Before the season started, I thought Alex Gordon might put together his best big league year yet. I saw him in the spring and he looked great and as hard of a worker as I knew him to be, I figured he was just getting started from what we saw in 2011 and 2012. The season started and I was looking pretty good in that prediction. By May 29, he was hitting .340/.379/.502. The walks were suspiciously missing from his game, but the rest of the numbers were so good that it wasn’t anything to worry about so much. Now, it’s unfair to not point out how insanely lucky he was with a .404 batting average on balls in play (BABIP), but he was hitting a ton of line drives (23.6%) so the BABIP was high, but not insanely out of range.
The coincidence of the year was that the Royals turned to George Brett and Pedro Grifol following that game. From May 30 through August 20, Alex Gordon has hit a paltry .201/.287/.332. Glancing at the BABIP, he has a .235 BABIP in this time with a line drive percentage of about 18%. So that’s down and unlucky, but it could easily be considered a correction for the luck of the first two months. After reading Aaron Reese’s fine article about Gordon and the changeup, I got to wondering if there was more to it than just one pitch. So I broke down the season a little farther and I made a dividing line the July 3 game against the Indians that Gordon left after crashing into the wall and sustaining a hip injury and a possible concussion.
First let’s look at the period of time between May 30 and July 3 and see how he did then. I’ll start with some luck stuff and then get into indicators that I think there’s something up with him. In that time, Gordon hit .200/.302/.282. The walks had returned to his game, but it seemed like he could no longer hit. At first glance, this looks like the beginning of his prolonged sense and in the strictest sense of the word, it is, but I think you can really chalk up this time to more of just random happenstance and some bad luck. That, to me, is what separates this stretch from what’s happened since the injury. Gordon hit a ton of line drives that month to the tune of a line drive percentage of 25.6%. He had a BABIP of .244 in that stretch when it probably should have been around .370. That’s some bad luck. With a BABIP of where it “should” be, he would have hit .300/.388/.400 in that time. So the power is down a bit, but that looks much better, no?
Then he had that fateful night where he met the wall and the wall won. We all collectively held our breaths because we knew the Royals couldn’t win without Alex Gordon. He sat out a couple games, but returned on July 6 having cleared all the necessary tests. I’m not saying the Royals rushed him back knowingly, but I think the numbers from that point indicate they probably did. Since coming back, Gordon has hit .203/.275/.367, so the power is a little better than we saw in his rough June, but there’s more to it than that. His line drive percentage that was so high in June dropped to a miserable 12.7% from July 3 to August 20. That means he simply hasn’t been squaring up much of anything. He has his moments, but for the most part, he’s just hitting very little with authority. I wanted to say he’s been terribly unlucky, but he really hasn’t. He has just been this bad. He’s hit eight popups this season and just one of them was prior to his injury.
Aaron’s article got me thinking about more than just the timeline, but about how he fared against all sorts of pitches. In the early part of the season (April 1 to May 29), Gordon feasted on fastballs and sinkers. He hit seven of his nine homers on those two pitches while hitting .419 against fastballs and .382 against sinkers. While he was just amazing against those two pitches, he held his own against changeups, curves and sliders. Against changeups, the weakness in Gordon as found in Aaron’s article, Gordon hit .258 with a .419 slugging percentage in the first couple months. That’s perfectly reasonable for that pitch and right around his career line. It was a bit down from what he did in 2011 and 2012, but still just fine.
As his slump started in May, you could see the trouble with the changeup (and other breaking pitches) start. He struggled with the slider and curve in a small sample, but the changeup was what we all noticed the most. He hit just .143 on changeups in that time period, but if you dig a little deeper, he was still hitting it hard. He was swinging and missing a little more than you’d like, but was hitting a line drive about 22% of the time. Fast forward to post-injury Gordon and he hasn’t had a hit against a change in that time period, all while hitting the changeup hard about 7% of the time. No, I didn’t leave a number out. He also hasn’t hit a single curve hard since July 3, which is crazy because he was mashing curves before the injury.
The question, of course, comes back to what this means. I have a feeling I’m right here, but I can’t know for sure. The numbers seem to point to Gordon’s ability to put together a good at bat pretty much disappearing after the head and hip injury. I don’t want to get too deep into this since I haven’t done much research, but guys like Aaron Hill and Justin Morneau also struggled with off speed pitches after their head injuries, so that’s something to keep an eye on. I’m getting into wild speculation, but he might be struggling to pick up those pitches due to the head injury. I’d like to do a little more research into this, but that part of the theory makes sense to me.
There’s good news and bad news here. The good news is that it’s always nice to be able to point to an event to maybe find a reason for why it’s happening. The scary thing is that head injuries are not your typical injury and if that is what is holding Gordon back, there’s no guarantee of anything. The Royals need his bat. He doesn’t necessarily have to be the guy they saw in April and May, but he does need to be better than he’s been since May. If it’s the hip that’s holding him back (and that very well could be too, but seems less likely), that should get better over the offseason. Whichever injury is causing the problem, it’s pretty clear to me that’s where the trouble started. As the Royals record continues to drop (2-7 in the last 9), it may be smart to get Gordon right and shut him down for awhile to make sure everything is okay. He’s likely a part of this team through 2016 at the least, so it’s in both the Royals best interest and Gordon’s best interest to make sure these troubles are behind him.
A big, big thank you to Brooks Baseball for help with crunching the numbers. That site is awesome.
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