A tale of three third baseman

In the 2005 MLB amateur draft, considered one of the richest talent-wise in recent history, three third basemen were among the first five selections. Even though that was just three years ago, all three have made it to the major leagues. They are Alex Gordon (second), Ryan Zimmerman (fourth) and Ryan Braun (fifth). Let’s look at each player’s path to the majors, how they’ve fared, and what their outlook is for next season.

Path to the majors

Alex Gordon: Gordon was drafted out of the University of Nebraska after his junior year.

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In his final college year, he batted .365, had a .493 OBP and slugged .754. He won plenty of awards following that season, including the Golden Spikes Award and the ABCA National Player of the Year Award, but more importantly got selected second overall with a sweet $4 million signing bonus.

In his first full year in the minors, already in Double-A, Gordon played phenomenally well. He put up a .325/.412/.588 line in 558 plate appearances. Slightly alarming was his high strikeout rate at 23.3 percent, but his above-average walk percentage of 12.9 and gaudy power numbers helped nullify that concern. More awards followed that season, including Texas League Player of the Year and Baseball America Minor League Player of the Year. More importantly he was promoted to the major leagues and given the opportunity to win the starting third base job from Mark Teahen.

Ryan Zimmerman: Zimmerman, the fourth overall selection, also was drafted out of college—the University of Virginia. Zimmerman was signed for $2.975 million, just over a million less than Gordon. He was signed relatively quickly and therefore able to get some minor league action in 2005. He was first placed in Single-A ball, where he stayed all of four games—posting a 1.530 OPS—before he was promoted to Double-A. There, Zimmerman’s stats came down to earth. In 254 plate appearances, he posted a .326/.371/.528 line.

The Nationals were impressed enough to make Zimmerman a September call-up, and yes, we are still in the year 2005. I believe he and Braves (now A’s) reliever Joey Devine were the only members of the 2005 draft to make it to the majors that year. Check out what Zimmerman did: He hit for a .397 average over 62 PAs. He had no home runs, but 10 doubles, and his .500 BABIP was justified by a 38.3 line drive percentage. So impressed were they with their 21-year-old third base prospect that the Nationals decided to play waitress and handed the starting third base job to Zimmerman on a silver platter.

Ryan Braun: Braun was selected fifth overall and signed quickly, receiving a $2.45 million bonus. He would spend the rest of that season unevenly split between Rookie League Ball and Single-A, where he recorded a combined 1.004 OPS. With Braun, the Brewers stood up much straighter than the Nats did with Zimmerman and the Royals with Gordon, starting 2006 with him at the A+ level.

Braun would split the 2006 season at the A+ and Double-A levels, playing in exactly 59 games at each. He struggled somewhat at A+, but nevertheless was promoted to Double-A where his stuff began to shine. Here’s a quick table of Braun’s 2006 Double-A half-season, and his 2007 Triple-A quarter-season:


Season	Team		League	PA	HR	RBI	AVG	OBP	SLG	BB%	K%	
2006	Huntsville (AA)	SL	252	15	40	.303	.361	.589	8.3	19.9	
2007	Nashville (AAA)	PCL	132	10	22	.342	.417	.701	11.4	9.4

As you can see, Braun showed that he had the raw skills to succeed at the higher levels of the minor leagues in his 2006 Double-A season, and also the plate discipline to thrive in the majors in his Triple-A stint. Actually, the ridiculous numbers Braun registered in two months at Triple-A proved he possessed everything a hitter needs to pan out in the majors. The Brewers agreed, probably influenced most by the much reduced 9.4 strikeout percentage, and promoted him to the majors on May 25.

In the majors

Zimmerman got his first taste of the majors in September and been the Nationals starting third baseman ever since. Gordon played all of one season in Double-A before winning a starting job in 2007 spring training and has started since. Braun spent the most time in the minors of the three, a whopping one and a half years, so you could argue that all three have been rushed to the majors. They have found varied success in the big leagues.

Gordon: Remember him? He was our Golden Boy. His trophy room was bursting with awards and he made it to the majors without playing in a single game at Triple-A. On his Baseball Prospectus PECOTA card was written “The number one prospect in baseball.” They were being completely serious.

To make room for Gordon at third base, the Royals were willing to “banish” Mark Teahen to the outfield, and you bet they did. So now we’ve cleared a spot in the infield dirt and left a hole in the lineup for Gordon to fill… how’d he do with it?

