You probably know by now that something is wrong with Alex Gordon.
Anyone can look at the numbers and see that he is not the same player who made three All-Star appearances and garnered down-ballot MVP votes. He is not the player who helped the Royals to back-to-back American League pennants, not the player who homered against Mets closer Jeurys Familia in Game 1 of the 2015 World Series, not the player who earned a four-year, $72 million contract before the 2016 season, the largest in franchise history.
You can look at the batting average (.152) after 35 games. You can look at the power numbers (zero homers and a .192 slugging percentage). You can look at the .456 OPS (on-base-plus-slugging percentage), which ranks last in baseball among hitters with enough plate appearances to qualify for the batting title.
“Obviously,” Gordon said, “I’m not swinging it well.”
What is less clear is what is wrong. In the months after the 2015 World Series, the Royals defied long odds and re-signed a homegrown star, a player whose own career mirrored their ascent, whose work ethic and character were legendary inside the organization. Yet, in the two seasons since Alex Gordon Day, the morning the Royals announced the four-year contract, he has batted just .205 with 17 homers and 21 doubles in 650 plate appearances.
In 2016, Gordon suffered through a sluggish start and a broken hand, finishing the season at .220 with a .312 on-base percentage, his worst offensive production in six years. In 2017, he has been close to unplayable at the plate. On Tuesday, he will enter a three-game series against the New York Yankees with zero homers. He is 3 for 38 in May and 1 for 31 in his last 10 games.
Even as the anemic numbers have piled up, Gordon has maintained his strong defensive acumen in left field. His range remains solid, though, according to defensive metrics, not as good as his prime. His arm remains a certifiable weapon. But the overall production has forced the Royals into an unenviable position.
Gordon, who turned 33 in February, is making $16 million this season and will be paid $20 million in 2018 and 2019. Barring an offensive turnaround, the deal is threatening to become an albatross contract for a team trying to climb out of an early-season hole and transition toward the future. For now, there is little they can do but be patient and hope Gordon can pull out of his funk.
“He’s gotten off to poor starts before,” Royals manager Ned Yost said last week. “He’s working on some things. He looks a little better in batting practice, but transitioning from (batting practice) to the game is a pretty big thing.”
As the slump persisted through April, Gordon said he was “tinkering with some stuff” with Royals hitting coach Dale Sveum. The changes were not major, he said. But each day in the cage, he would work to find an answer for his struggles.
In some ways, the diagnosis is not complicated. The answer, though, could be.
Gordon is striking out less than he did in 2016, when his K-rate (29.2 percent) spiked to a career high. In addition, his contact rates are not demonstrably different from his prime seasons. He is making less contact when swinging at pitches outside the strike zone (53.6 percent of pitches, compared to 59.7 for his career). He is making more contact when offering at pitches in the zone (89.9 percent compared to 85.8 for his career). But to find the biggest difference between the old Gordon and new Gordon, you can look at his performance against fastballs.
From 2011 to 2015, Gordon was the sixth-best hitter in the American League against fastballs, compiling 92.4 runs above average, according to data from FanGraphs. To look at the players who were better is to see a list of the best hitters from the era: Miguel Cabrera, Mike Trout, Nelson Cruz, Jose Bautista and David Ortiz.
But then came 2016, and Gordon’s numbers against fastballs plummeted. He compiled just 1.1 runs above average against the pitch. This year, he’s been the 24th-worst hitter in the American League against fastballs, compiling -2.3 runs above average. He entered Tuesday batting .190 against four-seam fastballs and .167 against two-seamers, according to MLB Statcast data. For comparison, the league-average batting average against four-seam and two-seam fastballs was .271, according to Baseball Savant.
For now, the Royals will continue to be patient. There are no great solutions. In an interview on Friday, Yost pointed to Gordon’s hand injury in 2016, citing that as a reason for his struggles. This year, there is no injury, at least not one that’s been publicly acknowledged. It leaves the club in a predicament.
For the moment, Yost said, they’ll keep waiting.
“(He’s) not swinging the bat well and not seeing it well,” Yost said. “He’ll come out of it. ... He’s gotten off to poor starts before.”