In December of 2015 Alex Gordon signed the largest contract ever given by the Royals to a player. The deal was initially heralded as an incredible value for the Royals and celebrated by pretty much everyone. Unfortunately it didn’t take long for the shine to wear off. Far from being worth Shaun’s projected 3.5 fWAR in 2016, he was worth only 1.7. In 2017 he was even worse; his defense rebounded to his previous remarkable level and earned him another gold glove but he finished the year at replacement level, 0.0 fWAR. Next year he will be 34 years old and he still has 2 years left on his contract.
Analysts have spilled gallons of digital ink attempting to discern what happened to him. Some have theorized that he wasn’t entirely healthy, at least in 2016. Other theories include a slowing bat, an altered swing path with too much uppercut, an inability to identify breaking pitches in time, or trying to pull too much. But the numbers we have access to don’t really prove any of those theories or offer up new ones.
According to FanGraphs his strikeouts did jump in 2016, but went back down to close to his career levels in 2017. There isn’t a significant difference between either season’s ratios of groundballs, line drives, and flyballs as compared to his more successful seasons. While it’s true he wasn’t getting Hard Contact on balls as often in 2017 as compared to 2016 or before, most of those became Medium hit balls. His pull percentages were roughly in line with his career averages; he actually pulled the ball less in 2017 than any year since 2013 but his BABIP dropped significantly from 2015 to 2016 and then again in 2017. He did perform significantly worse against fastballs in 2017 than any year since 2010, but the stat just weighs the results and considering he appeared to hit the ball as often as ever and as hard as ever to the same places as ever it’s hard to understand why that might have been the case.
Maybe there is just no way to know why Alex is struggling, but is there any hope for him to rebound now that he’s been terrible two straight seasons and players so infrequently get better after 30?
Actually, yes. MLB history is full of precedents for just such a comeback.
For starters, Steamer projects him to rebound to be merely a below average hitter, next season, instead of a historically bad one. Considering all the stats that were just listed, this kind of makes sense. When you hit the ball with the same velocity to the same places you’ve always hit it at about the same frequency but your BABIP drops 50 points off your career average the projection systems are going to see this as bad luck and foresee a rebound. After digging around deep in some FanGraphs data I also found a long history of players who had at least two straight seasons of below average production at the plate after 30 who still managed to come back and put up some good years, later on.
Pierzynski was never as good a hitter as Gordon, but he had a few good years when he was younger. He seemed to be largely finished as even an average hitter by the time he turned 30, though, having already put up 3 straight seasons at 93 wRC+ or less. That trend continued until 2012 with the White Sox when he found his power stroke again, out of nowhere, and set a career mark for home runs at 27 - 9 more than he had ever hit in a season before - which was good enough for a career high 119 wRC+ in his age-35 season. He wandered in the wilderness again for 2 more years before putting up a 111 wRC+ in Atlanta, this time on the strength of a much higher batting average.
Many Royals fans will probably be familiar with this name; Gary was the one who came closest to breaking Steve Balboni’s franchise home run record before Mike Moustakas finally did the deed, last year. Gaetti came up with the Twins and had a few fantastic years for them but once he hit 30 all hope seemed to be lost. In 1992, at age 34 and now with the Angels, he completed his fourth straight season with a wRC+ of 86 or less. In 1993 he started off horribly with a 29 wRC+ in 20 games before he was unceremoniously cut. The Royals signed him 2 weeks later and he had a 105 wRC+ for the team the rest of the way. in ‘94 he managed only a near-league-average mark of 98 wRC+ but he broke out again as a 36 year old in 1995 when he hit the 35 dingers on his way to a 111 wRC+. The following year he signed with the Cardinals. He sandwiched two well above-average seasons around a mediocre one for the Cardinals and Cubs before falling off a cliff again at age 40 in 1999. Obviously this scenario doesn’t seem to do Royals fans a lot of good because by age 36 Alex Gordon may well have retired and if he hasn’t he’ll probably be playing for another team.
Grissom was known more for his speed, but when he was younger he could hit a bit, too. However, like Gaetti, he simply stopped suddenly at age 30 in 1997. Unfortunately, FanGraphs can’t tell us about his batted ball profiles before 2002 and that was the year, at age 35, he started hitting again. It was as if everything just clicked, his BABIP, ISO, and batting average all jumped 50 points each. He managed another decent year in 2003, an average season in 2004 and then cratered again in 2005 before being forced to retire at age 38.
Other notable post-30 come-back stories include Dick Groat, Luis Aparicio, and Tim Wallach.
Baseball history is full of guys who couldn’t hit after age 30. For the most part, however, they were guys who couldn’t hit before 30, either. The vast majority of the players who were above average hitters - and you can include Alex Gordon among those - either kept on hitting into their mid-30s or managed to find it again before they were done. There’s always a chance Alex might be more of a Jason Kendall than an A.J. Pierzynski or more of an Edgar Renteria than a Gary Gaetti. But there’s also a fair chance that a guy who works as hard as Alex does, who wants it as much as Alex does, and who has shown talent in the past like Alex has will be more of a Marquis Grissom than a Kevin Young.
Will Alex Gordon have a good year again before he retires?
This poll is closed
He has nothing but good years left!
He should just retire before the season starts