Season	PA	R	2B	HR	RBI	SB	AVG	OBP	SLG
2007	601	60	36	15	60	14	0.247	0.314	0.411
2008	571	72	35	16	59	9	0.260	0.351	0.432

The quick answer: not well. Not terrible, but he certainly did not live up to expectations. An average under .250 is uninspiring, an on-base percentage of .314 is not helping the team—even the Royals—and his 15 home runs are rather pedestrian for a third baseman.

Regardless, there was still plenty of optimism surrounding Gordon heading into the 2008 season. The Royals definitely were going to continue starting him, and in fantasy drafts he was taken at an average position of 138.3, which correlates to the first pick in the 12th round of a 12-man league. Take a quick glance at the table above and you’ll see Gordon did not live up to the expectations for a second straight season. His stats increased pretty much across the board, but only slightly. We’ve seen players who have been unlucky for one season; maybe Gordon has simply been unlucky for two?

Season	BB%	K%	LD%	BABIP	HR/FB
2007	7.00	25.20	19.50	0.304	8.50
2008	11.80	24.30	21.00	0.314	8.90

Ehhh, it seems that luck has not played a major factor in Gordon’s major league career so far and that explains the surprising amount of consistency he’s shown. Everything has remained relatively constant in the past two years. I don’t believe Gordon ever will develop into a 40-homer threat—as indicated by his below-average HR/FB percentage and current gap power—so he’s going to have to significantly reduce that strikeout rate if he’s ever going to find success in the majors.

He needs to raise his 76 percent contact rate to at least the league-average 81 percent. His line drive percentage and BABIP all have been consistently around league average, so nothing to discuss there. This leaves only the walk rate, and it is the one promising aspect of his 2008 season. That jump form 7 to 12 percent is huge and shows the most important thing: development. Remember, Gordon did not have the luxury of developing his skills in the minors; he’s having to do it now, in the majors, and thankfully that is what we’re seeing.

Zimmerman: When we left off with him, he had been called up to the majors in September of ’05 and made pitchers look like Girl Scouts selling cookies. The year 2006 was not much different. Take a look:


Season	PA	R	2B	HR	RBI	SB	AVG	OBP	SLG
2006	682	84	47	20	110	11	0.287	0.351	0.471
2007	722	99	43	24	91	4	0.266	0.330	0.458
2008	466	51	24	14	51	1	0.283	0.333	0.442

For a rookie season, a .290 average, 20 home runs, 80 runs, 110 RBI and 10 stolen bases is pretty impressive. Hanley Ramirez just edged him out for NL Rookie of the Year, but Zimmerman still finished the season with his head held high. At this time, Gordon was still mashing away in Double-A oblivion and Zimmerman already head a quality MLB season under his belt. You hear that sound? It’s Zimmerman’s service time clock ticking away to a huge free-agent contract.

His 2007 season was a slight step backward in most regards. Fantasy-wise, it was still solid but the 20-point drop in batting average had an ominous air. Still, plenty of players rushed to the majors have experienced much worse sophomore slumps than Zimmerman, if you can even call his a slump. Let’s look at some of his indicating stats to see if luck played a role:


Season	BB%	K%	LD%	BABIP	HR/FB%   GB/FB%	O-Contact%
2006	9.0	19.5	21.8	0.329	11.4	1.18	54.51
2007	8.5	19.1	16.9	0.298	11.4	1.1	60.80
2008	6.8	16.6	19.8	0.312	11.5	1.35	69.34

Most of these indicators stay in line over the three years. The dip in batting average in 2007 is explained by the regression in BABIP, which is sequentially explained by the dip in line drive percentage. Coming into 2008, Zimmerman looked like a safe choice for decent production from third base. He was taken on average 96th overall and was considered by many to be the last secure third baseman available in a surprisingly shallow pool of players. If you missed out on Zimmerman, then you were left with a gamble of a player like Evan Longoria or Edwin Encarnacion.

But 2008 was a disappointing season for Zimmerman. It was not because he played terribly or missed most of the season, but rather a combination. He did miss playing time—almost two months from May 25 to July 22 with a shoulder injury— but still managed to accumulate 466 plate appearances. Problem was, he played unspectacularly in the four months in which he played. So a combination of injury and mediocrity left his end of the season numbers overall underwhelming.

