Mining For Gold: The Alex Gordon Story


On September 15, 2008, David DeJesus committed an error in centerfield.

It was the last one he would commit as a Kansas City Royal before his trade to Oakland last winter.

That stretch of errorless games inspired a late-season marketing campaign in 2009 where the Royals pitched DeJesus as a Gold Glove candidate.  In theory, it’s a nice idea. Get behind a fan favorite doing something notable. Call some attention to an error-free streak.  It was only lightly mocked but then, who’s to say the Royals really believed he had a shot anyway?

You may have noticed the excellent season that Alex Gordon is having this year, and if not, then it’s curious how you found this article considering.

His production at the plate is surprising to many, given his prior track record, but more impressive is his complete shift from third base to left field, one that has seen him develop into a premier outfielder in every way.

Alex Gordon. Premier. Outfielder.

I want to tout Gordon’s offensive development, but that’s going to be written about enough in the coming weeks – likely by myself even – that I don’t need to here.

When Gordon went to Omaha last year, it seemed like the beginning of the end.  It seemed like the last ditch effort of a club trying to see what they could get out of their former golden boy.

Now, as he nears his first full season in the outfield, it seems as if he’s played it his whole life.

So he’s good.  You can tell that by watching.  He’s committed just two errors in left field all season and leads the majors with 20 assists.

Those numbers, like most defensive measurements, can be misleading.  An error only says that someone misplayed a ball they should have fielded cleanly.  It says nothing about the balls they never get to to make an attempt.  For instance, there’s reason to suggest that Alcides Escobar has made errors on plays that Yuniesky Betancourt never would have, simply because he doesn’t have the range that Escobar does to have a chance to commit an error.  Does it matter if Gordon only has two errors if he hasn’t had opportunity to make more?

Fact: Alex Gordon, entering Friday night’s game, had the ninth most chances among American League outfielders. According to baseball-reference, he’s eighth among AL outfielders (with at least 1000 innings) in range factor per game – that measures putouts + assists + errors.

That tells us that Gordon is getting to the ball to make a play and usually, he makes it.

Of course, that doesn’t consider his true range, that is, is he getting to more balls than average?

That’s the difficulty with defensive statistics.  Developments like FieldF/X could one day help settle that question, but that’s a relatively young system and the results aren’t exactly open to everyone to peruse.  Some systems set up a grid and determine in which boxes a play should be made, but it’s imperfect too.  If a player makes a play at a ball hit right at him in the grid, it seems to count the same as if he ran from out of range to the edge of a grid to make the play.

Bill James has a system in his annual handbook called Plus/Minus for fielders.  It’s defined as:

"“A method for evaluating defensive play on batted balls. It is made possible by a game scoring system in which each batted ball is rated for type (line drive, grounder, etc.), velocity within its type (hard, medium or soft), and location on the field.  A player gets credit (a “plus” number) if he makes a play that at least one other player at his position missed during the season and he loses credit (a “minus” number) if he misses a play that at least one player made.”"

The system has its own plusses and minuses.  For instance, how often are two plays the same? Perhaps they’ll be similar, but depending on game situation, the same ball might be played differently.

If nothing else, it allows two players to be compared based on the plays they did or did not make.

Even as early as last season, in limited time, Gordon finished +5 in left field.  That may not seem like a lot, but Carl Crawford led all left field regulars at +22 over nearly three times as many innings.  Gordon’s 2010 in left field saved six runs. Crawford’s saved a net of 14.

If you buy those numbers, then Gordon’s work this year isn’t shocking.

Much of his value this year has come from his 20 outfield assists, and like Mark Teahen in 2007, some of that could be the result of teams testing him.  Nonetheless, he’s still made the throws.  I like the theory that his experience as an infielder have helped him in that department, as instinct to charge a grounder has helped him on a few throws.

Overall, though, I think that defense needs to take what numbers feel right and match them to what you see on the field.  Gordon is making the plays and making the throws and looks comfortable in his new position.

So is Gordon a Gold Glove outfielder?

Playing left field hurts his odds as it’s simply a less demanding position.  That’s true of any corner position on the diamond, but it’s rare to see a corner outfielder take home the Gold.  To win, a corner outfielder needs to be exceptional, and Gordon, while good, is not that.

But that’s okay.  He doesn’t have to win the Gold Glove.  His performance being adequate to good is enough.  Anything more is a bonus.  With his offensive numbers, he contributes in both areas of the game, which makes him that much more valuable.

He’s not a Gold Glover, but he’s still in good company, ranking 11th among all AL outfielders with 500 or more innings in defensive runs saved above average (Rdrs/yr) according to baseball-reference. Interestingly enough, David DeJesus and Jeff Francoeur are in the top 25.

RkInnChPOAEFld% ▾RtotRtot


/yrRpm1Brett Gardner1055.028727962.99331362922326172Peter Bourjos1056.030329463.9901112732124153Ben Revere718.022821837.969236-41423164Austin Jackson1058.033532483.99156321922155Sam Fuld675.119618853.98591663112046Jacoby Ellsbury1132.2335329601.0001010821718167Torii Hunter1039.2244229132.992-2-2-1-11517108Franklin Gutierrez743.0236229701.000232091569Denard Span554.120019811.995153217-2511710Nelson Cruz965.224923766.976-1-2-10911711Alex Gordon1150.0296274202.993881788-312J.D. Drew553.2142139301.000253-137513Ryan Sweeney546.0130127301.000121037214Matthew Joyce934.021620583.986-7-8-6-056315Jeff Francoeur1185.0305287135.984-7-7-12566-116Carlos Quentin854.218017721.99481112-434617David DeJesus916.120820044.981-1-11-234318Nick Swisher1056.0254245901.000171910733-219Carl Crawford914.219919612.990-2-3-3123120Shin-Soo Choo734.118517294.978230123-121David Murphy702.216615754.976-11-18-8-323622Coco Crisp990.127427121.996-5-6-3-311223Delmon Young796.118517456.968232011125Michael Brantley971.024423653.98810129100-2

Among outfielders with 1000 innings, he ranks fourth.  He ranks fifth in UZR/150 games in the AL according to FanGraphs.

Much of Gordon’s value (and Francoeur’s for that matter) lies in his arm and the large amount of assists, but I wouldn’t dismiss a player’s performance much on that basis.  They still have to put themselves in position and make the throw.  When using the cutoff man, they have to hit their spot and have the right angle.  They also need to have the physical tools to make the throw on time.  If players want to run on them, that’s their problem.

I doubt there will be a September Gold Glove campaign reminiscent of the DeJesus efforts, but Alex Gordon has at least put himself into the discussion.

Would anyone have guessed that last July?

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