By In Stuff

Gordon and Zimmerman

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In June of 2005 — with the Kansas City Royals in the midst of yet another doomed and hopeless season — Royals general manager Allard Baird had a heavy decision to make. The Royals had the second pick in the draft. It was pretty clear to everybody that Arizona was going to take high school phenom Justin Upton with the first pick.

That left Baird with what he (and, perhaps, he alone) saw as a difficult call:

He could take Alex Gordon, the clearcut choice, the college baseball player of the year, from nearby Nebraska. Gordon was widely considered the best prospect in college baseball and, in addition, he had a swing that looked like Kansas City great George Brett’s. This was no accident. Gordon’s father was such a big fan that he had named Alex’s brother Brett AFTER George Brett.

Or Baird could take Ryan Zimmerman, a brilliant shortstop out of the University of Virginia. The thing about Zimmerman was that, unlike Gordon, he was a defensive star; Baird could imagine him winning Gold Gloves for years to come at third base (“He could probably even stay at shortstop!” Baird said). Baird wasn’t as sure about Zim’s offense — Gordon clearly had the greater power potential — but Baird liked the swing and thought Zim would hit in time.

Baird was tortured over the decision. He knew that the Royals could not afford to miss on this pick — it was, up to that point, the highest draft pick in Royals history — and he sensed that the wrong decision could keep the team mired in awfulness for another decade. He did not know that he would be fired less than a year later (though he did know that time was running out). But Baird — and there really aren’t many people I can say this about — didn’t care about his own job. He really cared about the team first and last. The decision tormented him.

The thing is: This was a private torment because everybody — and I mean EVERYBODY — knew the Royals were going to take Gordon. He was the second player on pretty much every draft board (there were actually some who had him ranked first ahead of Upton) and  he was a Midwestern guy, and he had that George Brett swing …

… but Baird tossed and turned. The “George Brett” swing of Alex Gordon, in his mind, was too big; Baird wondered if Gordon would strike out too much to be a good offensive player. And Baird also wondered if Gordon had the dexterity to play third base in the big leagues. Don’t misunderstand: He liked Gordon a lot. He kept telling me that throughout the process: “Oh, I like Gordon a lot. I like the power.”

But the scout in him kept veering back to Zimmerman.

“I think he will hit,” Baird would say of Zimmerman, and his voice would have a different beat of excitement about it. He would go on again about what an extraordinary defensive player Zim already was (“He’s a shortstop playing third base!”). I remember telling people then, “All things being equal, I think Allard Baird would take Zimmerman over Gordon, I really do.”

But things were not equal. If the Royals had taken Zimmerman, the criticism locally and nationally would have been overwhelming. The Royals were already a laughingstock across baseball, they were already being mocked for basically every decision they made — and now passing on Alex Gordon? No. Gordon was basically BORN to play for the Kansas City Royals. Baseball America named him their amateur player of the year. People were calling Gordon the next George Brett before he was even drafted.

In the end, Baird bent to the overwhelming momentum and drafted Alex Gordon with the second pick of 2005.

I thought about all of this again as the Royals have decided to bench Gordon. He is hitting an astonishing .197/.288/.294 with a 55 OPS+. He is coming off a year when he hit .220/.312/.380. These are just the first two years of Gordon’s disastrous four-year, $72 million contract. It will probably only get worse from here.

Meanwhile, Zimmerman is having a renaissance season. He has slowed down considerably (he’s hitting just .208/259/.340 since June 14). But he got off to such a crazy hot start that for the season he’s still hitting .300 with 24 homers, he’s slugging .561, he might just win comeback player of the year.

Anyway, you look at the two careeers and … they turned out very differently than Allard Baird expected in 2005. Well, Baird was right about Gordon’s big swing and his inability to stay at third base. Gordon came up in 2007 and was basically the unanimous preseason choice for Rookie of the Year; instead he floundered below .200 for the first three months of his big league career. He struck out like crazy. His play at third base was shaky; he just didn’t look comfortable over there.

In his second year, he had one of those solid years that nobody thinks is solid. He only hit .260, but he walked quite a bit, he hit with a little bit of power, he ran the bases well, he was solid enough, no star, but solid. Still, it was widely viewed as disappointing.

