Alex Gordon a Value Buy in Free Agency

Alex Gordon has been a really good, perhaps slightly underrated, player over the last five seasons for the Kansas City Royals. An untimely injury limited his role during this most recent regular season, but he was a big part of the club’s playoff runs each of the past two seasons and played a major role in Kansas City’s first World Series title in 30 years. Thanks to a team-friendly contract extension after his breakout 2011 season, the Royals have paid him just $37.5 million over the last four years, including two potential years of free agency. Although Gordon, heading into his age-32 season, is not reaching free agency at an ideal age, given his production he is still likely to receive a deal totaling around $100 million. The question for the Royals and the rest of the league is, will he be worth that kind of money into his mid-30s?

Gordon has hardly gone unnoticed as one of the best, if not the best, player on the two-time American League champion and reigning World Series titleholder. However, due to the way he’s produced his value — including above-average defense in an outfield corner — it’s possible that Gordon is slightly underrated heading into free agency. Over the last five seasons, he has been one of the very best players in baseball, as evidenced by the WAR leader chart below.

Position Player WAR Leaders, 2011-2015
Mike Trout 2877 38.5
Andrew McCutchen 3358 33.4
Miguel Cabrera 3233 29.9
Adrian Beltre 3102 27.3
Joey Votto 2887 26.5
Jose Bautista 2921 26.1
Robinson Cano 3398 25.9
Buster Posey 2618 25.6
Alex Gordon 3176 25.1
Ben Zobrist 3229 24.7

The next five players on that list are Josh Donaldson, Dustin Pedroia, Jason Heyward, Evan Longoria, and Giancarlo Stanton. Gordon has put up a well-above average 123 wRC+ during that time after struggling from 2007 to 2010 as he adjusted to major league pitching following just one full season in the minors. Alex Gordon and Jason Heyward’s name have come up together this offseason as similar players for good reason.

Both Heyward and Gordon are corner outfielders who complement their above-average offense with very good defense. Both players are free agents for the first time this offseason. However, the price tag associated with Heyward has been roughly double that of Gordon. The two had different 2015 seasons: Heyward played well all season long while Gordon had a groin injury that limited him to 104 games — this, after averaging 156 games per year over the previous four seasons. While the 2015 season might impact Gordon’s price tag some, the big difference is their age: Gordon is five years older than Heyward.

Gordon is a good player, but no team is buying his fantastic last five years, but rather the next five, and his age-32 through age-36 seasons should be less impressive than the five which have preceded them. Even with those limitations, it’s possible that the market is slightly undervaluing Gordon’s potential value.

Given his age, Gordon’s recent years are more likely to be indicative of his current abilities than his struggles more than a half-decade ago. As a result, I looked for corner outfielders within five WAR of Gordon’s 25.1 WAR from their age-27 through their age-31 seasons who also recorded a plate-appearance total within 20% of Gordon’s mark of 3,176. Then I looked at those, like Gordon, who had a positive defensive value. After removing players not within three wins above replacement of Gordon’s 9.4 during the age-30 and age-31 seasons, eight players remained.

Alex Gordon Comps Age-27 Through Age-31
Name PA wRC+ Off Def WAR
George Foster 3116 150 182.2 3.4 30.1
Ichiro Suzuki 3692 118 115.8 32.0 27.0
Sammy Sosa 3374 136 155.7 9.1 26.2
Tony Oliva 3186 135 121.2 15.8 24.5
Felipe Alou 2973 129 99.8 8.2 22.2
Alfonso Soriano 3419 117 99.9 6.2 21.7
Dwight Evans 2880 134 109.2 1.5 21.4
Jose Cruz 2797 128 99.0 9.6 20.9
AVERAGE 3180 131 122.9 10.7 24.3
Alex Gordon 3176 123 97.9 33.1 25.1

Overall, these players were little better on offense than Gordon and a bit behind on defense, but the values overall run pretty close together and every one of these players is a corner outfielder like Gordon. That group’s results from age-32 through age-36 were pretty impressive.

Alex Gordon Comps Age-32 Through Age-36
Name PA wRC+ Off Def WAR
Ichiro Suzuki 3647 113 101.6 35.8 26.1
Dwight Evans 3424 140 161.3 -59.7 22.3
Jose Cruz 3120 127 96.2 1.5 20.8
Sammy Sosa 2929 139 138.8 -45.8 18.6
Alfonso Soriano 2696 107 17.2 5.6 11.1
Felipe Alou 2972 107 16.8 -22.3 10.5
George Foster 2826 111 34.4 -47.7 8.5
Tony Oliva 2181 115 36 -57.3 5.4
AVERAGE 2974 120 75.3 -23.7 15.4
AVG/YR 595 120 15.1 -4.7 3.1

The group as a whole loses on average about a win on offense and a win on defense per season over the course of the five years, but given the group’s starting place (about five wins per season, in each case) remained roughly three-win players over their age-32 to age-36 season. Pretty impressive. Taking the average of that group at 15.4 WAR and using the cost of a win at $8 million along with 5% inflation reveals a value of roughly $136.5 million over the next five years.

