In the moments before first pitch, Alex Gordon will venture into the Royals’ dugout and locate the buckets of gum that sit atop the bench. His preferred fix is sugar-free Dubble Bubble, three pieces offering just the right amount.
For the next three hours, he chomps on the same three pieces, blowing bubbles and releasing nervous energy. The flavor disappears. The gum turns stale. Yet his jaws remain in motion. He cannot stop the routine, he says. He won’t even switch to fresh gum.
“If we go extra innings, I think about it,” Gordon said, sitting on a clubhouse couch in Boston on a recent afternoon. “But I do it because it’s a habit, and at some point I feel like if I spit it out, we’re going to lose.”
So the ritual continues, and on a Tuesday last month, Gordon found the sugar-free gum bucket on a bench in Detroit. He snatched three pieces, and headed out for a night in left field. In the bottom of the third, Tigers second baseman Ian Kinsler yanked a soft fly ball down the line. Gordon gave chase, laying out and executing a diving catch in fair territory. As he hit the ground, a nicely blown bubble had emerged from the front of his mouth.
“Sometimes I don’t even realize I have gum in my mouth,” he said.
In some moments then, Alex Gordon still looks like Alex Gordon. In his 11th season in Kansas City, he still plays spectacular defense in left field, blowing bubbles as he moves about. At the age of 33, he remains in peak physical condition, his body chiseled, his routine intact.
But then, of course, there is everything else: As the Royals continued a series against Seattle on Friday, Gordon spent another day mired in the worst offensive stretch of his career. The numbers are brutal enough — a .201 batting average with five homers and a .594 OPS (on-base plus slugging percentage) in 97 games. The context can compound the issue: In his second year of the richest contract in club history — a four-year, $72 million deal — he has hit .212 with a .651 OPS and 22 homers across 225 games.
The production is not what Royals officials anticipated when they won the bidding for his services in the winter before 2016. The struggles have left rival scouts puzzled and a club looking for answers. From 2011 to 2015, Gordon was one of the most complete players in franchise history, combining an insatiable work ethic with Gold Glove-level defense, a consistent on-base percentage and above-average base running. In a five-year stretch, he ranked ninth in the major leagues in Wins Above Replacement, according to the FanGraphs’ version of the stat. In 2015, he helped the Royals win their second World Series championship. Two years later, his status as an every-day player is suddenly in question.
In 2016, Gordon’s season was plagued by injuries. This year, it has been defined by diminishing production at the plate. So on a Sunday last week, the Royals acquired outfielder Melky Cabrera from Chicago White Sox to lengthen the lineup and bolster the offense for the stretch run. Yet for the moment, Royals manager Ned Yost says, the addition of Cabrera will not mean a significant reduction in playing time for Gordon.
“You put together a team,” Yost said this week. “It’s a team. A lot of times it’s not the guys that have the best collection of averages that win.”
For now, the calculus is somewhat simple: The Royals still value Gordon’s premium defense in left field. A litany of statistics and metrics still indicate that his defense is elite.
As the day began on Friday, Gordon led all American League left fielders with 12 Defensive Runs Saved. He was also tied for fifth among all major-league outfielders in the same category. Approaching his mid 30s, Gordon’s pure speed has decreased. Yet his range, instincts and routes remain as good as ever. According to Ultimate Zone Rating, another advanced metric, he’s second in baseball behind Boston’s Mookie Betts.
“That’s Gordo,” teammate Danny Duffy says. “I’ve seen it, literally, hundreds of times.”
The Royals remain hesitant to subtract this value from the every-day lineup, even as Gordon languishes at the plate. Club officials view the defense of Gordon and shortstop Alcides Escobar as integral to their winning formula.
“They want to see somebody out there hitting .280 with 40 homers,” Yost said, referencing the general sentiment of baseball fans. “Yeah, I get it. But bring something to the table. If you’re not playing outstanding defense and you’re hitting .200, you’re probably not going to play.”
For now, the addition of Cabrera has meant reduced playing time for rookie Jorge Bonifacio, who is hitting .258 with a .328 on-base percentage and a .772 OPS. The situation could remain fluid.
The Royals view Bonifacio’s defense as a work-in-progress, susceptible to occasional breakdowns. Yet the club could find itself letting performance dictate playing time as it sorts through a rotation in the corner outfield spots and designated hitter.
“As a staff, we’re always discussing and talking,” Yost said. “But I think everybody right now values Alex’s defense. He saves pitchers pitches. It just shows you pitching and defense wins ballgames.”
There is another place where Alex Gordon is still Alex Gordon: The Royals clubhouse.
In a room with All-Stars, Gold Glove winners, and World Series champions, Gordon remains the respected elder statesman. On a team where leadership roles are held by many, Gordon remains its quiet rock.
“He’s that guy, you know?” second baseman Whit Merrifield said. “He’s that guy that everyone just kind of looks to whenever there’s any uncertainly of what to do.”
On an afternoon last week, Merrifield credited Gordon for helping mentor him during his first two seasons in the major leagues. First baseman Eric Hosmer still marvels at Gordon’s ability to remain unfazed and focused throughout the struggles.
“He’s just the ultimate professional,” Merrifield said.
And yet, Gordon is still mired in the worst offensive season of his career, and the search for the right adjustment continues. In the weeks before the All-Star break, he set about loading his hands quicker, allowing his swing to move forward on time. In other moments, he has tried other minor changes and tweaks. There have been signs of progress but little consistency.
“I kind of lost my swing early on,” Gordon said last month. “But I feel like it’s coming back a little bit.”
For now, there are no easy solutions at the plate. Rivals scouts see roughly the same bat speed from Gordon’s prime seasons, while Yost has spent dozens of afternoons at Kauffman Stadium, watching his left fielder launch batting-practice fastballs into the fountains beyond right field.
The act of hitting a baseball 450 feet in batting practice is not the same as solving a major-league pitcher, of course. But to Yost and others, it’s proof that Gordon’s struggles cannot simply be pinned on physical decline.
“He’s smoking balls in the fountains,” Yost said. “You can tell it’s in there by watching his bat speed.”
In some moments, yes, Gordon still looks like Gordon. The diving catches. The gum hanging from his mouth. The occasional clutch hit. The package can still surface now and then.
Is that enough? The Royals must answer this question. But for Yost — for now — the premium defense is enough to keep penciling Gordon’s name into the lineup each day.
“Bring something to the table that can help us win every day,” Yost said. “Alex does that with his defense.”