Originally posted on Baseball Professor  |  Last updated 12/18/11

The term post-hype sleeper gets thrown around a lot — at least it does around these parts — and no one personifies that term better than Alex Gordon. For four years Gordon floundered in Kansas City, first getting the call in 2007 and remaining with the Royals for the entirety of ’07 and ’08. By 2009 it had become apparent that something wasn’t right with the the organization’s future third baseman. Had the Royals gone and missed on the game’s next “Can’t Miss” prospect?

Gordon played just 123 games in 2009 and 2010 combined and managed to bat just .222 with 14 home runs, 42 RBI and six steals over those two disappointing seasons. Fantasy owners stopped drafting Gordon in hopes that he’d succeed and turned to other potential breakout candidates. And don’t you know that’s when Gordon finally got going. When 2011 was all said and done the Royals had put together a surprisingly potent offense that finished 10th in the league in runs scored.

At a thin third base position, Gordon ranked second on the year only behind the impossibly strong Jose Bautista and ahead of, well, everyone else. Unfortunately, Gordon never played an out at third base in 2011, meaning he won’t be able to claim eligibility at one of the most up-for-grabs positions in fantasy. Question number 92 in out Top 100 Offseason Questions asks, “How much does losing third base eligibility affect Alex Gordon’s value?”

Was 2011 a mirage or is Gordon actually that good?

Before we try to rank Gordon among the many outfielders he’ll be competing against for playing time on fantasy rosters in 2012, we first have to see if his 2011 line of .303 average, 101 runs, 23 home runs, 87 RBI and 17 steals is repeatable. (In short, it’s not. At least not entirely. If you want the details on why he won’t repeat his 23rd-ranked season, keep reading.)

BABIP tells us a lot about how likely a batter is to reproduce his season totals, particularly batting average. I won’t elaborate on that because anyone who’s read our stuff here should know that we reference it in almost every article. It’s that important. Gordon’s BABIP in 2011 was .358. Prior to 2011, his career BABIP was .294. On the surface that 64 point gap seems rather large, but it’s not impossible for a player to earn his higher BABIP by increasing his line drive rate or by making harder contact in general. Is this the case for Gordon? Sort of. The chart below compares Gordon’s batted ball data from 2011 to the rest of his career (2007-2010).

Gordon shows minor improvements across the board, increasing his line drive rate, ground ball-to-fly ball ratio and HR/FB rate while dropping his infield fly rate and strikeout rate, but are all those minor improvements enough to justify a 59-point increase in batting average? No. I do think Gordon is as good as his LD/GB/FB rates indicate, but the problem is that does not translate to a .300-plus average. Let’s say Gordon’s 2012 BABIP ends up at his current career average (.314). Assuming the same power and strikeout numbers, that scenario yields a .270 average. For the sake of optimism that Gordon is better than those early-career numbers indicate, let’s put his potential 2012 batting average in the .270-.280 range. I’ll call that .275.

Now, is the power legit? I think so. His 12.6 percent HR/FB rate is a new career high, but only slightly. For the most part, Gordon has been hitting home runs at about the same rate for three seasons, so I don’t see a real reason for this to change now. We’ll put his expected home run output for 2012 at 23 again.

What about those 17 stolen bases? Speed isn’t anything new to Gordon as he stole 14 bases during his rookie year, but we’ve already projected a lower batting average by virtue of Gordon losing about 20 hits due to a regression in BABIP. Gordon stole a base once every 11 or 12 times he reached first base (via singles, walks, hit by pitch or errors). Assuming the walks, hit by pitches and errors remain the same, those 20 fewer hits will yield about two fewer stolen bases. We’ll put his projected 2012 stolen base total at 15.

Runs and RBI aren’t so easy to calculate. What we do know about Gordon’s 2011 run and RBI totals is that they were likely inflated by a surprisingly good Royals offense. If you think that Melky Cabrera, Jeff Francouer and company will all repeat their 2011 numbers, then go ahead an downgrade Gordon’s runs and RBI only slightly (again, because of the projected decrease in batting average). Even though Gordon will likely enjoy a full season of production from Eric Hosmer, I don’t think the Royals will be as good on offense again. I’ll arbitrarily decrease his run and RBI totals from 101 runs and 87 RBI to more reasonable totals, 85 and 75, respectively. Remember, I dropped them this much because I don’t think his average or his lineup will be nearly as good.

That gives us a projected .275 average, 85 runs, 23 home runs, 75 RBI and 15 stolen bases. That’s a pretty good season, but it brings us to our next question…

Where does Gordon’s projected line rank among outfielders?

Last season, Gordon was the seventh-ranked outfielder. His new numbers draw closest comparison to Shane Victorino’s 2011 line, .279 average, 95 runs, 17 home runs, 61 RBI and 19 stolen bases. While Gordon is projected to finish with more home runs and RBI, he should tally fewer runs and stolen bases (with a similar average). Victorino’s 2011 line was 68th-best overall and 22nd-best among outfielders.

So Gordon’s 2011 numbers were good for seventh among outfielders, and my 2012 projection for him is good for 22nd-best. Depending on the size of your league, he went from a low-tier number one outfielder to a low-tier number two or high-tier number three. If you were to put Gordon’s 2012 numbers and approximate 68 rank at third base, he would be about the fifth to seventh best third baseman.

So, how much does losing third base eligibility affect Gordon’s value?

This question isn’t easy to answer, so I decided to compare the top 15 third basemen to the top 45 outfielders from 2011 (like last time, 45 outfielders were used since there are three outfielders per one of every other hitting position). Because there are also different formats of leagues, varying from leagues that start three outfielders to leagues that start five outfielders, I decided to look at Gordon’s value at each position in each kind of league. That chart is below.

Three Outfielder Leagues

Last year the average starting fantasy third baseman ranked about 20 spots lower than the average starting outfielder in three outfielder leagues. The projected percentile column lets us see where Gordon’s projected 2012 stats would rank at that particular position. If you remember those standardized tests you had to take in middle school (or maybe the PSATs in high school) that told you what percentile you placed in, you might recall that a higher number is better. The 99th percentile meant you were in the top one percent. In Gordon’s case his projected 2012 stats would place him in the 60th percentile at third base (top 40 percent) and the 51st percentile in the outfield (about the top 50 percent). Clearly his contributions are more valuable at the hot corner than they are in the outfield in these kinds of leagues.

Gordon’s value: Declines about 15 percent

Four Outfielder Leagues

The average starting outfielder in four outfielder leagues was actually worse than the average starting third baseman in 2011. In these leagues Gordon’s projected 2012 line actually would have been more valuable in the outfield than at third base. If Gordon had 3B/OF eligibility in these leagues, he’d likely end up splitting time between both positions depending on the talent of the rest of your roster. But, now that Gordon solely has OF eligibility, he can only start in the outfield (or utility) and your overall roster flexibility decreases. Because Gordon is almost equally valuable at third base and outfield but is losing his third base eligibility and thus decreasing your flexibility, he loses a little bit of value in these leagues but not a ton.

Gordon’s value: Declines slightly

Five Outfielder Leagues

In five outfielder leagues the next available backups in outfield are players like Juan Rivera, Hideki Matsui or David Murphy whereas the next available backups at third base are guys like Danny Valencia and David Freese. None of those players are guys you want to have to start, but it’s clear to me the readily available third basemen are better than the readily available outfielders, so it’s more than likely you’re not too concerned about Gordon losing his third base eligibility since you probably have him starting in the outfield already. Loss of roster flexibility is not a big concern here.

Gordon’s value: Remains the same

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