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One of Alex Gordon’s biggest strengths at the plate has become his biggest weakness

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Alex Gordon posted a 126 wRC+ against LHP once upon a time. It now sits below 50 in 2018.

MLB: Texas Rangers at Kansas City Royals Jay Biggerstaff-USA TODAY Sports

Alex Gordon’s run of All-Star appearances in 2013-2015 was absolutely spectacular. Gordon jumped into MLB relevance by winning a Rawlings Gold Glove Award in 2011 and having the best offensive season of his career, posting a 140 wRC+ and .878 OPS at the plate. Kansas City had raised another bonafide All-Star, just in time for the Royals core of prospects to assume regular roles in the big leagues.

Alex Gordon peaked at the perfect time for the Royals. He resembled everything that the Royals front office wanted their young guys to be. Gritty, hard working, humble, good defender, lots of contact. He was a perfect model for Eric Hosmer, Mike Moustakas, Lorenzo Cain, Alcides Escobar, and Salvador Perez as they were getting their careers underway. His time as a Royal is legendary in it’s own right.

Alex Gordon hasn’t posted an offensive season like 2011 since, but he was still very productive between 2012 and 2014, and was seeing another uptick in 2015. In the first half of the 2015 season, Alex Gordon’s wRC+ sat at 133, which was on pace to be the second highest mark of his career. Then he suffered an awful groin injury that caused him to miss a significant amount of time on the DL. He hasn’t been the same since. His second half wRC+ in 2015 was just 88. That dropped down to 86 in 2016 and 62 in 2017. I found myself seriously questioning whether or not Alex Gordon would ever be even decent again.

Well, it’s June of 2018 and he’s been decent! Gordon has been worth 1.4 rWAR to date and his defense has actually been better than ever.

But we knew Gordon is a stud on defense, right? This shouldn't really be any surprise. We expect Gold Glove caliber defense from our $72M left fielder. Here’s the good news. Alex Gordon has posted a 109 wRC+ against RHP in 2018, meaning he's been 9% better than the league average hitter vs RHP (for more on Gordon’s successes I'll turn you over to my buddy Patrick’s article which you can find here.)

Ah, yes. You read the title. We’re not here to talk about how good Alex Gordon has been. Noooooo sir. It’s negativity time.

Alex Gordon has next to no chance of living up to his contract. That doesn’t mean he can't still be a semi-effective player, though. Defensively, Gordon has been one of the best outfielders in all of baseball this season. He’s been 9% better than the league average hitter against RHP. There’s just one thing holding him back from being a good player: left-handed pitching.

Take. Look at this:

Alex Gordon used to be a very good hitter against LHP, especially considering the fact that he bats left-handed. Between the 2014 and 2015 seasons, Alex Gordon ranked 15th (2015) and 18th (2014) among LHH vs LHP in wRC+. Two of the top 18 spots between the two season belonged to Alex Gordon. Gordon was actually better against LHP than he was RHP for a few seasons. So what happened?

Well, I tried to look for easy answers right off the bat, so I went to look at Alex Gordon’s wRC+ against LHP before and after his groin injury in 2015. The results? Gordon’s wRC+ vs LHP improved 10% after returning from his groin injury in 2015. Strange...but okay. Next.

How about his wrist injury in 2016? Surely that hampered his ability to hit LHP, right? Gordon’s wRC+ vs LHP before he broke his wrist in 2016 was 54. After he returned from the DL, it was 93 for the rest of the season. Again it got better. I have no idea how. Next idea.

To be honest with you, I had no immediate “next idea.” I was a bit confused. How could a left-handed hitter miss a substantial amount of time on the DL, come back to game action, and perform better against LHP than he had before his DL stint? TWICE. It doesn't make much sense.

In 2017, Alex Gordon’s offensive season was so awful that it’s almost not even worth comparing to anything else. His wRC+ vs LHP declined and it completely hit rock bottom vs RHP. The steady decline of Alex’s ability to hit LHP continued, but he didn’t hit much of anything at all in 2017, so, we’re going to ignore that year of our lives a bit.

