What has happened to Alex Gordon?
The normally reliable Royals outfielder is hitting .188 with a .225 slugging percentage, and according to weighted runs created plus, he’s hitting 58 percent worse than league average — a number that ranks 173rd out 185 qualified players.
Another bad sign: Gordon can’t point much to bad luck for his slow start either. According to StatCast data, his expected average based on his exit velocity and launch angle is .183, which is even lower than his .188 average.
So what’s gone wrong for him so far in 2017?
Here’s a look at Gordon’s numbers compared to last year — and remember, last season was considered a down one for him when he hit 15 percent worse than league average.
While Gordon isn’t hitting the ball as hard, the bigger issue seems to be his spike in groundballs. Many major-league teams have adopted mottos urging players to add lift to their swings — the Cubs say, “There’s no slug on the ground,” while Pirates manager Clint Hurdle is using, “Your OPS is in the air” — and a quick look at the numbers shows why.
Star columnist Sam Mellinger noted this in his Eric Hosmer piece, but as of last week, major-league teams were hitting .237 with a .260 slugging percentage on groundballs; on balls in the air, teams had a .385 average and .849 slugging percentage.
So what’s changed with Gordon this year? For help with that, I went back to find pitches and locations where Gordon homered last season and has grounded out this season to see what might have shifted in his swing.
Two-seam fastball, top of the strike zone in the middle of the plate (2016 on home run left, 2017 grounder on right)
This is the point where I talk about how amazing professional baseball players like Gordon are, as it’s remarkable the similarities between these two swings. We’re talking about the smallest of adjustments making the difference in results.
Having said that, here’s a screenshot in particular I thought was interesting.
How does one hit more flyballs? There are lots of ways to go about it, but one philosophy becoming more popular is from independent hitting instructor Doug Latta, who helped resurrect the careers of Marlon Byrd and Justin Turner.
This paragraph is from Travis Sawchik’s 2013 piece on Byrd in the Pittsburgh Tribune-Review:
“Instead of leading with his hands, Byrd was taught to lead with his right (back) elbow. He said the subtle adjustment creates ‘bat lag’ and ‘snap.’ The tweak created more lift in his swing plane and a longer period of extension in the hitting zone.”
It’s hard to tell anything definitive with frozen screenshots, but notice the difference in Gordon’s back arm and bat angle above.
Here’s another look at his home-run swing from the side. Watch his back elbow help lead the way, which naturally brings his hands into a position to lift up on the ball.
Here are a couple other pitches for comparison purposes …
Four-seam fastball, right down the middle
There appears to be another slight change in Gordon’s bat angle, which is affecting the ball’s flight off his bat.
Change-up, bottom of the strike zone and middle part of the plate
It’s subtle again, but here’s the changed bat angle at contact.
We’re talking about minuscule changes here, but for Gordon to regain his power, he’ll need to work to regain some of the loft he’s had in years past.
Could a change in his back elbow help that? That might have been part of the reason for his success in the past, and at least a few current players are using that approach get themselves off the ground this season.