The long goodbye

It wasn’t supposed to be like this. Not for this player. Not in this city. For this team. Yet here we are. Alex Gordon has become a fringe player for the Royals.

He returned to the Royals lineup on Tuesday night, hitting seventh in the order. He struck out looking to close the second, ripped one to the gap in left-center just out of the reach of his old teammate Lorenzo Cain, and flared one to short left (or deep third, depending upon your perspective). He finished the night with a fluke base hit when he rolled one over to second base, only for it to hit the runner, Jorge Soler. (Score that a base hit.) Gordon scored one of the Royals two runs following a couple of productive outs after his double.

It was a modest return for a player with what figures to be below modest expectations. 

His OPS+ in the small sample of his 24 plate appearances was a meager 18, or 78 percent below league average. It’s nine points lower than the man who was demoted to make room for him on the 25-man roster, Paulo Orlando. Let’s go one further. Orlando has been so consistently unproductive he has to be a candidate to be dropped from the 40-man roster when the Royals need to make their next move.

There’s a lot to unpack regarding his decline. We’ve covered it almost since the day we started this site. It has infected every facet of his offensive game. The defense still plays, as evidenced by last year’s Gold Glove, but it doesn’t play that much. It’s not enough to compensate for the void in the lineup.

One glimmer of hope can be found in his exit velocity. Prior to landing on the disabled list, Gordon’s average exit velocity was 89.7 mph. That was his highest rate since Statcast started tracking that data. 

Year Avg Exit Velo
2015 88.1 mph
2016 87.8 mph
2017 85.8 mph
2018 89.7 mph

A glimmer. Or the faintest of flickers. League average exit velocity so far in 2018 is 92.4 mph. In the small sample size of Gordon’s 17 balls put in play before he landed on the DL, it’s still well below league average. Going granular because we can with the small sample, he’s topped 100 mph on eight separate occasions. Twice against James Shields on Opening Day and two more times against Fransicso Liriano. The good news is he’ll face both of those guys plenty in the Central – provided they can stay with their teams for the entire year. No sure thing, that.

We are wading into the shallowest end of the small sample pool, but Gordon’s BABIP was a ridiculously low .235 entering Tuesday’s game. It’s been in a free fall the last three years, so who knows where the true number is supposed to reside. It certainly should be higher than it’s current neighborhood. According to Statcast, based on his exit velocities and launch angles, his expected batting average should be .279 instead of it’s anemic .174. Again, it’s the smallest of samples. But this is the luck you create when you fail to consistently hit the ball with any kind of authority.

A slightly below average exit velocity is about it when it comes to looking for a silver of positivity. Searching for something, anything that can point to an uptick in offensive performance feels futile at this point. Even in his current career best average exit velocity, there’s little optimism. Of those 17 baseballs put in play, only three traveled more than 300 feet. Two were outs against Liriano. The other was his double on Tuesday. He has yet to barrel one. 

He didn’t barrel one on Tuesday, but he did drive that double 370 feet. It was his longest drive of the young season. However, the bat speed just isn’t there anymore. He may run into one occasionally, but he can’t be counted upon to create a positive performance at the plate with any kind of consistency. 

Gordon maintains he’s healthy. He says the injection into his hip and the time off helped. He’s pain free and, he says, he’s ready to play. The question is, how much longer can the Royals keep him in the lineup? The Royals jettisoned Orlando, which isn’t a big deal at all because it’s like for like at this point. (I can’t believe that’s an actual sentence I wrote.) The Royals owe Gordon an actual truckload of money for this year and next. How long does a rebuilding team keep around a veteran who can’t produce anything at the plate?

The breakups with Lorenzo Cain and Eric Hosmer weren’t fun, but they were the nature of the business. Stars leave small market teams for big paydays. Gordon was different. The star who took the hometown payday. Now it feels like his time in Kansas City won’t have a similar happy ending. The Royals will give him a long leash (they already have), but if he somehow can’t magically rediscover how to drive the ball, it’s not in their best interests to keep him around. And considering everything he’s given to the franchise, that’s a shame it’s come to this.

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