Nostalgia Prospect Retro: Tom Gordon
For younger fans, Tom Gordon is an old fart, a late 30s guy who has been around forever. For older prospect watchers, he is remembered was one of the most exciting young pitchers in the game in the late 1980s.
Tom Gordon was drafted by the Kansas City Royals in the sixth round in 1986, out of high school in Avon Park, Florida. An excellent athlete with an above-average fastball and a big-breaking curve, his draft stock was hurt somewhat by his height: very few 5-9 pitchers excite scouts, and the prejudice against short righthanders was a lot stronger 20 years ago than it is now. The fact that Gordon went as high as the sixth round was a testament to his arm strength and his athleticism.
His pro career got off to a good start: he went 3-1, with a 1.02 ERA and a 47/23 K/BB in 44 innings of rookie ball. His command needed a lot of work, but his 90+ fastball and big-breaking curve were too much for most rookie-ball hitters. A similar player would rate as a Grade C+ prospect nowadays, probably with a "higher potential" modifier.
Gordon was assigned to Eugene in the short-season Northwest League in 1987. He was dominant, going 9-0, 2.86 in 13 starts, with a 91/47 K/BB in 72 innings, allowing a mere 48 hits, his exceptional K/IP and H/IP ratios stood out. A late promotion to the Florida State League resulted in a 1.63 ERA in 14 innings, though he walked 17 guys. His velocity had picked up into the 92-94 MPH range consistently, and he was gradually gaining command of his curve. Retrospective Grade B, with breakthrough potential in the coming season.
1988 was a stunning success for Gordon. He started the year with Appleton in the Midwest League, going 7-5, 2.06 in 17 starts with 172 strikeouts in 118 innings, allowing only 69 hits. He walked 43, quite a few, but his stuff was so far ahead of the league that it didn't hurt him. Promoted to Double-A at mid-season, he was even more effective, going 6-0, 0.38 in six starts, fanning 62 and allowing only 16 hits in 47 innings. Moved up to Triple-A at that point, he went 3-0, 1.33 in three starts, with 29 strikeouts in 20 innings and just 11 hits allowed. With nothing left to prove in the minors, the Royals promoted him and he appeared in 16 innings for the big team, allowing nine runs but posting an 18/7 K/BB. Quite a rise from the Midwest League in just two months! If that's not a Grade A pitching prospect, I don't know what is, 5-9 height or not.
Gordon made the Royals in spring training 1989, and had a successful, if erratic, season as a long reliever and spot starter, going 17-9, 3.64 in 163 innings, starting 16 games and relieving 33. He fanned 153 and allowed just 122 hits, though his walk rate was too high with 86.
Gordon became a source of joy and frustration for Royals fans, for the next eight years, pitching brilliantly at times but struggling with his control. You never knew what to expect from Gordon. At times he'd pop mid-90s fastballs, and his knee-buckling curve was always fun to watch. Other times his velocity would dip into the 80s. His control was a problem, and the team never seemed to figure out whether they wanted him to start or relieve. Moving on to Boston, he became a full-time reliever in 1998. His Red Sox tenure (and his prominent role in a Stephen King novel) got him consistent national attention. He blew out his elbow at age 32 but was able to come back and return as a successful pitcher.
Comparable Pitchers to Tom Gordon
Points to consider:
Would Gordon have benefited at all from additional time in Triple-A? Or was he just so dominant in 1988 that minor league hitters had nothing more to teach him?
If you had a pitcher like a young Tom Gordon, would you want to use him as a starter or as a reliever? Did Gordon's long relief/spot starter usage early in his career help or hinder him in the long run?