Don't Call It a Comeback

Fangraphs has an early look at potential candidates for Comeback Player of the Year and it’s tough to argue against their choice of Jacoby Ellsbury considering the circumstances.

What’s of interest for Royals fans is a mention of both Alex Gordon and Melky Cabrera.  Both have had exceptional seasons in 2011 basically from opening day to the present.

It’s difficult for me to call it a comeback for Melky Cabrera.  I’ll admit, that I was dead wrong coming into this season, but he’s not exactly coming back to anything. When your production entering a season was pretty slight, you’re not really coming back from a high level of production.

Prior to becoming a Royal, Cabrera’s season-high OPS was .752 which was still below the league average in 2006.

That doesn’t diminish the season that Cabrera’s had to this point.  It doesn’t suggest that he’s been a solid player at any point in his career either who should be celebrated for coming back to form.  It’s mere semantics, but he’s breaking out rather than coming back.

Alex Gordon may be a different story.  No, he’s never made an All-Star team nor been among the league leaders, but as a former second overall draft pick, college and minor league player of the year, Gordon has had his share of lofty expectations.

In his first two seasons, Gordon disappointed, but if he were any other 24-year-old player, his 99 OPS+, his decent power (107 extra base hits and .169 isolated power) and an improving walkrate (he jumped from 6.8% in 2007 to 11.6% in 2008)  gave hope that 2009 would be a breakout season.  He’s already supplanted Mark Teahen at third base and homered on opening day against the White Sox.  Then he started to struggle and eventually, it came to light that he had a torn labrum that required surgery.  He returned in mid-July, hitting .252/.333/.399 the rest of the way.

But maybe 2010 would be the year.  Then Gordon fractured the tip of his right thumb diving headfirst into second base in spring training and missed the first two weeks of the season.  In his first 37 plate appearances of 2010, he had a .647 OPS and was demoted to Omaha and shifted to left field.  There were many who thought the Royals might give up and sell him off for fifty cents on the dollar or cut him outright.

Gordon looked every bit the fabled AAAA player, crushing the Pacific Coast League, even making the All-Star team.  He returned on July 23 to play left field but from that date until the end of the year, he only put up a .671 OPS.

The Royals had to stick with him because, if nothing else, his value was too low to draw enough to justify moving him.  Royals fans would have rioted.

But there were still glimpses of that player that looked ready to break out after 2008 – a straightaway centerfield homer off of a lefty in Toronto, a walkoff homer against the Orioles.  He seemed to have one more shot.

Entering 2011, Gordon joined Cabrera and Jeff Francoeur in the Royals Island of Misfit Outfielders.  There was Gordon, the borderline bust.  Cabrera, the hyped former Yankee, and Francoeur the “natural” who’d become a punch line after a monstrous first two seasons.

Funny thing, they all started hot.  But it would correct itself.

Except it didn’t.

Francoeur had some struggles and has settled into pretty much what most expected, and Cabrera has been among the league leaders in hits all year.  But Gordon looks like a whole new player, one who’s looking like the star everyone thought he could be.

It’s been improvement nearly in every element of his game.  He’s hitting left-handed pitching better.  He’s going the other way and, instead of turning over and grounding out, he’s slashing hits to left-center.  He’s approaching career highs in nearly every offensive category and barring injury should surpass them.  Gordon even leads the majors with 16 outfield assists and has committed just one error in left field.

Even better, despite a few short cold streaks, his worst points of 2011 would have been his highest levels of production in past seasons.  Since April 3, his lowest batting average (and I know that’s not the best way to measure a batter’s overall production) was .275 on May 29.  He opened July with a .293 average, and here, at the end of the month, it’s never dipped below that mark.  He’s kept it consistent, with the average never getting higher than .303.

Alex Gordon over the years (wOBA graph from FanGraphs)

His wOBA (a fancy way of weighing his overall batting performance) has been at well above average levels.  His average wOBA in 2011 is better than any mid-season high of the last two seasons.  That would seem obvious since he’s having such a strong year, but even a “bust” like Gordon had a hot streak here or there.

Nevermind anything else. Alex Gordon is a .300 hitter over the majority of the season.  Many thought he’d be there back in 2007, and hardly anybody would believe it after 2009.

There are caveats to Gordon’s performance in 2011.  With two months left in the season, there is still the opportunity for regression.  With a BABIP of .358, he’s getting some luck with batted balls landing for hits.  The league average is .298 and generally, batters will stay around that level – or at least what their normal level is.  That being said, Gordon’s driving the ball and a hard hit ball is harder to field than a dribbler or a lazy pop up.  Credit an improved approach for that.

Gordon hasn’t walked at the same rate he has in the past, though.  That could be a better effort to recognize pitches to hit earlier in counts, or it could be more aggression at the plate.

He’s still walking at a good rate, but it’s not on par with past levels.  That red bar above represents the overall average for the season and each dot is a point during the season.  Gordon’s highest walkrate at the end of any given day in 2011 hasn’t reached his average of 2010 and may just brush up against his 2009 rate.

If he’s really seeing the ball that well this year, that’s not a huge issue.  It seems by watching his at bats and looking at his numbers that that’s the case.  If a slump hits, though, the lower walkrate may hinder his ability to break out of it.  It makes sense for Gordon to stick with a successful approach because it’s clearly working this year.  He’s still walking around league average levels and he’s not chasing pitches often, so that bodes well, but bad habits and overaggression can turn up quickly and cause problems.  Eric Hosmer is just now getting adjusted after pitchers started to induce his chasing of high fastballs.

So is Gordon a legitimate candidate for Comeback Player of the Year?  He’s having a great season in every way and is breaking out like many expected in the past.  But to call it a true comeback, you’re comparing his 2011 to levels of being at or near league average.  So no. Don’t call it a comeback.

Call it what it is – a very good breakout season.  A year where the tools and talent matched up with the approach and polish.  Alex Gordon doesn’t need a comeback award.

Just call it an arrival.

Michael Engel been here for months.  You can follow him on Twitter at @michaelengel and also stay current on all the Kings of Kauffman content and news by following us on TwitterFacebook, or by way of our RSS feed.

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