From what I have been hearing and reading this spring, my feeling is that Royals fans believe that Alex Gordon is the best overall player in the batting order. Really there are only two options for this title right now, Gordon and Billy Butler. Hopefully Eric Hosmer, Mike Moustakas, and Salvador Perez have a piece of the argument come next spring, but until then they are the two most important hitters (unless you want to argue the drop from Alcides Escobar to Elliot Johnson or Christian Colon is so big that he is irreplaceable). The main reason Gordon gets the nod is due to Billy’s position, or lack thereof. It is probably true that Gordon is worth slightly more to the average team due to his outfield play and Butler having only DH or subpar first base as a position. Still, Butler may be more important to this manifestation of the Royals.
Alex Gordon the disappointment has been redeemed, which is a great story. He has posted 6.9 and 5.9 fWAR in the last two seasons respectively which puts him 5th in the majors in fWAR over that time behind only Ryan Braun, Miguel Cabrera, Robinson Cano, and Andrew McCutchen. He is a bona fide star by statistical nerd standards. That being said, Gordon prior to 2011 had had only one season where his bat had been a positive versus a replacement player, and even then it was only good for half a win.
Billy Butler on the other hand has raked pretty much from day one. In 2008 he struggled some posting his worst line of his career (.275/.324/.400) as a 22 year old. Last year he had his best year yet by turning some doubles into dingers. As the WAR statistic takes hold in the popular baseball world a little more, I would like to caution people in using it to completely evaluate anyone. While trying to be unbiased context tends to be lost, and I believe within this team Billy has a lot of contextual value because he is the only guy I trust to be a significantly above average hitter in the coming year. First let’s break down their WAR value differences, and then look at their positional value versus the league, and finally what would replacement look like to see the comparison.
So last year Billy had an fWAR of 3.2, or 1.7 WAR below Gordon. Billy is ahead of Alex by almost 10 runs (1 win and almost 50 percent more runs above average) due to his bat, but he loses 2.7 when you add base running, fielding, and positional adjustments. The base running I legitimately believe. Billy cannot ever stretch for an extra base and he gets thrown out more often than he should, while Alex is a solid base runner. After that adjustment the two are very close with Butler still slightly ahead, and it is fielding that makes the difference in the overall numbers. Please don’t take the next part as me demeaning Gordon. He is very good in LF, and his arm is valuable out there. Still, defensive metrics, especially over one year samples, are very hard to trust. So saying Alex’s defense makes him significantly more valuable than Billy is fine, but it may not be enough because…
It is not terribly difficult to find a left fielder. The average WAR last year and projected 2013 (approx.) for the expected starters in LF for the American League this year are 2.83 and 2.33 (without Trout 2.32 and 1.99) respectively. For the expected 2013 designated hitters the same two numbers are 1.27 and 1.49, so even if you throw Trout out because he is too awesome, this year’s Left Fielders were a little over a win better than the DHs and are projected to be half a win better in the coming year. This could be taken to mean that it is harder to find a productive DH right now than you think. I am tempted to go see what the production change when someone becomes a full time DH looks like. Has anyone seen a study along those lines? Anyway, DH gets a major ding on position in WAR that has to be completely made up for with the bat. So what? Isn’t that what WAR is supposed to do? Maybe, but let us look at an example of what replacement means in this context.
If Alex Gordon was hurt the most likely scenario is that Cain slides over into left and Dyson starts in center. That makes Jarrod Dyson our replacement player with some additional time for a guy like David Lough. Projections have Dyson as better than replacement by a significant amount. Given a full season, most would have him in the 1.5 to 2 WAR range. That is a drop from Gordon, but not terrible. Lough is closer to replacement if it ended up giving him a lot more time. The three projections for him if extrapolated to a full season are .2, .8, and somewhere just above 1 WAR. Let’s be conservative and say he is worth half a win above replacement over a full year. Now think about Country Breakfast being out of the line-up. Who would DH? Dyson loses a ton of value without his speed in the outfield, and quite frankly the idea of a DH with 1 career home run is a bit absurd. Lough is probably a liability at the plate as well. I have no idea what the Royals would do if Billy was gone for an extended period of time. They would be lucky to find replacement level.
Billy Butler is the best and most important bat in this line-up. In fact, the whole extra interleague thing has me a little worried because it means more games where Butler is relegated to pinch hitting so that we can see our pitchers hack away. Seriously National League, why? Do you actually enjoy watching your pitchers flail about and/or lay down a bunt? Billy was a win better than Gordon last year with the bat, and as far as expectation the difference may be larger than that (projections back this up). Coupling the hitting value difference with the lack of a viable replacement for Butler, it would probably be more detrimental for the Royals to lose him than Gordon. If I were starting a team from scratch I would rather have Gordon because he plays left so well, and will probably age better, but for this year and this team give me Billy Butler.