Alex Gordon

Alex Gordon, Struggles with Fastballs and a Broken Wrist

As you know, Alex Gordon was placed on the disabled list on Monday with a fractured scaphoid. As you also know, he was struggling badly before the injury to a bone that could impact the rest of his season after he returns. But what’s going on with him?

Gordon has struggled like this before. In his rookie season, he was hitting .173/.285/.281 on June 6th and was on the verge of being sent to the minors because of his struggles.  He went 4 for 4 the next day and hit .285/.330./478 the rest of the season. In 2009, he hit .232/.324/.378 over the 49 games he played that year. In 2010, he hit .215/.315/.355 over 74 games.

So he’s been at this point before. Just not as “Star Left Fielder Alex Gordon.”

What’s happening with him? He’s hitting just .211/.319/.331 with the worst strikeout rate of his career by far. Every few games, it looks like he might be coming out of it, but then he goes through four more where he looks just as bad as he has most of the season.

Let’s check out some of his batted ball facts.

  • He’s hitting line drives at a rate consistent with last season (24.7 percent) and more than every season but last year and 2012.
  • He’s making less soft contact than last year (15.1 percent), which is less soft contact than every year but 2012 and 2014.
  • He’s hitting less ground balls (33.3 percent) than any year of his career other than 2008.
  • He’s hitting more fly balls (41.9 percent) than any season since 2009.

Maybe the ground balls being down and the fly balls being up are hurting his average some, so that’s an interesting point to look at, but as far as how hard he’s hitting the ball, there doesn’t seem to be a real issue there.

One key point of his batted ball profile stuck out to me, though, and I think that might be where we begin to find our answer of what exactly is wrong with Gordon. This year, he’s pulling the ball just 35.5 percent of the time, going the other way 25.8 percent of the time and going up the middle 38.7 percent of the time. He pulled the ball 45.7 percent of the time last year. That’s a big difference.

He’s always been a player who succeeded by pulling the ball a lot. The shift didn’t seem to hurt him much for whatever reason. In his career when he pulls the ball, he’s hits .404 with a .705 slugging percentage. When he goes up the middle, the drops to .327 with a .510 SLG and going opposite field yields fairly similar results (.330 average, .501 SLG). So pulling the ball seems to be a good thing for Alex.

So we’ve found the problem, right? He’s just not pulling the ball enough. I’m not so sure. This year, everything is different. When he pulls the ball, he’s hit .233 with a .400 SLG. He’s been great going up the middle with a .400 average and a .580 SLG. And when he goes the other way, even that average is down at .250 with a .500 SLG.

Maybe it actually is a good thing that Gordon is not pulling the ball nearly as much, right? In a vacuum, I’d say it actually is a good thing, but it’s pretty clear that when Gordon is at his best, he’s pulling the ball more and doing it with more authority. So I’d say he needs to get back to that. That’s the simple answer. But now I’m wondering why he’s hitting the ball the other way so much and why he’s struggling when pulling the ball.

Take a look at his results on various pitches throughout his career, courtesy of the great Brooks Baseball.

This first chart is his numbers from 2007 through last season.

Alex Gordon 2007-2015

This next one shows what he’s done this year.

Alex Gordon 2016

You can see the differences. The sample is obviously miniscule, so take it for what it’s worth, but he’s not driving fastballs for power, he’s not hitting for average on sinkers (probably the ground ball percentage dropping) and he’s having the absolute worst time with changeups and sliders. On the rest, the sample is way too small to make any kind of observations. Sure, the other samples are small too, but not that bad.

Now this is the portion of the article where I use my eyeballs to watch games and tell you that I think Gordon is a tick behind on fastballs this season. What I can’t tell you is if it’s a temporary timing issue or a him getting older issue, but I think he’s been behind them. Which leads to what I think is happening here. He’s gearing up for the fastball and then getting fooled badly by off speed stuff.

It’s even showing up in his average fly ball distance, which currently sits at about 270 feet. Last year, he was at about 290 feet on his average fly ball. If it seems like he’s just not hitting the ball as well, it’s because he’s not. If this keeps up, he’ll have his lowest BABIP since 2010.

It all sort of begins to add up. By being way out in front of a pitch like a changeup, he’d likely roll it over, which would lead to his numbers on balls he pulls to be way down. By being behind on fastballs, the good contact he makes would lead to a hit, but it might be to center rather than right like it used to be. And by having to cheat to catch up with a fastball, there would be situations where he flat out swings and misses. And there are other situations where he’s caught having to guess for a certain pitch and then ends up watching strike three, although he’s not striking out looking at a significantly higher pace than he had previously.

This season, his strikeout rate on fastballs is pretty well in line with what he’s done his whole career, but the strikeout rate on slider is up from 34.7 percent in his career before this year to 52.3 percent this season. On the changeup, it’s up to 33.3 percent this year from 22.8 percent in his career.

Using career strikeout percentages for all non-hard stuff puts Gordon’s strikeout rate at 25.3 percent. That’s still high for him, but it’s much closer to being in line with his career before this season.

Take a look at how pitchers are attacking him with the hard stuff. In 2014 and 2015 (and before too, but you get the idea), he was pitched away with hard stuff. Now, though, I think pitchers know they can get it by him, so they’re able to challenge him farther inside and he’s having trouble getting the bat head in front to actually drive that pitch.

Alex Gordon Hard Pitches

So now you wonder, is this fixable? I don’t know why this is happening. It could very well be that Gordon has aged and simply can’t catch up with a good fastball anymore. I know that on Sunday, he was way late on a couple fairly pedestrian fastballs that we’re used to seeing him drive to the gaps. It could be that he was simply struggling to get his timing down before the unfortunate injury. We won’t know for awhile if this is a blip or the start of a decline. I can’t imagine he’d decline that fast, but you never know.

What’s troubling is that now he’s dealing with returning from a wrist injury, which can be extremely tricky to come back from. Let’s say he’s ready to go in four weeks. That puts us in late June already. He’ll likely need some time in the minors on a rehab assignment. That puts him back in the big leagues by maybe the All-Star break if all goes well. Even with a rehab assignment, it seems likely that he’ll need a little time to get his feet wet again. So now we’re talking about early August before he’s back to being Alex. Of course, who knows if his power will be sapped from the injury?

The best thing the Royals and Gordon can hope for now is that the time off helps him shake off whatever issues he was having before the injury and there are no ill effects the rest of the season. Maybe the Royals can win without Gordon, but it’s pretty clear their best shot is to have a healthy and effective Gordon patrolling left and providing his usual solid offensive performance.

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