Alex Gordon: Definitely Maybe a Top Five Position Player in 2014

As a Kansas City guy…I of course enjoyed Alex Gordon being in the mix as one of the top position players in baseball this year – at least according to WAR. Whether you used Fangraphs (fWAR) or Baseball Reference (rWAR), Gordon was among the top 10 position players in all of baseball, ranking sixth in rWAR, with a 6.6, and fifth with a 6.6 fWAR.

Looking strictly as his “baseball card” numbers, you’d have to wonder how Gordon ranked so highly with a .266 AVG, 19 HR, 74 RBI, and 12 SB. Not bad numbers, but…THAT guy is a top five position player? If you’re reading anything at this site, you know stats and know that WAR factors in defense as well. You are also fully aware that Gordon is a lock for a fourth straight gold glove in left field. But does being a top flight defender in left field add that much value?

The answer is…I don’t know? Probably? Maybe? By the end of this, though…I hope I can give a more definitive yes or no.

Looking at the top 10 players in fWAR, there are two more players I’d say are in the same boat as Gordon. Josh Donaldson, sixth with a 6.4 fWAR, and Jonathan Lucroy, who finished with a 6.3 fWAR. All three have similar offensive and defensive values, and are greatly boosted by what they do in the field. All three also play different positions, giving us three different cases to look at. Let’s keep this simple and look at runs created and runs saved.

Since Gordon is the guy who got me thinking about this, we’ll start with him. Looking only at left fielders, Gordon and Cleveland’s Michael Brantley are even at 6.6fWAR. Looking at Brantley’s offensive value (Off), we see he has a 48.8, while Gordon sits at a 21.4, meaning Brantley has more than twice the offensive value of Alex Gordon. On the flip side, Gordon’s defensive value (Def) is a 17.9 and Brantley is actually in the negative at -10.4. In the end, the two are clearly the cream of the left field crop, with the next highest rating belonging to Christian Yelich with a 4.3 fWAR.

While much of Gordon’s value comes from the glove, Brantley’s weapon is the bat. Mandatory Credit: Rick Osentoski-USA TODAY Sports

Looking a little closer a these two, we see Brantley has a wRC of 113, while Gordon was at 87 runs created. So Brantley created 26 more runs at the plate. Switching back to what they did in the field, Gordon makes up an awful lot of ground, with 27 more runs saved than the average left fielder (gold glove caliber would be a +15 number, by the way, so Gordon really was phenomenal in left field) and Brantley had a DRS of zero.

Now…we’ll add the runs Gordon saved to those he created. Doing this, we get a total of 114 runs created/saved (let’s call it RCS), while Brantley gets no bump from his glove work and remains at 113. Using this simple breakdown, Gordon added enough runs to his total to move ahead of Brantley by a single run. It seems likely that yes, these two left fielders were pretty similar in value.

Let’s see what happens when we compare these other players, though. Now that we’ve gone through and laid the groundwork…we can quickly look at Donaldson and Lucroy as they relate to their respective positions.

Donaldson ranks second at third base in fWAR to Anthony Rendon of the Washington Nationals. Again, we have a case of a higher Off/lower Def player (Rendon) versus the opposite in Donaldson. Rendon has a 30.7 Off and 9.2 Def, and Donaldson a 19.1 Off and 16.7 Def. These two are just 0.2 points apart in fWAR, with a 6.6 for Rendon and a 6.4 for Donaldson.

In this situation, wRC has Rendon at 100 and Donaldson right behind with 96. Where Donaldson makes up ground is with his 20 DRS in the field versus 12 DRS for Rendon. Adding them up, Donaldson actually comes out ahead in 116 to 112.

In both cases so far, we’ve seen the DRS of a top notch defender push him ahead of his closest competitor. Of course WAR takes a lot more into consideration…but, hey, let’s keep it simple. The important thing here is that yes, the DRS makes a big difference once again.

Moving on…Lucroy’s closest competition at catcher was Buster Posey. Lucroy’s Off/Def/fWAR was 23.4/14.6/6.3 with Posey coming in at 26.9/7.0/5.7 – in this case, the two were very close on offense, with Lucroy nearly doubling up Posey on Def. I’m not even sure this one warrants a further comparison. But again…looking at Posey’s “baseball card” stats, he does look more impressive than Lucroy, out-homering him by nine, and driving in 20 more runs. So…let’s take a quick spin through the numbers…

Lucroy beats Posey at wRC by 7 (100 to 93) while the DRS numbers are 11 for Lucroy and a -4 for Posey, pushing Lucroy even further ahead in RCS with a final tally of 111 to 89 . As suspected…no further investigation needed.

So I guess defensive metrics can draw a guy like Alex Gordon pretty much dead even in value with someone like Michael Brantley, who certainly has the more flashy numbers with a .327 AVG and .890 OPS, not to mention 20 HR and 23 SB, topping Gordon in all four of those categories.

Look, none of this is a perfect science, and I took a very simplified look at things. You can’t completely rely of fWAR or rWAR or wRC or DRS, or any of the other advanced metrics for that one definitive answer. But the variety of stats at our disposal gives us a checks and balance system. Not sure about WAR? Look at some other numbers, see how it adds up.

As for the fielding metrics, are they perfect? No. But they are miles ahead of what they once were, and they definitely help assign a more accurate value than the very basic numbers of yesteryear. Of course there will be plenty who say an excellent defensive left fielder isn’t really that important when compared to, let’s say Mike Trout  in center field, for example (and they’d be correct)…but hey, in my opinion a run created is a run created…and a run saved is a run saved. Trout, by the way, sits at 7.8 fWAR,  126 wRC, and -9 DRS, for a RCS of 117. So…you know…he’s pretty good.

For the record…the top ten fWAR players, sorted by Runs Created+Saved (RCS) are as follows (using the DRS from the position played most):

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Back to the original question…is Alex Gordon really as good as the WAR numbers suggest? A top five player in the major leagues this year? He’s just as good as Brantley, meaning he’s arguably the best left fielder in baseball this year, if nothing else. So what’s my answer? Top ten? Definitely. Top five? Maybe.