And by then Ryan Zimmerman was doing all those things that Baird expeceted he would. He was a maestro at third base. And he was hitting better than most people had thought. Yes, Baird had been fired as Royals GM (not for his Gordon pick — he was gone before Gordon even made it to the big leagues) but it seemed like his instincts to pick Zimmerman were right.

In 2009, Zimmerman had an MVP type season, mashing 33 home runs, scoring 110 runs, driving in 106 and winning a Gold Glove at third base. Gordon was injured and played just 49 games.

In 2010, Zimmerman was fantastic again, hitting a career hit .307 with a career high .388 on-base percentage, and he was typically brilliant at third (no Gold Glove this time, but he was really good). Gordon was struggling so much he was sent to the minor leagues where the Royals hoped to (1) rebuild his confidence at the plate and (2) turn him from a lousy third baseman into a decent left fielder.

And, LIKE THAT, everything switched.

Gordon took to left field like he was born to play the position. When Gordon came up in 2011, he was a completely different player, confident, assured, and a defensive genius. His career batting average at that point was .244 — he hit .303 his first year in left field. He slugged 100 points above his career average. He mashed 45 doubles, stole 17 bases, this was — dare anyone say it — a GEORGE BRETT kind of season. And he was so good right away as a left fielder that he won a Gold Glove (and deserved it).

Zimmerman, meanwhile, started going the other way. His brilliant defense at third began to fade, perhaps because of shoulder problems that would haunt the rest of his career. He missed 60 games because of injury. He was still pretty good, but the tide was turning o his career.

Gordon led the league in doubles in 2012 and won another Gold Glove. He made his first All-Star team in 2013 and won another Gold Glove. And then he settled into his new role as quiet team leader as the Royals began winning big. Gordon settled in as a .270-or-so hitter, a little power, smart base running, great defense, and a perfect represenation of this team whose whole was greater than its parts. Gordon’s solid play, I think, spoke beautifully to Kansas City, a solid town. And the Royals won back-to-back pennants and a World Series title.

Zimmerman, meanwhile, had his body fall apart on him. He signed a $100 million extension in 2014, but he played just 61 games that year and 95 games in 2015. He had to be moved off third base because his once wonderful arm was gone; he couldn’t even throw the ball across the infield. Last year, at age 31, he had a dreadful season, hitting just .218/.272/.370 while playing a subpar first base.

And then, as we’ve seen, this year Gordon has looked so bad you wonder if he can ever be an everyday player in the big leagues again while Zimmerman has had a nice comeback year.

It’s hard, even now, to say whether Allard Baird made the right or wrong choice in 2005. WAR doesn’t really offer much guidance — Zimmerman’s 35.6 WAR is slightly better than Gordon’s 33.0 WAR … but by WAR Gordon has three outstanding seasons (6-plus WAR) to Zim’s two.

While Baird loved Zimmerman for his defense and Gordon for his power, it is Zim with the power edge (50 points of slugging percentage) and Gordon who has endured as a terrific defensive player. Even this year, with all the offensive problems, Gordon’s defense has been sublime.

In the end, you would probably have to say it all worked out for the best. Neither Gordon nor Zimmerman has been a generational player, neither will get to the Hall of Fame, but they are both beloved in the cities where they play. Gordon survived years of dreadfulness to become part of a World Series champion. Zimmerman also survived years of dreadfulness and has been part of Washington’s strange rise to excellence — you would hope he could be part of a playoff series victory at some point.

It’s one of those odd baseball things — I don’t think either team would trade the player they got.

 

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23 Responses to Gordon and Zimmerman

  1. GT says:

    At least he didn’t pick Jeff Clement (who went to Seattle with the 3rd pick).

  2. Old #38 says:

    I too think both players wound up in the right place.

    It’s just a shame that Zimm’s body started breaking down right around the time the rest of the team got good. Gordon’s best seasons coincided with the Royals rise. Zimm had great play for lousy teams – and until this year – was bad, injured, or both for Washington’s good teams.

  3. CB says:

    Would KC have really given Zimmerman a 100 million extension, or would they have lost him?

    • Old #38 says:

      I don’t think they would – though maybe Zimmerman takes less money to stay in KC having decided he likes it there. I also don’t know how well Gordon would have developed in the Nats system.

