for wins on the free agent market has varied year-to-year, but has largely stalled in the past handful of season. Because of that, we can pretty easily assign about $8 million per win as the “market value” over the duration of Gordon’s contract (it may have been slightly less for the first season or two, but these numbers aren’t an exact science at the best of times). With that in mind, the math is actually pretty simple. $72 million divided by $8 million is 9. Going into the 2016 season, Alex Gordon would need to post 9 wins over the course of the coming 4 seasons to “earn” the contract.
So, how has he done? (using fangraphs WAR)
2019: 1.1 (and counting)
Coming into this season, Gordon has posted 2.2 fWAR over the first three seasons combined. This is... bad. People consider an “average” major league player to be a 2-win player per season, and over 3 seasons Gordon has just barely managed to be worth over one “average” player season.
There is some light at the end of the tunnel. Gordon is off to a very hot start at the plate, and his defense, while seemingly having regressed somewhat, is still showing positive value so far.
His peak year was 2011, where he posted a .303/.376/.502 slash line and was worth 6.6 fWAR. He is currently hitting .390/.491/.732 in 12 games. Of course, there is no way he will keep up this kind of production over the course of the season. But there is reason to hope that he is back, at least somewhat.
Gordon's batted ball percentages are roughly in line with his career norms, 32.4% hard hit (compared to 32.1% career) and 52.9% medium hit (compared to 50.9% career). His home-run to fly-ball ratio is somewhat inflated (16.7% compared to a 10.6% career), but isn’t crazy (he posted a 15% HR/FB rate in 2016, 13% in 2015).
The one thing that has stood out to me, in this very limited sample size, is his batted ball location.
For his career, Alex Gordon has pulled 42% of balls in play, while hitting just 24.7% of balls in play to the opposite field. This year, again, in a very limited sample size, he has still pulled balls at roughly a career normal rate (44.7%), but has hit 31.6% of the balls in play to the opposite field. It appears, and again this is EXTREMELY EARLY, that Gordon has figured out how to hit the ball to the opposite field more consistently.
So what does this mean for this season, and his contract as a whole? Well, first of all, his contract will, in the end, be a net loss for the Royals. There is just no way Alex will post the 6.8 fWAR this season he needs to make his contract break even (for reference, only 6 position players posted 6.8 fWAR or more last season). But I will say that it is not unreasonable to hope that he will be worth what he is paid this season. At $20 million, he would need to be worth 2.5 fWAR this season to break-even. If you wanted to include the $4 million buy-out for next year, he would need to post 3 fWAR to pay for it, and seeing what he has done in the first 11 games, barring injury, I think there is a somewhat decent chance he will be worth something along these lines.
I would be remiss if I did not point out that Gordon was hit with an injury in May of 2016 when he collided with Moustakas chasing a fly-ball. He broke his scaphoid bone in his right hand and has not been the same hitter since. I recall hearing on the radio (I cannot find a reference to this, though I have searched long for it, so take this with a grain of salt as anecdotal only) a doctor saying that this particular bone injury was known to sap hitters of their power. These kinds of injuries happen, but are difficult to factor in when signing players to long term contracts, but it did happen and needed to be stated.
As it stands now, it’s still way too early to tell what Gordon will really do this season. He will have to approve any trade as a 5/10 player, and with his contract it’s unlikely (barring continued all-star level production at the plate) that anyone would want to trade for him anyways.
I, in my heart of hearts, hope he has a wonderfully productive swan-song season and retires on a high note, having played his entire career with Kansas City.