Alex Gordon

Alex the Used-to-Be Great

When Alex Gordon signed the largest contract in Royals history in January of 2016, many fans loved that he was going to stay in the only home he’d ever known. Some were worried about his age, but even most of those worriers figured it wouldn’t be an issue in the first couple years of the deal, when the team had hoped to be competitive and maybe push for another title.

Since signing that deal, Gordon has hit .210/.308/.340 in 167 games. He’s missed time with another injury and has gotten off to an almost comically slow start in 2017. Last year, he still had some thunder in his bat with a .160 ISO that climbed to near .200 in the final two months of the season when he seemed to really recover from the wrist injury that sidelined him in May and June. This year, all the thunder is gone. He has five extra base hits in 160 plate appearances, all doubles. His SLG of .212 is atrocious.

What in the heck is happening?

The simple answer is that he isn’t doing anything with fastballs. From the beginning of his career through the 2015 season, Gordon hit .305/.394/.528 against four-seamers and two-seamers. Last season, he wasn’t nearly as good, but he was okay, hitting .268/.358/.490 against them. But then this year, it’s been a disaster. He’s hit .234/.372/.281 against them.

The one shining light is the on base percentage as he has managed to work a handful of walks and get hit by the hard stuff. But everything else is just abysmal. That’s not even the real problem with Gordon so far this season. Against all other pitches (mostly off speed and breaking balls), he’s hit .123/.220/.151.

But you don’t need me to tell you the numbers are terrible. What’s scary about these numbers is that scouts seem to be confounded by the lack of production. They don’t see a real difference in Gordon’s setup, his swing or anything in between. That right there is a pretty decent indication that age and maybe injuries have caught up with him earlier than expected.

According to the great Baseball Savant, Gordon’s swing speed has dropped from 60 MPH in 2015 to 59.8 MPH in 2016 (not big) all the way to 58.1 MPH this season. Compare that to, say, Aaron Judge with an average swing speed of 66.1 MPH and you can see there’s an issue there.

Check out how Gordon compares with his teammates with their TAv through Monday:

Player Swing Speed TAv
Eric Hosmer 62.7 MPH .298
Brandon Moss 61.9 .258
Salvador Perez 61.5 .306
Jorge Bonifacio 60.8 .285
Drew Butera 60.5 .297
Jorge Soler 59.7 .215
Mike Moustakas 59.6 .273
Lorenzo Cain 59.6 .267
Whit Merrifield 59.5 .274
Cheslor Cuthbert 58.3 .160
Alex Gordon 58.1 .205
Alcides Escobar 55.6 .179

Swing hard, hit hard. It seems pretty simple, right? The Royals TAv numbers have taken a turn for the respectable, for the most part. Cuthbert isn’t getting a ton of at bats and Soler is still getting his feet wet, but you can see the problems with the lineup at the bottom of that swing speed list. We can talk about Escobar another day, though.

I think it’s clear at this point that an issue for Gordon is with his bat speed. If you were wondering, he averaged about 60.6 MPH from August 1st on last season when he had that power surge at the end of the season.

Is it possible that Gordon could go from looking like he was getting wrist strength back and getting his swing back to just being washed up in the span of a few months? I suppose it is. Some players age quickly, and sometimes those who do age quickly are the ones you’d least expect. We all know what kind of shape Gordon is in, but maybe it doesn’t matter. He could very well just be done. Something doesn’t seem right, though.

Barring another injury that we don’t know about, age is kind of the only thing that makes sense here as to why he’s struggled so much this season. When I saw him in spring training, I thought everything looked good. And the numbers were there. He had a .323 average and a .417 OBP. Of course, it’s spring training and all that, but you may notice I left out his slugging percentage. That was just fine at .468, but a closer look indicates he only had a .145 ISO in the Cactus League.

Maybe that should have been a cause for concern. A slower bat might not be as big of a deal in Arizona because of any number of reasons that coincide with why spring training stats lack importance. And if the scouts are right and there’s nothing noticeably different about Gordon, it makes sense that he passed the eye test as well.

Now the question is what the Royals do with Gordon. He’s owed nearly $56 million over the next two plus seasons when you factor in the $4 million buyout on his 2020 mutual option. The Royals aren’t going to eat that money. He’s also still a very, very good defender in left field and even showed off some skills in center. He’s been worth 3.7 fielding runs above average this season and five defensive runs saved according to Fangraphs. So he’s still providing value in some facet of the game, though it’s not enough given the place left field holds on the defensive spectrum.

My advice to the Royals and to fans is this: Let’s see what Gordon looks like when he makes it back after the birth of his first daughter this week. Some time away from the game, likely not thinking too much about baseball may do him some good. But, maybe more importantly, it’s easy to forget that these players are human beings and sometimes life gets in the way. I know my performance at my job has been directly impacted by personal events at times. Without knowing anything with certainty, I feel like awaiting the birth of a child could have some negative impact on job performance.

And, you know, maybe that has nothing to do with it. Maybe Gordon comes back and hits .220/.315/.290 and is just completely finished as a productive hitter. For some reason I’ll never forget what happened to Johnny Damon in 1999 when he had his first kids. They were born on April 22, 1999. He was hitting .169/.290/.237 through the end of play on April 24th. Then a couple off days due to a rainout and a scheduled day off and the Royals hit the road. From that point forward, he hit .323/.389/.504 the rest of the season. I’m not saying that’s the issue with Gordon, but at this point, what do we have to lose to hope that maybe it was?

And it probably wouldn’t hurt if Gordon would proclaim that he was going to dominate. He’s 1 for 1 in his career with that prediction.

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