(Out of curiosity, I also ran the numbers for a group of corner outfielders whose defense more closely resembled Gordon’s. That group was interesting in that Melvin Mora, Roberto Clemente, Ichiro Suzuki, and Rickey Henderson all produced good-to-great five-year periods while another five players combined for 3.7 WAR total over five seasons.)

Looking at comps is one way to estimate the value of a contract. Another way is to simply start with the present and simply assume a natural decline. Using that method beginning with Gordon’s Steamer projection of 3.5 WAR produces the following table.

Alex Gordon’s Contract Estimate — 5 yr / $108.4 M
Year Age WAR $/WAR Est. Value
2016 32 3.5 $8.0 M $28.0 M
2017 33 3.0 $8.4 M $25.2 M
2018 34 2.5 $8.8 M $22.1 M
2019 35 2.0 $9.3 M $18.5 M
2020 36 1.5 $9.7 M $14.6 M
Totals 12.5 $108.4 M
Value: $8M/WAR with 5.0% inflation
Aging Curve: +0.25 WAR/yr (18-27), 0 WAR/yr (28-30),-0.5 WAR/yr (31-37),-0.75 WAR/yr (> 37)

Much of the talk around Gordon has dealt with a four- or five-year contract. Both tables above indicate he might be worth a bit more than that. Using the comps and the natural decline methods above, here is what Gordon might be worth from four-to-seven years from now.

Alex Gordon Potential Contract Value
4-years 5-years 6-years 7-years
Comps $116.9 M $136.5 M $149.6 M $155.3 M
Natural Decline $93.8 M $108.4 M $118.6 M $121.2 M
AVERAGE $105.4 M $122.5 M $134.1 M $138.3 M

A seven-year contract for Gordon does not make a lot of sense, but if the FanGraphs crowd is correct and Gordon receives a five-year contract for $90 million or even Dave Cameron’s four year, $92 million prediction, that represent be a decent value. The Royals were in the middle-tier when it came to payroll last season and given attendance and another World Series run, Gordon might fit the team very well moving forward. There is risk in signing any player in his 30s to a long-term contract, and Gordon is no different. However, it is possible that either Gordon’s age or his injury this past season is keeping his price down. In free agency, Gordon looks to be a decent bet to fulfill the obligations of his contract in a manner with which his team will be quite pleased.

Craig Edwards can be found on twitter @craigjedwards.

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8 years ago

I always find “top counting stat from 2011-2015” type tables to be needlessly misleading. A top OF from 2013-2015 won’t show up there despite being better than Gordon (or anyone else) because getting 25 WAR over 3 years requires a lot more than getting 25 WAR over 5. Use WAR/year over a shorter span if anything. It’s no coincidence that everyone on that list is old except for Trout.

The rest is very good analysis, but that pet peeve always gets me.

Still don’t buy Gordon as anything better than a somewhat above average defender, though. Two thirds of his DEF comes from 2014, the obvious outlier in his career.

8 years ago
Reply to  acommenter

“Still don’t buy Gordon as anything better than a somewhat above average defender, though. Two thirds of his DEF comes from 2014, the obvious outlier in his career.”

Good rule of thumb is not to trust current defensive metrics without applying big error bars.
Defensive metrics are so sketchy that you really need -multiple- seasons of data to draw any conclusions, which of course makes the truth of those stats pretty stale and borderline useless for practical, present-day application.
These numbers can tell you generally who is good and bad, but probably not who is the best or worst (or who is better between two comparable players).
With that said… regardless of which individual season you care to look at from 2011 through 2015, Gordon was pretty clearly the premier defensive LF in the game before his groin injury. His decreased range after he came back was probably related to not wanting to re-aggravate the groin injury.

8 years ago
Reply to  Rauce

I should add re: defensive metrics that I have no doubt our scientific understanding, data collection, etc. of defense will improve and someday (probably relatively soon) we will be able to confidently measure an individual player’s defensive contributions.

8 years ago
Reply to  Rauce

I completely agree, and I do use error bars. I strongly dislike the fact that error bars are not used for any defense or WAR based articles. Acknowledging error bars and clearly stating the range of error in each direction are two very different things. At this point, I only use the defensive data directionally (i.e., positive or negative) and only take extreme values seriously when they’re over 3+ years.

Eric R
8 years ago
Reply to  acommenter

“Still don’t buy Gordon as anything better than a somewhat above average defender, though. Two thirds of his DEF comes from 2014, the obvious outlier in his career.”

OK, and the author used five years of data where his combined DEF was +33.1 runs, or +6.6 /yr. Just exclude 2014 and it is still +3.8, so we’re talking a difference of less than 3 runs per year — I don’t think that is a huge deal, especially if you don’t scrub every other player for outliers.

That he’s already using a large sample of years, I think a lot of the issues with SSS ;argely go away anyways.

another commenter
8 years ago
Reply to  acommenter

Posey, and McCutchen are not old. Neither are Stanton, or Heyward, and Donaldson has just hit his peak. A number of those other players are only in their early 30’s which is an age at which decline could set in at any time, but neither is it unusual for good players to put up another great year.

8 years ago

Stanton and Heyward aren’t in the table I’m complaining about. Posey and Cutch are going on their age 29 season–not young.

The complaint is more about how the table presents an innaccurate picture, not a condemnation of the players themselves.