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For Alex Gordon, age came for him

Kansas City Royals v Cleveland Indians Photo by Jason Miller/Getty Images

Long and sad was the fall for Alex Gordon, who turned from bonafide star to replacement level seemingly one morning when he woke up. No one at the time regretted signing Gordon to a franchise record deal (even hard to be impressed and perpetually skeptical me liked the deal), but it’s as if Gordon lost half his talent after he put pen to paper (like when the basketball players touched the ball in Space Jam).

As we are often curious when it comes to change, particularly sudden and drastic change, we what to find a reason for it. The most common reason given is an injury, specifically a groin injury that Gordon suffered in 2015. He was hitting well leading up to it and struggled when he returned.

I’m going to give another reason that I think has a little more explanatory power, something that comes for us all if we live long enough: age.

There is no doubt that Gordon was probably rusty when he returned back in September of 2015 after missing just under two months but would a groin injury be enough to plague a player deep into the next year?

Looking at Gordon’s plate discipline numbers, those big red bars in 2016 paint some picture that he was struggling with contact. Is that though something that can be explained by a lingering groin injury?

Batted ball and plate discipline numbers are always subject to noise and deviations. You can see the contact% dropping as 2015 opened (it dropped in 2014 too) but then cratering as 2015 went on. It then though rebounded strongly back to his career norms as 2016 continued, all but normal now (he’s actually making slightly more contact this season than his career average).

I’m also curious if Gordon made some sort of approach change at some point pre-2014, seeing him pull the ball a lot more, which had an inverse effect on his wRC+. Offensively when he’s pulled the ball, his hitting has been worse.

There’s no doubt that Gordon was bad in 2016, but I’m dubious that a groin injury (a common injury in baseball) would have long lasting, multi-year effect on a player. So I looked for outfielders with groin injuries that missed more than two weeks to see how they performed before and after. The before being two years prior, and the after being at most three years later. Also excluding players that were near the end of their careers anyways (sorry Vernon Wells). A small sample size to be sure, but we want to be specific here, and I think narrowing down the data actually makes it a bit more relevant.

There, at the bottom, is Alex Gordon with the biggest drop in wRC+ coming back from a groin injury. At the top is old friend Lorenzo Cain who missed almost three months with the injury but ended up being better than ever over his next several seasons.

Good Twitter friend Conrad posted this the other day on Twitter:

The difference in production is drastic but there is something we need to talk about with those numbers. The 2011 to injury numbers span Gordon’s age 27-31 seasons, when a player is classically at their peak. You can be surprised at the level of drop off, but you can’t necessarily be surprised at the age it happened at.

Sometimes, players just drop off out of nowhere, semi-unexplained. Jason Heyward is somewhat analogous to Alex Gordon. Both were corner outfielders, and very good defensive ones at that. Both where above average hitters, but not elite ones, providing moderate power, and both good runners on the bases. The unfortunate comparison is that both players seemingly lost their skills at the plate when they signed a free agent contract; Gordon with the Royals and Heyward with the Cubs. No one saw Heyward turning into a one-win players just as no one saw Gordon turning into the same. Both of them had injuries, but Heyward was much younger.

Despite the drop off at the plate, both have remained good performers in the outfield, even with Gordon being several years younger.

I’m of the camp that age had much more to do with Gordon’s decline than a groin injury. He’s been injured several times since the groin injury, certainly a hindrance, but injury increases come with age. If you want to make the case that injuries have hit him hard, that’s one I can get behind (which is a by product of age). However I haven’t seen any evidence to suggest a single groin injury can destroy a players career like a concussion or shoulder injury for a pitcher. Gordon remained a good defender in the field, so the groin injury would have to only be impacting him at the plate. That’s a bit harder to prove and not one that really bears any evidence with another player.

The calendar turned a little harder with Gordon than both all of us and the aging curve thought would happen, but that’s sometimes how it goes. Not everyone can be Adrian Beltre or David Ortiz. The groin injury may have just come at a coincidental time on the aging curve.

This isn’t all to say that I don’t think the groin injury had an impact when he came back in 2015 and maybe it lingered into 2016. I just find it hard to believe that it’s the cause of his demise over three years running now, at least as more of a factor than his age.