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Is Alex Gordon done?

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Is there any hope for the Royals’ outfielder?

MLB: Oakland Athletics at Kansas City Royals
Alex Gordon’s bat confounds him
Peter G. Aiken-USA TODAY Sports

Alex Gordon is not having a good year. He didn’t have a good year, last year, either. Since he returned from the disabled list on September 1, 2015, he is hitting just .215/.311/.344. Much of this decline occurred immediately after he signed the largest contract in Kansas City Royals’ history. You may not have noticed but this has caused a lot of angst among the Royal fan base. Many people were prepared to write him off after his bad start to last season. Even more are prepared to write him off now.

Should he be written off, though? Is there no hope whatsoever? Gordon still has his Gold Glove defense. This year he’s even been showing it off in center field as well. I pointed out in my article last week that Gordon has both had an incredibly low BABIP compared to his career and has been walking more, striking out less, and hitting the ball harder lately. This suggested to me that he has been a bit unlucky lately and may be coming out his slump, soon. Here the numbers are broken down instead of just vaguely referenced:

Alex Gordon Week-by-Week

Time Period PA OBP SLG BB% K% BABIP GB% Soft% Hard% Pull% wRC+
Time Period PA OBP SLG BB% K% BABIP GB% Soft% Hard% Pull% wRC+
April 2-8 22 .273 .300 4.5% 13.6% .235 52.9% 29.4% 35.3% 47.1% 56
April 9-15 26 .269 .208 7.7% 23.1% .278 76.5% 16.7% 5.6% 44.4% 31
April 16-22 27 .222 .167 3.7% 18.5% .158 47.4% 21.1% 21.1% 26.3% 9
April 23-29 18 .333 .200 16.7% 33.3% .333 66.7% 11.1% 44.4% 44.4% 59
April 30-May 6 23 .261 .250 8.7% 8.7% .167 33.3% 22.2% 33.3% 38.9% 42
May 7-13 23 .261 .056 17.4% 30.4% .091 45.5% 0.0% 45.5% 45.5% 9
May 14-20 17 .412 .286 11.8% 11.8% .333 50.0% 25.0% 8.3% 41.7% 107
April Total 97 .268 .218 7.2% 21.6% .242 56.9% 22.7% 24.2% 39.4% 36
May Total 59 .305 .188 13.6% 16.9% .184 44.7% 13.2% 29.0% 42.1% 49
2017 Total 156 .282 .207 9.6% 19.9% .221 52.4% 19.2% 26.0% 40.4% 41
Career Average .343 .424 9.8% 23.9% .315 39.4% 17.0% 31.6% 42.1% 108

Some of the biggest things that stand out: despite many people insisting that Alex is trying to pull everything, his pull rate is actually below his career average. His strikeout rate has been pretty consistently under his career average so far, as well. He’s had an increase in hard contact rate along with a drop in soft contact rate and a whopping 12 percentage-point drop in his groundball rate since May started but his BABIP somehow went down. The drastic increase in walk rate and drop in strike out rate allowed his wRC+ to increase, though.

Honestly he was just flat bad in April. A 7-percentage point drop in hard contact from his career norm is a much bigger deal than you might think. According to this in-depth look at contact quality profiles, even just a 1 percentage point shift from hard to soft with three percentage points from hard to medium can mean the difference between an above-average hitter and an average one. Alex moved all of his hard and even a little medium contact rate to soft in April. It’s no wonder he was terrible.

But just look at May, again. The batted ball profiles are a lot closer to his career averages but he is still hitting poorly. The best explanation would seem to be bad luck - that BABIP is insanely low. So if he’s starting to come out of it, can we tell why?

It’s true that he has struggled more with fastballs this year - possibly because his bat speed is down noticeably, as well. If you check out his pitch scores you might be tempted to point out that he’s performed even worse against other pitches, this year. The thing is that he’s never done well against those pitches so the drop on the fastball is much more worrying. However the pitch score only tells us that he is struggling with the fastball, but not why.

If the bat speed was a contributing factor to not hitting the fastballs you would probably expect his whiff-rate on fastballs to go up. But according to these heat maps, he appears to actually be whiffing less:

Alex Gordon’s whiff percentages on hard pitches prior to this season
brooksbaseball.net
Alex Gordon’s whiffs on fastballs this year
brooksbaseball.net

So maybe chasing the fastballs is barking up the wrong tree. What about general pitch location?

Alex Gordon pitches seen in 2017 heat map
brooksbaseball.net

That might explain the groundballs, at least. Either Alex made an adjustment to reduce the whiffs on high fastballs or baseball just caught on that pitching him down is an even better option, take a look at his all-time whiff rates:

Alex Gordon’s whiffs all-time against all pitches
brooksbaseball.net

If you can convince Alex Gordon to swing at a pitch below the strike zone, he’s even more likely to swing and miss than on those high fastballs pitchers love to torture lefties with. There’s also the little bonus that when he does make contact on a pitch down there, - especially an off-speed/breaking pitch which is mostly what he sees in that area - he’s far more likely to hit a weak groundball. The potential scenarios only get worse for Alex if the loss of bat speed is causing him to start his swing earlier which would make him even further out in front of the soft stuff. Which causes even more whiffs and weak grounders. Pitching this way is also generally safer than the fastballs up, because if you miss with those as long as they aren’t hung it’s a lot harder to do damage with them than a low-hanging high fastball.

So what’s the solution? You may recall that Kendrys Morales had this same problem, last season. His solution was to simply stop swinging at the bad breaking balls. It sounds simple, but if it was I doubt this would ever have been a problem for either of them. Unfortunately, that’s pretty much all Alex can do, as well.

It is tempting to think Alex has figured this out and that’s why he’s done better in the last week. Oddly enough, the heat zones and peripheral stats all agree that during his “successful” week he’s pretty much back to doing the exact same thing he was at the start of the year - whiffing on low off-speed pitches and hitting far too many weak groundballs. The only difference between the two periods is the recent increased walk and decreased strike out rates. It’s possible that he finally had a lucky week after an unlucky 2-3 weeks following his terrible start. Even so, if people aren’t paying close enough attention they may make adjustments to try and defeat his “rebound” that cause it to actually come about. Or he may gain enough confidence to continue watching bad pitches or fix any mechanical flaws he might have and get things going on his own.

So if you’ve been wondering if Alex Gordon is done as a productive major league baseball hitter the answer is a resounding, “Ask me again later.” He might be done. The much-improved May peripherals might be the fluke. But you might look up again in a week and see that he’s somehow in the middle of a nice little hot streak. Eric Hosmer appeared to be hopeless garbage right up until he was suddenly one of the hottest hitters in baseball. The one thing that seems easy to predict in all of this is that if the Royals really have a shot at getting back in the playoff race, they’re probably going to need Alex Gordon to find his way back to being league average, at least.

Poll

Is Alex Gordon done?

This poll is closed

  • 33%
    Yes.
    (803 votes)
  • 23%
    No.
    (576 votes)
  • 22%
    Ask me again in another couple of weeks
    (543 votes)
  • 20%
    He’s still a gold-glove defender; but the rest of the offense needs to improve around him.
    (509 votes)
2431 votes total Vote Now