  4. John Autin says:

    Excellent essay, Joe. Great concept, well executed.

  5. Rob Smith says:

    The interesting thing to me is that there were better players in this draft that apparently weren’t on the Royals radar. Andrew McCutcheon, Troy Tulowitski and Ryan Braun were all drafted after both Gordon and Zimmerman. So, while this post was about Zimmerman vs. Gordon, there were all-star, middle of the order players that were available that neither the Royals nor the Gnats took.

    • Darrel says:

      While that is true you have to understand the consensus of the scouting community at the time and my guess is that none of those guys you mentioned were as highly regarded. Development is never guaranteed or a straight line.

      As a hockey fan the perfect example for me is Nail Yakupov. The Oilers drafted him No. 1 in a hotly contested debate over eventual No. 2 Ryan Murray. It’s is now 5 years later and Nail is on his 3rd team. The players drafted 5th, 6th, 11th and so on have all been vastly superior pros and every occasionally I will hear somebody roast the Oilers for not taking the eventual 11th overall pick at number 1. Thing is there was no one and I mean no one who thought that Yakupov and Murray were not clear cut numbers 1 and 2 at the time of the draft. There is a reason that draft picks are often referred to as lottery tickets. You simply pay your money and you take your chances.

  6. Bryan says:

    In almost all cases the first 7 MLB years of a player is what a GM is drafting. Headlined by Pujols, a small number of players it’s only the first 6 years and headlined by Longoria a small number of players are under contract for more than 7 years with little to no MLB experience.
    *
    If Jeff Bagwell or Noah Syndergaard is traded before playing in MLB that’s a trade analysis of really terrible but it remains a draft analysis of excellent. If Chipper Jones or Mike Trout signs a contract to remain with the team beyond 7 years after already establishing they are excellent MLB players that creates a new analysis of offering that extension was an excellent idea on top of the draft pick being an excellent choice.
    *
    In the case of Ryan Zimmerman the extension early in the 2009 season is an excellent decision, he most likely got paid a lot less than he would have been paid in arbitration in 2010 and 2011 and $26mil for 2012-13 also ends up being a good deal for the team even with $700k of bonus money in there somewhere. The Nationals holding the leverage of 2 years of control sign Zimmerman to a contract that will pay either $100mil for 6 more years or $116mil for 7 more years may or may not be a good move by the Nationals. In terms of evaluating the draft pick no seasons after 2011 are relevant.
    *
    In the case of Alex Gordon starting the #2 overall draft pick on opening day for a team coming off a 62 win season is something very fair if Alex had earned a spot on the opening day roster but from a best interest of the club perspective it’s a terrible idea as you’re getting 2 weeks of value instead of a 7th season of value. Arguably being fair with Alex might make it easier to negotiate with him in the future but that’s a very large risk for the club most likely by someone who didn’t expect to be there for Gordon’s 7th season. Someone makes the decision to recover the 7th service year by sending him down to the minors early in the 2009 season, quite possibly by someone who expected to be there for Gordon’s 7th season.
    *
    Alex Gordon’s extension before the 2012 season is an excellent decision, paid $550k more than Gordon’s arbitration request for 2012 but $9mil for 2013 most likely saved at least a few million and $24.75mil for 2014-15 is excellent value for the Royals. $72mil for 4 more years of Gordon or $91mil for 5 more years may or may not turn out to be a good idea but in terms of evaluating the draft pick no seasons after 2013 are relevant.
    *
    In terms of who is the better player, Ryan Zimmerman is far superior at the time of the draft. Zimmerman is 7.5 months younger but in 2006 he plays a full MLB season and hits 287/351/471 while being an average MLB 3rd baseman according to defensive metrics. Gordon hits 325/427/588 in AA while playing 3rd base and is “blocked” by Mark Teahen hitting 246/309/376 and according to defensive metrics is terrible at playing 3rd base.
    *
    Alex Gordon by WAR suddenly spikes in ability in the 2011 season which is actually powered by .358 and .356 BABIP during the 2011 and 2012 seasons which as the sabermetrics movie Bull Durham informs us: “Know what the difference between hitting .250 and .300 is? It’s 25 hits. 25 hits in 500 at bats is 50 points, okay? There’s 6 months in a season, that’s about 25 weeks. That means if you get just one extra flare a week – just one – a gorp… you get a groundball, you get a groundball with eyes… you get a dying quail, just one more dying quail a week… and you’re in Yankee Stadium.”
    *
    Gordon puts about 500 balls into play per season, .350 BABIP would be 175 hits, .300 would be 150 hits. Kevin Costner tries to dumb things down for the average viewer but still provides way more insight into the game than Moneyball that pretends like the 3 great and highly drafted starting pitchers weren’t important to Oakland’s success. Through 2010 Ryan Zimmerman has generated 24.3 WAR and Alex Gordon 4.6. Some combination of luck, desire, injuries and other undraftable factors results in a later career surge by Alex Gordon but Ryan Zimmerman is simply far better at baseball when they are drafted even earning some well deserved MVP votes in 2009 when Alex Gordon is back in the minors.

