One of the first left fielders that comes to my mind is Greg Luzinski, a hulking player with the Philadelphia Phillies and Chicago White Sox from 1970-84.
Luzinski could really hit (307 career home runs) but he couldn’t catch. He lumbered after balls, adequately covering a space about as large as a one-car garage. It didn’t matter in those days, though, because Luzinski’s bat - we thought, at least - made up for his defensive deficiencies.
But now we know better. In those days, statistical analysis was not acknowledged other than to rate a player’s average and power. Baseball folks rarely dug deeper and a guy like Luzinski could flourish. Everybody watched him knew he was slow and that he was a terrible outfielder. But the Phillies and White Sox lived with it.
Which brings us to today and the curious case of Kansas City Royals left fielder Alex Gordon, currently No. 2 in all of baseball in WAR (wins above replacement), according to Fangraphs and its esteemed founder, Dave Cameron.
I’m not here to make light of Cameron. He’s a brilliant guy, obviously, who understands analytics, formulas, graphs and all the other stuff I did my best to avoid in school. He can probably finish a rubik’s cube in under 15 seconds.
Gordon is having an excellent season and we don’t need deep statistical analysis to tell us so. He’s arguably the Royals’ most valuable player. But if WAR is the be all and end all, as some sabermetrics experts would have us believe, then how in the world can Gordon be No. 2 behind only the Los Angeles Angels’ Mike Trout.
Gordon actually passed Trout briefly before relinquishing the WAR lead. Cameron wrote about it, explaining that WAR shouldn’t always be trusted to deem one player as better than another.
I’ve only recently started perusing Fangraphs regularly. It’s a fantastic baseball site and although I’m always going to be somebody who trusts what I see over what deeply-rooted statistics tell me, I can see the worth of these measures.
But when WAR spits out Gordon with a No. 1 or No. 2 ranking, I become even more skeptical of all of this statistical analysis. Especially when it’s obvious Gordon is getting far too much credit for defense than a left fielder - any left fielder - probably deserves.
Gordon has won three straight Gold Gloves in left field. He has a strong and accurate arm and gets to balls you wouldn’t think he could get to. If you want to tell me he’s the best left fielder in the game today, I’ll listen. But if you want to pump that defensive ability as a reason why he’s ranked ahead of players like Mike Stanton, Andrew McCutchen, Jose Abreu, Yasiel Puig, Justin Upton, Michael Brantley and others, then my eyes roll. Without me even being aware they’re rolling. It’s just a reflex.
Offensively, Gordon is batting .281 with 15 homers and 57 RBI. By comparison, Trout, who plays center field, a more-challenging position, is batting .288 with 29 homer and 91 RBI.
Among all MLB players, Gordon ranks 53rd in average, 68th in RBI and 61st in homers. He’s 41st in runs (67), 56th in hits (127), 30th in doubles (29) and 38th in OPS (.805).
I would argue that Gordon is getting far too much credit for his outstanding defense in left field. The key words there are “left field.” And I would argue even that the St. Louis Cardinals’ Jhonny Peralta, ranked No. 12 in WAR among MLB players, is not worthy of that ranking. Peralta has had a good season offensively, with 18 homers. And he’s been outstanding defensively, somewhat of a surprise given his reputation. But even as a shortstop, a position in which defense is infinitely more important than it is left field, Peralta is over-ranked.
We could argue about the value and determination of WAR all day long. It’s a fun debate and as much as I have loved baseball for decades, I’m fairly new to the ways of which players are valued these days.
And Fangraphs does assign monetary value to a player. Gordon, by the way, is worth $31.1 million this season. In the real world, Gordon is making $10 million this season, the third of a four-year, $37.5 deal. He’ll get a bump to $12.5 million next season with a team option for 2016. He’s a bargain, for sure. And an excellent player. But he’s not the superstar Fangraphs makes him out to be.