The Slow Decline of Tom Gordon

Tom Gordon, the erstwhile Yankees set-up man and inspiration for a Stephen King book, wants to cash in on his Bronx success. As a free agent this off-season, he has his eye on a closing job somewhere. Gordon also wants a three-year contract, but I wouldn’t give it to him if I were running a Major League team.
For two years, Tom Gordon has been a key cog in the Yankees’ shaky bullpen. He has appeared in 159 games while throwing 170.1 innings. He has allowed just 115 hits and 25 earned runs while walking 52 and striking out 165. For what it’s worth, in the past two years, Gordon is 14-8 with 6 saves, 13 blown save opportunities, and 69 holds.
Except for those blown save numbers, Gordon seems to be an ideal candidate for a big payday. He’s shined, except for in the playoffs, on baseball’s biggest stage, and he’s often been viewed as a savior behind Mariano Rivera in a bullpen that went through 21 pitchers this season.
But for all of these gaudy numbers, a closer examination of Gordon’s recent trends reveal a picture of an old pitcher who will inevitably be overpaid by a team looking for a good bullpen solution.
Notably, Gordon is no spring chicken. In fact, tomorrow, November 18th, is his 38th birthday. Unless named Roger Clemens, pitchers at that age are not getting better, and Gordon is no exception.
For the last three years, Gordon has been among the best set-up men in the game, but aggregate numbers lie. For three years, all of Gordon’s peripherals have trended downward, and that slide is not going to stop with his new contract. Let’s take a look at those numbers.

2003 .301 11.07 3.77
2004 .237 9.64 2.28
2005 .272 7.70 3.20

From those numbers, a few points emerge. First, Tom Gordon did an exceptional job in 2004 of keeping runners off base. While his strike out rate fell from 2003 to 2004, he cut his walk rate substantially. So the more-than-one strike out per inning helped greatly. Opponents hit .180 off of him, and as the batting average against Gordon on balls in play (or BABIP) was .243, the strike outs were a key to his success.
In 2005, Gordon had another great year. While opponents were better at getting on base against the righty, he still limited opponents to a .272 OBP. He also held opponents to a .203 batting average, but the gap between Gordon’s BA and BABIP is closing. This year, Gordon’s BABIP was .238. The cause? His strike out rate declined precipitously. He went from 11.07 K/9 IP in 2003 to 9.64 K/9 IP in 2004 to an eight-season low of 7.70 K/9 IP.
Outside of the fact that Gordon blew 13 saves in two years on the Yankees and had a save rate of just 31.6 percent, this declining strike out rate should raise red flags for anyone evaluating Gordon.
If Tom Gordon is not striking out as many batters, that means the batters are hitting the ball. If they are hitting the ball, that batting average against Gordon and BABIP will go up. At 38, Gordon isn’t going to find a few more miles per hour on his fastball or anymore bite on his curve.
Pitchers like Gordon don’t often make it to age 38, and when they do, they decline precipitously. I wouldn’t pay Tom Gordon to pitch for me at age 40 without seeing what he does first at ages and 39. And with a steeply declining strike out rate, I wouldn’t want Gordon to be my last option out of the bullpen for the amount of money he wants.
The Yanks have offered Gordon a two-year deal, and I would guess it’s for a little more than the $3.5 million a year he has earned the last two seasons. If I were a fan of a team eying Gordon for that closer role, I would hope he takes the Yankees’ offer and remains Mariano’s set-up man for the next two years of his decline.


6 Responses to The Slow Decline of Tom Gordon

  1. Dan says:

    Using DIPS (not park adjusted, but NYA and CHA don’t have very extreme ballparks), here’s what Gordon’s stats look like:
    2003: 3.16 ERA, 3.06 dERA
    2004: 2.21 ERA, 2.85 dERA
    2005: 2.57 ERA, 4.23 dERA
    Gordon appears to be headed down a bad road, as you correctly pointed out.

  2. Benjamin Kabak says:

    Dan: Where did you get those dERA numbers? The ones on Tom Gordon’s Baseball Prospectus Player Card say he had his three-year dERA is as follows: 3.27, 2.14, 2.70. According to the Hardball Times numbers, Gordon’s XFIP was 3.96 this past season. has his DIPS 2.0 at 3.70. While I think that K/9 IP shows Gordon losing velocity and thus effectiveness, I’m just wondering where your dERA numbers came from.

  3. kevin says:

    “This year, Gordon’s BABIP was .238. The cause? His strike out rate declined precipitously.”
    I don’t believe there is a correlation between BABIP and K/rate. Did you mean to say his Batting average against?

  4. Benjamin Kabak says:

    Yeah, Kevin. What I meant was that the gap between his Batting Average Against and his BABIP is closing.

  5. Dan says:

    Well I believe BP’s dERA is not related to DIPS ERA, sorry if the abbreviation was confusing.
    I calculated it myself using Voros McCracken’s 2.0 formula. I must have made an error somewhere.

  6. Dan says:

    Formula fixed, and I’ll try to redeem myself:
    2003: 3.16 ERA, 2.78 DIPS
    2004: 2.21 ERA, 2.42 DIPS
    2005: 2.57 ERA, 3.70 DIPS
    Career: 3.94 ERA, 3.78 DIPS

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