In terms of luck stats, not much changed. The decrease in strikeout percentage was nullified by a similar decrease in walk percentage. And the small curb on his power numbers was the result of him putting the ball on the ground more often. The one thing that did change significantly was his O-Contact percentage. Simply put, that is the percentage of pitches a batter makes contact with when the ball is outside the strike zone and when the batter is swinging. Not much research has been done on the effects of making contact with pitches outside the zone, but the general assumption is that it’s undesirable. Zimmerman’s O-Contact percentage obviously has shot up steadily over the past three years. Just something to keep an eye on.

Braun: If you remember, Braun was the player handled most sensibly. His promotions were deserved and the next one didn’t come until he proved himself at that level. If you also remember what he did for two months at Triple-A in 2007, you’ll realize that his May 25 promotion to the majors was well deserved. At that point, Zimmerman had been in the majors for one year and two months and Gordon just two months. Gordon was struggling mightily, batting just .194. Zimmerman wasn’t having a great season either, so far with a .245 average. With those being the numbers produced by supposedly superior players (based on where they were drafted) and of players with more major league experience than Braun, who was expecting much of anything from him?

Expectations obviously did not matter, as Braun absolutely tore up the major leagues from June to September. Check it out:


Season	PA	R	2B	HR	RBI	SB	AVG	OBP	SLG
2007	492	91	26	34	97	15	0.324	0.370	0.634
Season	BB%	K%	LD%	BABIP	HR/FB%    GB/FB%			
2007	6.0	24.8	16.3	0.367	22.1	0.86			

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An absolutely monster season all-around. In less than 500 plate appearances, Braun was able to blast more than 30 home runs and fell just short of the 100 plateau in runs and RBI. It netted him the NL Rookie of the Year Award, just ahead of Troy Tulowitzki.

Fantasy teams that picked him up midseason benefited tremendously from his condensed production and often won leagues. Taking a look at his “luck” stats, however, you see that luck played an integral part in Braun’s season. He struck out too often, did not draw walks often enough, hit for a low percentage of line drives, had an abnormally high BABIP, and owned a possibly inflated HR/FB percentage. Regardless of all of those bad signs, Braun was still picked on average 16th overall, in the second round. That was way too early in drafts for me to select him, and I did not select him in an of my leagues or mock drafts. Let’s see how he did in 2008:


Season	PA	R	2B	HR	RBI	SB	AVG	OBP	SLG
2008	663	92	39	37	106	14	0.285	0.335	0.553
Season	BB%	K%	LD%	BABIP	HR/FB%	GB/FB%			
2008	6.4%	21.1%	17.3%	0.308	17.5%	0.88	

Braun certainly did see a regression in his stats in 2008, but he was so good in 2007 that he was still a roto monster in ’08. His BABIP regressed significantly and consequently his batting average took a dive as well, yet floated from .280 to .300 for most of the season. He maintained his home run total, albeit not at the same PA or flyball rate of last year. Overall another solid season for Braun—his second in two tries—and he removed any of the doubt surrounding his ability.

Outlook

Gordon: Alex Gordon has not yet had his breakout season and it is due to come over the next three years. It could be next year, but I feel he will provide the most value in 2010. I’m not sure how far he will fall in drafts because there usually tends to be one Gordon-lover who selects above where I’m comfortable. But if your league is without one, feel free to target him toward the mid-to-late rounds. However, I do feel that 2009 will be another learning season for Gordon, the hype will be gone entering 2010, and he will be a great sleeper that season. Who knows what fantasy baseball will be like then…

Zimmerman: Ryan Zimmerman has the trickiest future to predict of the bunch, and I do not know what to expect from him next year. The good news is that you probably won’t have to expend a high draft choice to select him, so he could have value if he falls as far in drafts as I think he may.

Braun: Ryan Braun is an absolute monster, no doubt. I’d have zero hesitation in selecting him in the third round of drafts, but he tends to go sometime in the second. Probably not for me.

And just a nice little note to sum things up: Notice how Ryan Braun, who was drafted last of the three, is now by far the most accomplished. So much for scouting.

References and Resources I used a whole bunch of sites for this one, including The Baseball Cube, FanGraphs, Cot’s Baseball Contracts, Baseball Prospectus, and, of course, our own Hardball Times stats.

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