But here we are in 2018 and Alex appears to be making strides back to a productive player. Strides in every aspect of his game except for when he faces LHP. But why? If it wasn’t the injuries, and now his offensive game has picked back up against RHP, what’s stopping him from hitting LHP too?

Great question. I’m glad you asked.

Lift.

Your answer is lift. Alex Gordon is simply not lifting the ball with any kind of authority against LHP. Let’s go back to Patrick’s article, where Pat discusses how Alex Gordon has found more success recently by hitting the ball on the ground, going anti fly-ball revolution. Check out this graph from Patrick’s article:

As you can see, Gordon’s GB% has really separated from his FB% in his last 100 games or so. This has bode well for Gordon vs RHP, when he’s pulling the ball 47% of the time. However, he only pulls the ball 36% of the time vs LHP. Here’s a couple of spray charts for Gordon. The first vs RHP, the second vs LHP.

vs RHP
vs LHP

There is a huge chunk of batted balls missing between the second baseman and the right fielder compared to Gordon’s spray chart vs RHP. This is an area that Gordon gets a lot of his hits against RHP, which you can see here:

hits vs RHP

So. Here’s the $20M question, Royals fans: Why can’t Alex Gordon elevate the ball into RF against left-handed pitchers?

Here are a few quick numbers to back up what I’m saying.

  • Gordon’s GB% vs LHP this season is 66%, compared to 50% vs RHP
  • Gordon’s LD% vs LHP this season is 9%, compared to 28% vs RHP
  • Gordon’s Hard% is 7% higher vs RHP than LHP
  • Gordon’s Soft% is 5% higher vs LHP than RHP

Okay. So Gordon is beating the ball into the ground, very softly, to the left side of the infield vs LHP. Why? Let’s take a look at where RHP and LHP are pitching Alex Gordon this season. Picture number one will be RHP, picture number two will be LHP.

vs RHP
vs LHP

As you can probably see, RHP have attacked Gordon up and in far more often than LHP in 2018. Does that have an effect on Gordon’s performance? Maybe. Here’s a look at Gordon’s heat map when making quality contact with the ball.

It looks like Gordo is actually hitting the ball harder when it’s out away from him, where he can get his hands extended. This would appear to favor him vs LHP as that’s where they’ve been pitching him most of the time. Here’s a link to MLB.com’s exit velocity chart, that suggests Gordo is hitting the ball harder when it’s down and away from him as well.

The only thing that’s left for me to think of is that this has to do with Alex’s swing. We can eliminate shifts because teams shift Alex to pull, and remember, he’s actually going the other way against LHP quite often. Maybe it has to do with the fact that lefties are staying away from Gordon this year, but he’s still driving the ball when it’s away from him against righties. One thing I did find is that roughly 10% of all the pitches Gordo has seen this year were breaking balls from LHP. He’s hitting .115 against those. Roughly 16% of the pitches he’s seen this year are fastballs from LHP, of which he’s hitting .206 against. So maybe lefties are just giving him high doses of off-speed pitches?

One thing to remember is that Gordon has made some significant changes to his swing in 2018. He now loads a bit like Jason Kipnis does, holding the bat more straight back instead of holding it vertically. He explains some of that here. I don’t know much about hitting mechanics. Plenty of basics, but if I tried to break down Alex Gordon’s swing for you and why it wasn’t working against LHP, I'd probably be making stuff up.

Here’s what I do know. There’s not much else to explain Gordon’s massive struggles vs LHP this season. Hitting against LHP used to be a significant strength of Gordon’s. It is now perhaps his greatest weakness. He’s going the other way, but he’s hitting a lot of weak ground balls as well. If Gordon can rework his swing to be able to drive and lift the ball into the air a little more against LHP, he may be able to make something of an asset of himself before his contract runs out next offseason, assuming the Royals were willing to eat some of the money next July.