The Kansas City Royals last playoff appearance occurred in 1985, when they defeated the St. Louis Cardinals to win the World Series. That gives them the longest active playoff drought among the four major American sports. As of Tuesday, they are owners of a 72-58 record, which gives them a 1.5 game lead over the Detroit Tigers in the American League Central. Their playoff odds sit at 63 percent, with the division race being a coin flip between them and Detroit.
The Royals have been helped by a phenomenal defense. They have the fewest home runs, the fewest walks, and the fewest strikeouts of any team in the major leagues. As a whole, their offense isn’t very threatening. However, left fielder Alex Gordon has been rock-solid. The former No.2 overall pick is having one of the best seasons of any player in the major leagues.
Gordon was drafted out of the University of Nebraska in 2005, and made his major league debut two years later. Baseball Prospectus’ No. 1 overall prospect had an underwhelming rookie year, hitting .247/.314/.411. The first four seasons of his major league career were less than inspiring. With a .244/.328/.405 line over more than 1600 plate appearances, the bust label was being applied to Gordon, and not without justification.
The 30 year-old outfielder broke out in a big way in 2011. He compiled 6.6 fWAR and his batting line of .303/.376/.502 was good for a 140 wRC+. Since 2011, Gordon ranks fourth among all big league outfielders in fWAR with 21.4. Over that time frame, he’s produced a .286/.357/.457 slash line for a 124 wRC+. In addition, he plays excellent defense in left field where he’s led the AL in outfield assists for three consecutive seasons. He has three Gold Gloves to his name and appears to be well on his way to a fourth in 2014.
Gordon’s offensive numbers are strong, and his .281/.355/.447 line and 126 wRC+ fall right in line with his production from recent years. However, his defensive value has been off the charts. While defensive metrics have always rated Gordon’s as one of the game’s best defenders, his numbers this season stand out. Among all outfielders, only Juan Lagares of the New York Mets has a higher UZR, and among corner outfielders, Jason Heyward has a marginally higher UZR.
As a result, Gordon has 5.6 fWAR, which puts him behind Giancarlo Stanton and Mike Trout by just the slimmest of margins. Because Gordon has neither the reputation or the offensive numbers of these two stars, this has led to considerable controversy. While defensive metrics aren’t quite as reliable as offensive ones over the course of one season, regressing Gordon’s numbers still places him among the ten best position players in baseball. It’s unlikely that he will get serious MVP consideration, but Gordon is having a phenomenal year nonetheless.
After 28 years of missing out on October, the Royals are in the driver’s seat with just 32 games remaining. The prowess of Alex Gordon, both at the plate and in the field has helped lead them to this point. He doesn’t have the traditional numbers of an MVP candidate, but he’s been just as valuable.