Can Alex Gordon come close to matching his 2011 campaign?
To paraphrase Michael Corleone, "Just when I thought I was out ... he pulls me back in!"
Alex Gordon has taken fantasy owners on one of the most thrilling roller coaster rides over the last few years, full of enough slow rises and terrifying drops to make a visit to Magic Mountain seem timid by comparison.
In college, Gordon won almost every award there was to win, hitting .372 with 19 home runs and 23 stolen bases as a junior at the University of Nebraska. Kansas City didn't blink when given the chance to take him at No. 2 overall in the 2005 MLB draft.
When he arrived in the majors, Gordon sputtered out of the gate, hitting just .185 in his first two months as a Royal. The rest of the season saw a steady rise in his batting average, as Gordon hit .296 the rest of the way, only to have his 2007 come to a harsh conclusion as he broke his nose on a bad hop grounder on the season's final play.
When it came time to figure out what to do with the young third baseman in fantasy drafts of 2008, I cut Gordon a lot of slack, writing: "It's hard enough breaking into the big leagues at the age of 23. Now try to do it while being compared to a Hall of Famer, playing the same position as the greatest player in the history of your franchise. The same player your parents admired so much, they named your younger brother after him."
Gordon started strong in 2008, hitting .301 for April, but the rest of the campaign was a comedy of errors. Not only did Gordon have the lowest fielding percentage of all qualifying American League third basemen, his batting average steadily dropped, with a .262 May giving way to a .220 for June and July. By late August, his fantasy owners were probably relieved that he had to spend some time on the disabled list with a torn right quad muscle.
The next season was also a disappointing one, as Gordon started 2009 hitting just 2-for-21 before missing two months due to hip surgery resulting from an injury suffered sliding into second base. Expectations headed into 2010 were certainly low on this once "can't miss prospect." So low in fact, I advised people to stay away: "Certainly not every player drafted in the first round becomes a superstar, but clearly enough time has passed for some of the cream to have risen to the top. So far, Gordon remains closer to the bottom of the barrel."
And in fact, things got so bad for Gordon in 2010 that after spending the first two weeks of the season on the disabled list and hitting just .194 in his first 31 at-bats, the Royals optioned him to Triple-A Omaha. When the team decided to give him another shot in late July, Gordon showed a bit more pop at the plate, hitting 14 home runs the rest of the way, but the accompanying .218 batting average left a lot to be desired.
All that prologue brings us to last season's incredible breakout season. Gordon was moved to left field and started 148 games at the position. He did so well in the field, he won his first Gold Glove. Everything seemed to click at the plate as well. Gordon hit .303 on the year with 23 home runs and 17 stolen bases, all career highs.
His stats were so good, he even received votes for MVP on a team that finished 20 games under .500. However, to put Gordon's 2011 in its proper perspective, let's take a look at the history books. Since 1990, only 10 left fielders have posted seasons comparable or better to Gordon's 2011:
So if Gordon ends up being like everyone else on this list not named Barry Bonds or Ryan Braun and never repeats the numbers he posted last season, perhaps we shouldn't be surprised. Maybe, after all this time, we should stop with the George Brett comparisons and switch over to someone a bit more like Amos Otis.
In Otis' fifth full season in the majors, he hit .300 with 26 home runs and 13 steals. That year, he also finished third in MVP voting and won the Gold Glove. Of course, he never again exhibited the same kind of power or batting average, but he remained a solid everyday contributor in the Kansas City lineup for the next six seasons before age and declining skills moved him into more of a bench role for the remainder of his career.
Gordon is due for a bit of a decline in 2012. Last season, he hit .403 on the first pitch of at-bats with seven home runs. On all second pitches he saw, he hit just one home run, and his batting average when pitchers were ahead of the count was a not-so-impressive .234.
The glaring difference in his 2011 numbers as compared to 2010 was an enormous jump in BABIP from .254 to .358. While I'm not a huge advocate of using BABIP as an indicator of regression, in this case, it does seem apt. As such, I'm totally on board with ESPN.com's projection for Gordon of a .261 batting average with 21 home runs and 14 steals.
That's far from a death sentence for Gordon. It's still good enough for him to be ranked No. 50 overall and No. 16 among outfielders. After having written him off in the past, I am more than willing to welcome him back into the fold in 2012. However, it's not going to be as anything more than a third outfielder. If that means passing on him in my draft and seeing him end up on somebody else's roster, so be it.
To again quote Michael Corleone, "Your enemies always get strong on what you leave behind." If that proves to be the case with Gordon, I can live with that.