As Rany Jazayerli noted in his article 'Not a Prediction', "even the casual fan has noticed a difference in Gordon's swing." It is clear that he has made a mechanical change, flattening out his swing to put his bat in the zone longer. It is also clear, through a slightly longer period of observation, that Gordon has become more aggressive as a hitter; ostensibly, these changes have both been for the better.
However, there are some curious things going on with Gordon's revamped hitting style; things which, typically, may be considered poor hitting traits. Very plainly, Gordon's patience at the plate is down tremendously. His walk%, close to 10% for the rest of his career, sits this season at just over 5.2%. Last year, not a single player from MLB's top 50 in wOBA posted a figure that low. Vladimir Guerrero, the first player to really come close, logged a wOBA of .360 and a 5.4 BB%; Vladimir Guerrero is also noted as an historical hitting freak... and this rate tied for 2nd worst in his career. Delmon Young, also fairly similar with a 4.6 walk% and a .352 wOBA, has perennially rivaled Gordon as one of baseball's most visible disappointments, and the possibility is high that this was an anomaly.
But while similar in his overall ability to take a walk as both Guerrero and Young, both of whom have demonstrated decent successes, Gordon has not demonstrated a similar aptitude for putting the ball in play. Is it possible for Gordon to succeed while walking less than Vladimir Guerrero and striking out twice as often?
This question may be a bit misleading, in that it assumes Gordon's new hitting approach will continue to yield similar walk and strikeout rates. Perhaps, through diligence, Gordon will refine his new approach to make contact more consistently and strike out less often. We are, in fact, still dealing with a small sample size. However, it is precisely because the sample size of "success" (as defined by his current .356/.402/.522 batting line) is small that Gordon's achievements should be praised with caution. Certainly, it is more likely that Gordon will regress to a more characteristic hitting profile than to continue to succeed atypically.
BABIP, so often cited in stats. articles that it is almost maligned from a reader's perspective, is (unfortunately?) incredibly relevant to this discussion. Though hitters' BABIPs are more prone to variation than pitchers', it can be said that each individual hitter's success on balls in play tends to find a normal level; for Gordon, this has historically been around .300 (Career .303). This year, however, his BABIP currently stands at an unsustainable .437. That is not to say Gordon's new approach may not yield a higher BABIP than in years past, but it does say that under a "reasonable" expectation of performance, Gordon may not be hitting as well as it seems. Let's be extremely reasonable:
The highest sustained career BABIP in recorded major league history belongs to Ty Cobb, who astoundingly lapped the field with a mark of .372. Reducing Gordon's expected BABIP just to this number, and again being generous enough to assume all of his lost hits were only singles, results in a ~.305/.355/.467 line. Assuming he is able to reach base with the proficiency of Ichiro Suzuki (career BABIP of .357), his line becomes .293/.344/456. While certainly better than his recent outputs, it is not dramatically better than his last full season in the major leagues, when he managed a .260/.351/.432 line in 2008. A more sobering reality could suggest that Gordon is actually worse off: A .330 BABIP, still a vast improvement over what Gordon has accomplished in his career, reduces his seasonal line to .271/.324/.433.
Gordon will probably hit more home runs per flyball than he has so far with his current hitting style, and it should be noted that this was one generosity not afforded to him in the above example: I'm not about to waste my life trying to normalize every aspect of a 100 Plate Appearance sample. Alex is swinging at far more balls outside of the strike zone this year than he normally does (33.3% in 2011; 24.9% career), but he is also managing to make much better contact with these pitches out of the zone (70.0% in 2011; 55.1% career). This may or may not increase his success on home runs per flyball, but it is likely, in my estimation, he will see improvement from his current showing of 1 per 97 Plate appearances.
What is certain is that Gordon has dramatically altered his hitting profile:
His lack of plate discipline is most concerning not because of the amount of pitches he swings at outside the zone, and not just because of his sudden inability to draw walks, but also because he has not dramatically reduced his strikeout rate in concert with this. A higher BABIP may be expected going forward, especially with the increase in groundballs versus flyballs; given his head start in the first month, it has a good chance at being higher by season's end. But the risk now seems to be that pitchers could take advantage of Gordon's newfound aggressiveness. Even if his contact on pitches outside the strikezone stays at its current level, Alex can expect a fairly significant regression based on BABIP alone; he will really be in trouble if his contact rate similarly regresses.
"Fun" Endnote: I once considered starting a Royals Blog titled "King Killjoy" for my penchant for turning success stories into depressing skepticism. My goal here is not to rain on the Gordon parade, however. I think conclusions can clearly be drawn both ways on this topic. Gordon is clearly doing something different both mechanically and mentally and it will be interesting to see If he is able to make it work for him. My (very) amateur opinion is that it cannot work as currently conducted, but that it may be workable if Gordon shows himself capable of laying off poor balls. Pitchers will likely test Gordon's new limits... how will he respond?