Going Deep: Alex Gordon is Turning Back Time
Alex Gordon has had a strange few years. As recently as 2015, the lifetime member of the Kansas City Royals posted a useful, if unspectacular, offensive campaign. Since then, though, he has been a player likely only rostered in the deepest of leagues, and even then it was probably a matter of desperation.
Coming into the 2018 season as a 34-year-old who had just had two well below league-average years at the plate, he was largely disregarded—and for good reason. Gordon’s season really didn’t do much of anything to change minds or to indicate that his previous two-year slide was an aberration in his now 13-year MLB career.
In 2016 and 2017, Gordon combined to do what some hitters (admittedly only the elite ones) do in one season. He had 114 runs, 85 RBI, 26 home runs, and 15 stolen bases between those two years. His 2016 triple-slash of .220/.312/.380 somehow represented the best he did in either year in those categories.
Last season was only marginally better, as Gordon hit 13 homers, put up 110 R+RBI, and stole 12 bases, all of which added up to an 89 wRC+.
So far in 2019, though, Gordon is hitting the best he has since 2011, when he was a 27-year-old breakout star who received MVP votes.
Every one of those rate stats outperforms his career numbers. As you know, there aren’t a lot of MLB breakouts at 35 years old, so let’s see what’s different so far for Gordon in 2019.
His BABIP is a perfectly reasonable, and maybe even low, at .296, so it’s not as simple as getting lucky with balls finding the outfield grass.
With even a quick glance at his plate discipline stats, a very positive sign jumps out. Gordon’s incredibly stable 8-10% walk rate is still intact, and surprisingly was so even in his terrible offensive seasons mentioned above. What has vastly improved is Gordon’s strikeout rate. He has more than cut that number in half from a career worst 29.2% in 2016 to just 13.9% so far this season.
For a while there, he approached Chris Davis levels of Ks. I don’t remember the last 35-year-old whose eye for the ball I saw improve from earlier in his 30s, but plate discipline metrics do make it appear that Gordon, for whatever reason, is doing a much, much better job at staying away from pitches outside the zone, or at least making contact with them.
I still want to see more, but it is encouraging that, for now, Gordon appears to have figured out whatever issues led to so little success on pitches outside the strike zone, and he is also doing better on balls in the zone. I don’t think it’s likely that Gordon falls back to the depths of despair of 2016 and 2017, when many thought his career was over, but there is still reason to be cautious.
A big part of Gordon’s value this season has been the crazy power he has provided. I think there’s reason to expect that to drop off. His expected slugging (xSLG) is a much less impressive .459 this season. His average exit velocity, 88 mph, is actually lower than his 2018 mark of 88.5 and barely better than 2016’s 87.8. Keep in mind, Gordon finished with a slugging percentage less than .400 that season. Gordon’s average launch angle is lower this season than last as well, and the distribution also looks less desirable. See below: first 2019, followed by 2018:
Gordon is also sporting a 15.7 HR/FB%, much higher than his career 10.8% rate. Also down is the hard-contact rate Gordon has posted so far this year. Gordon’s hard-hit rate is worse than it was in 2017, the first year of his decline: 36.7% compared to 36.9%.
For a final verdict, I’d say Gordon is unlikely to fall from this high a perch back to being unworthy of even rostering, thanks to his apparent adjustments to make more contact and strike out less, but I also think it’s highly likely his power spike is short-lived. Enjoy the run while you can and sell high if you can find a taker.
(Photo by Cliff Welch/Icon Sportswire)