Thursday, February 28, 2008

Gordon Living Up to Brett Comparisons

The comparison to George Brett is going to follow Alex Gordon for his entire career, or at least for as long as he's wearing a Royals uniform and playing third base -- the same position that Brett, a member of the National Baseball Hall of Fame, roamed when he played for Kansas City from 1973 through 1993.

A second-round selection in the 1971 amateur draft, Brett quietly made his Kansas City debut by batting eighth and going 1-for-4 with a strikeout in a 3-1 win over the White Sox at Comiskey Park on August 2, 1973. He was a 19-year old prospect, who played in just 13 games that summer, batting .125/.125/.175 with two doubles and two runs scored.

I dare say there was not a soul who could have predicted the type of career Brett would have following that meager introduction to Major League Baseball. But he made enough of an impression in Spring Training prior to the start of the 1974 season to earn a roster spot, made his first start at third base on May 4, and wound up in the starting lineup 128 times that season. He never looked back, he just kept impressing people on his way to three American League Batting Titles, 13 All-Star Game selections, and the 1980 A.L. Most Valuable Player Award.

Gordon's arrival in Kansas City, on the other hand, was like offering a bucket of water to a family who hadn't enjoyed anything to drink for weeks, or months -- he was met with open arms and hailed as the next savior of Royals baseball. Kansas City had enjoyed one winning season in 13 years, so it strengthened the fans' desire to have a player of his ilk in the lineup, and quickly.

He arrived following consecutive seasons in which he had earned the top awards for the level he was playing, and I'm sure there are Royals fans out there who included his name in their bedtime prayers.

In 2005, as a junior at the University of Nebraska, Gordon hit .372/.518/.715 with 22 doubles, 19 home runs, 79 runs scored, and 66 RBI in 72 games. He led the Huskers to the College World Series, was named the ABCA National Player of the Year, and also received the Golden Spikes Award, the Dick Howser Trophy, and the Brooks Wallace Award.

Drafted by the Royals with the second overall pick of the 2005 amateur draft, Gordon's first full Minor League season was 2006 with Class AA Wichita. He played in 130 games for the Wranglers, batting .325/.427/.588 with 39 doubles, 29 home runs, 111 runs scored, and 101 RBI to earn recognition as Baseball America's Minor League Player of the Year. In doing so, he became the first player to win collegiate player of the year one year, and then minor league player of the year in his first professional season.

If you didn't understand already, now you know why the bucket of water analogy makes sense. Royals fans were thirsty for a winner, and....ah, I'm sure you figured it out. The Royals were bad, and he was good.

Despite questions about whether or not he'd make the Royals' roster out of Spring Training last year, Gordon left no room for doubt with a sizzling spring, earning the starting third base position, and forcing previous third baseman Mark Teahen to move to right field.

But after one full season in which Gordon played 151 games for Kansas City, does the comparison to Hall of Famer Brett still hold water? Sorry, couldn't resist. In short, yes it does. In fact, Gordon's numbers compare very favorably to Brett's at the same point in his career. I'll drop the last game of the 2007 season for Gordon, in order to examine the first 150 games of each player's career.

After 150 games in the Major Leagues, Brett's numbers looked like this: .270/.298/.346, 511 AB, 54 R, 138 H, 23 2B, 5 3B, 2 HR, 49 RBI, 23 BB, 4 IBB, and 45 SO. These figures include those 13 games after he was called up in the summer of 1973, the 133 games of his rookie season of 1974, and the first four games of 1975. He finished third in A.L. Rookie of the Year voting in 1974.

If you factor out Brett's horrendous start during August and September 1973, and just look at his first 150 games as an everyday player, his totals are as follows: .284/.319/.365, 518 AB, 57 R, 147 H, 24 2B, 6 3B, 2 HR, 54 RBI, 28 BB, 4 IBB, and 43 SO.

In Gordon's first 150 games, he hit .248/.315/.413 with 540 AB, 60 R, 134 H, 36 2B, 4 3B, 15 HR, 60 RBI, 41 BB, 4 IBB, and 136 SO. Obviously, he needs to pare down that last number, and hit at a higher average, but his second half of the season last year was much more indicative of what he seems capable of.

Through 53 games, Gordon was batting .173/.285/.281 with three home runs, eight RBI, and 55 strikeouts. From that point on, he hit .285/.330/.478 with 102 hits, 27 doubles, 12 home runs, 52 RBI, and 82 strikeouts in 98 games.

Pressure is something that Alex Gordon is always going to have to deal with. A third baseman with his talent is not going to be able to escape the shadow of George Brett, especially when Brett makes comments like he did last year, saying Gordon is "much better than I was at (23). Much better."

Gordon has a long, long way to go before he can even come close to touching any of Brett's Royals records. Brett amassed 3154 hits, 665 doubles, 317 home runs, 1595 runs batted in, 1583 runs scored, batted .305/.369/.487 over his 21-year career -- and he chased a .400 average before winning his second batting title with a .390 average in 1980. Those are amazing figures, which earned Brett his plaque in Cooperstown.

But, at least for the first part of his career, Gordon has withstood all the pressure of the constant comparisons to No. 5, and is delivering just what Royals fans have wanted for so long -- a fresh glass of water.

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