    • Rob Smith says:

      All were early first rounders. Braun was picked right after Zimmerman. They were definitely on the radar and very high on that radar. I don’t agree that there is consensus on every player except maybe a top pick like Bryce Harper. If the Pirates picked second there is no guarantee they pick either guy. In fact the Gnats picked 4th. By the consensus logic, Zimmerman would have been picked 3rd. That didn’t happen.

      • Bryan says:

        There isn’t a consensus because of quality of competition.
        Zimmerman at Virginia: 308/340/376, 361/395/454, 393/469/581
        Gordon at Nebraska: 319/426/495, 365/493/754, 372/518/715
        *
        It’s “eye test”, potentially a few batting sessions against some minor league or retired pitcher with a “known” quality of pitching, databases which seek to normalize stats for different colleges and various other aspects of scouting and data analysis in an attempt to figure out who is the best available prospect after Upton goes 1st overall.
        *
        Starting from the draft it’s actually earning a spot on an MLB roster which Zimmerman does sooner even being the younger player and then competing in MLB which peaks in favor of Zimmerman to the extent that he has a very solid case to be considered one of the 10 best players in the National League and Alex Gordon got sent down to the minors.
        *
        There is absolutely no chance that Alex Gordon was drafted because someone predicted he would have a breakout batting season 6 years after the draft. Alex Gordon was drafted because he was considered one of the best prospects available in the draft but actual results against roughly equal competition (NL vs AL as opposed to ACC vs Big12), Ryan Zimmerman is a vastly superior player through 2010 and then an Ortizian or Bautistian breakout as a hitter in the 2011 and 2012 seasons and possibly Zimmerman injury(ies) changed things so Gordon could be considered to have a similar entire career to Zimmerman.
        *
        Who is the better player? Who had a better career so far? Who will have a better entire career? It’s a toss-up. Who was the better draft pick? Ryan Zimmerman and it’s not close.

        • Rob Smith says:

          Zimmerman had a very short peak and had some real rough times before this year… and as Poz noted, there has been regression the last couple of months. My point is that I’d rather have Braun, McCutchen or Tulowitski over either of them. If the choice was indeed Zimmerman or Gordon, they weren’t even looking at the right guys. At best they were looking at numbers 4-5 and there were a couple of other guys drafted that were pretty close to their level too.

  7. Steve says:

    While reading this I couldn’t help but think of another Royals 3B draft dilemma in 1971. They took George Brett over Mike Schmidt. As Joe says, I don’t think fans of either team would trade their guy.

    • Bryan says:

      It was a pretty big dilemna, the Royals and Phillies both coveted a player at the same position but the Royals had the edge because they were drafting one spot ahead of the Phillies. The Royals picked Roy Branch so the Phillies picked Roy Thomas and then 7 picks later the Angels had to take Frank Tanana with both Roys already drafted.
      *
      Then in the 2nd round the Royals and Phillies both drafted Shortstops and since Tommy Bianco, Condredge Holloway, Taylor Duncan, Tom Veryzer, Neil Rasmussen, Dale Soderholm, Craig Reynolds and Mike Miley had already been taken at the position in the first round the Royals picked a guy who only played 11 games at SS in his MLB career and the Phillies picked a guy who played 24.

