After frustrating 2016, Royals’ Alex Gordon happy to be leading off again

Royals Alex Gordon on leading off, monster home runs and the outfield

Royals outfielder Alex Gordon, who hit a monster home run at spring training on Tuesday, will lead off at the beginning of the season. He plans to play both left and right field.
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Royals outfielder Alex Gordon, who hit a monster home run at spring training on Tuesday, will lead off at the beginning of the season. He plans to play both left and right field.

Alex Gordon entered this spring with an unofficial list of simple goals. He sought comfort at the plate. He wanted to feel good about his swing again. He wished to move forward after one of the worst years of his career, a miserable 2016 season that saw him bat .220, break his hand in a collision with Mike Moustakas, and, on more than one occasion, boil his season down to just two words.

“I sucked,” he said.

If the process of moving forward meant manager Ned Yost scribbling Gordon’s name back into the leadoff spot, a position he occupied for much of his career, then so be it. But first, Gordon says, he just wanted to feel “capable” again. He wanted to help his team win.

“My swing, my approach and everything,” said Gordon, the Royals’ 33-year-old left fielder. “I knew if I got back to that point, Ned would put me in the right spot.”

For now, the basic goals have been met. As the Royals prepared to break camp Wednesday, Gordon was batting .364 (20 for 55) with a .462 on-base percentage and five extra-base hits in 20 games this spring. As the day began, Yost confirmed that Gordon will begin the season as the club’s leadoff hitter when the season opens against the Minnesota Twins on Monday in Minneapolis.

“I’m excited about it,” Gordon said.

Gordon’s return to the leadoff role had been expected for days, if not weeks. But Yost went a step further Wednesday, revealing the rest of his opening day lineup.

Third baseman Mike Moustakas will return to the No. 2 spot, while center fielder Lorenzo Cain and first baseman Eric Hosmer will bat third and fourth, respectively. Catcher Salvador Perez will offer protection to Hosmer in the fifth spot, while designated hitter Brandon Moss will bat sixth. In the lower third, right fielder Paulo Orlando will bat seventh as he fills in for the injured Jorge Soler. Shortstop Alcides Escobar and second baseman Raul Mondesi will round out the batting order.

“We’ll start with that,” Yost said. “Like everything else, we try to let it get settled in and see how it looks.”

For Gordon, the return to the leadoff spot offers a measure of comfort and familiarity. It was six years ago, in the midst of his breakout 2011 season, that he first moved to the role. That was in May. Yost eschewed convention and rolled the dice. The move paid off.

Gordon did not possess premium speed or all the traits of a traditional leadoff hitter. But as the game of baseball evolved, so had the idea of what constituted a valuable leadoff man. Gordon reached base at a healthy clip. He possessed some of the best plate discipline on the team. The change in roles dovetailed with a reconfigured approach at the plate.

In the next five seasons, Gordon made three All-Star teams and helped the Royals win consecutive American League pennants and a World Series title. And much of that production came from the leadoff spot. In his career, he has started 316 games atop the order, the most of any position in the lineup.

“I like setting the table,” Gordon said. “I like getting things started. I like getting everything going for the guys like Cain and Hosmer to drive me in. I just like being that guy to start things off and get a rally going.”

This year, Yost really had no choice. Escobar and his .297 career on-base percentage did not seem ideal. Mondesi is not yet ready for such a role. So the role fell to Gordon, who has posted a career .345 on-base percentage and batted .277 from the top of the order.

Still, the decision comes just one season after Gordon’s production flatlined. In 2016, he batted .220 with a .312 on-base percentage and 148 strikeouts in 128 games. By most statistical measurements, it was the worst offensive season of his career. In the offseason, Gordon celebrated his 33rd birthday in February and prepared for the second season of a four-year, $72 million contract, signed in January 2016. He also prepped for change.

He focused on finding himself at the plate. He braced for a possible defensive adjustment. After seven full seasons in left field, Gordon could now find himself starting in right field on occasion.

The Royals have pondered the move as a way to protect Soler, who profiles as a slightly-below-average defender. The switch would be based on the opposing ballpark and the pitcher, Gordon said. For now, the tactic could be delayed. Soler is expected to begin the season on the disabled list after straining an oblique. But Gordon said he welcomed the new challenge.

“It’s going to happen,” Gordon said. “I think I’m going to be back and forth, just depending on the pitcher, the field and we’re just going to play it by ear. I think I’m going to be going back and forth, which I’m totally fine with.”

In some ways, though, the defensive questions are secondary. After a decade in Kansas City, after years of growing pains and a position change, after two pennants and a World Series championship, Gordon is intent on pulling his weight at the plate once again. Last season represented frustration. His bat speed betrayed him. The Royals finished 13th in the American League in runs scored. The season ended with an 81-81 record.

Now Gordon is ready for a return to the leadoff spot. It’s a role that suits him fine, he said. He likes hitting early. He likes sparking rallies. He likes the challenge. The Royals are hoping it’s the ideal fit.

“I’m comfortable with it,” Gordon said. “I feel good about where I’m at, and my approach and my swing right now. I feel like I can fit that role pretty good for this team.”