Every baseball game is made up of hundreds of individual moments. Each moment is mostly inconsequential by itself, but the combined weight of dozens of those moments determines the fate of the game. Likewise, a baseball player’s career is made up of hundreds, thousands, or, if you’re lucky and skilled, tens or hundreds of thousands of those moments.
Alex Gordon has enjoyed a quality baseball career in the 99th percentile of professional baseball players. The second overall pick in his draft, Kansas City fans gave Gordon a standing ovation in his first big league plate appearance. Over 14 years with the Royals, Gordon received MVP votes, was selected three times for the All-Star game, and has won seven Gold Glove awards. Gordon was an integral part to two AL Champion teams and helped win the Royals’ first World Series in 30 years. His career earnings are north of $117 million.
But despite the best and valiant efforts of the likes of Jamie Moyer, Ichiro, Bartolo Colon, and Omar Vizquel to convince us otherwise, Father Time is, as they say, undefeated. Baseball is physically and mentally demanding. To play it at the highest level for a decade or longer is an amazing feat. Every year players stretch deeper into their 30s, they lose more of the physical edge they once had when they were younger.
It is probably folly to determine one single instance in which Gordon’s decline from the mountaintop began. There are simply too many moments. Too many plate appearances. Too many swings. Too many fly balls hit to the outfield. Tens of thousands of moments, kernels of corn in a field of dreams.
But last night, there was one moment that stood out. One moment where the writing on the wall flickered in Royal blue. In the eighth inning, with the game on the line, manager Mike Matheny pinch Ryan McBroom, 28-year-old rookie, for the Great Gordon.
It worked. McBroom hit a game-tying home run.
The air in Gordon’s game has been deflating for five years. Between 2011 and 2015, Gordon hit .281/.359/.450, good for 21% above league average per OPS+. Fangraphs rated him at 24.1 Wins Above Replacement. But since 2016, Gordon’s batting line has cratered to .235/.318/.364, and he has hit 17% below league average with a WAR of 3.4 over that time.
Why has that happened? He’s slower. He has walked less. He can’t make the kind of contact he used to. And unlike in the previous two thirds of his career, defensive shifts have turned what were previously ground ball hits into ground ball outs at a much higher rate.
Gordon’s eye is still pretty good. His defense is still good, if not quite elite. But, as it is with any position player, if you can’t hit you can’t stay on the field. Gordon’s line now stands at .179/.258/.268, and he has been a replacement level player. He is simply not producing.
It is entirely possible that Gordon could improve. But it is not likely. Gordon’s bounceback 2019 campaign saw him produce at about a league average offensive level—until pitchers figured him out. Through July 30, Gordon had an OPS of .803. From then on, Gordon put up an OPS of .612. And over his last 249 plate appearances going back to last year, Gordon only has nine extra base hits.
Ultimately, though, the numbers are simply dressing. We can all see the extent to which Gordon is struggling at the plate like he never has before. McBroom’s pinch hit home run might not be anything special. Gordon could go on a tear and re-sign with the Royals next year. Anything is possible. It’s baseball.
But in a sport where symbolism helps us process the thousands of individual moments that happen on a baseball field, I’m struck by a particular moment that happened on an innocuous Tuesday evening between two teams that are unlikely to make even expanded playoffs. It seems like we’re seeing the beginning of the end for Alex Gordon. It’s been a good run. A great run. But all careers must come to a close. It’s just baseball.