      • Marc Schneider says:

        Conredge Holloway was a pretty good QB at the U of Tennessee. I didn’t realize he had been a baseball player too.

  8. KHAZAD says:

    If you get 20 WAR the first 7 season the player has service time that pick is a raging success, WHEREVER he was drafted. Top 5 picks (that is pick 1-5 overall, not round 1-5) in the June draft average 15 WAR for their entire career. The median career WAR is only about 4.6, as the average is helped by some hall of fame types. Over 20% of those guys never play a major league game.

    That is from the very top of the draft, the guys teams really pin their hopes on. Drafting baseball players is not a very exact science, and when you get a Gordon or a Zimmerman, you should count yourself lucky and move on with no regrets.

    • Rob Smith says:

      I agree. In the first round that year, more than half the players picked were busts. I count 14-15 players from that draft that I recognize that had some sort of impact. Some of those I counted weren’t really that good, but did something for at least a couple of years. The real boner was Jeff Clement being drafted 3rd by the Mariners right in between Upton, Gordon, (then Clement), Zimmerman and Braun. Ouch.

  9. MikeN says:

    Would he have been attacked more severely for taking Zimmermann over Gordon that the Royals were for trading away Wil Myers for James Shields(and some other guys)?

  10. TWolf says:

    Although there does not appear to be any hall-of-famers, the first round of the 2005 draft appears to be one of the strongest in
    producing impact players since the draft was initiated. What years produced more impact players in the first round?

  11. Bryan says:

    1985, 12 of Top 23: Barry Bonds, Barry Larkin, Rafael Palmeiro, Will Clark, BJ Surhoff, Gregg Jefferies, Walt Weiss, Bobby Witt, Brian McRae, Joe Magrane, Pete Incaviglia, Joey Cora, Tommy Greene
    *
    2005, 14 of Top 26: Ryan Braun, Troy Tulowitzki, Andrew McCutchen, Ryan Zimmerman, Alex Gordon, Justin Upton, Jacoby Ellsbury, Colby Rasmus, Jay Bruce, Matt Garza, Cameron Maybin, Cliff Pennington, Ricky Romero, Mike Pelfrey
    *
    In 1985: 34th Bruce Ruffin, 36th Randy Johnson. In 2005: 42nd Clay Buchholz, 45th Jed Lowrie. Depending on where you set the bar for impact player and depending how many picks from the start of the draft you want to consider it will alternate on which class has more players. You can even get more specific and exclude Bruce Ruffin as his relief pitching for the Rockies is after he reaches free agency and calling him an impact player largely for his rookie season with the Phillies is an even bigger stretch than calling him an impact player for his entire career.

  12. E.H. says:

    Pretty rotten for a player to sign a 72 million dollar contract and then forget how to hit above the Mendoza line.

    The Royals management won the battle but Alex Gordon won the war.

  13. Unvenfurth says:

    Alex Gordon sandwiched 5 good years inbeteween the rest of his career being an absolute bum..very weird career. Bottom line the Royals picked the wrong guy.

  14. Paul Schroeder says:

    So, I was at the Royals v. A’s game last night. In a player’s first at bat they show the player’s WAR and BABIP. Interestingly, Gordon was at a .5 WAR, which shocked me. I guess it’s all defense. Escobar, hitting directly in front of Gordon, was at exactly 0 WAR. Fascinating that a team with those two hitters in the lineup can be in the hunt for at least the play in game. Amazingly, they both got hits in their first at bats (back to back) and were part of the Royals scoring. I told my friend that he had seen something very unlikely, Escobar and Gordon getting hits in the same game, the same inning, even.

  15. Tom says:

    What about any difference in AL vs NL? I know some feel the AL is better and, therefore, more difficult. That would give Gordon a little edge, right?

    Bryan, I enjoyed your post and anytime a quote from Bull Durham can be worked in I enjoy it. I was a smart catcher in high school who did not hit enough to progress, and I think Bull Durham captures that dynamic (not just for catchers but smart players who didn’t hit enough) better than any other movie or book I know of.

    I wonder how much each player being close to home helped. I think the environment is more important to success than many realize, and would be interested to see stats in that regard. Which to me makes re-signing your own players safer than importing from other teams. I would be interested to see stats on this as well.

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