Royals manager Ned Yost on veteran KC outfielder Alex Gordon
Royals general manager Dayton Moore looked out onto the field hours before a game last week in New York’s Yankee Stadium — a place that has seen some of the bright talents in the game fade and forced into the background of retirement — and watched his 35-year-old left fielder acting like a kid.
As the club’s relief pitchers walked to the bullpen and Gordon headed to the outfield to do his early work, he slapped the glove out of the hands of unsuspecting and wide-eyed rookie pitcher Richard Lovelady in a playful moment that let Moore know that his veteran cornerstone was still having fun, still had that “boyish attitude.”
The questions about Gordon loomed large at the start of spring training and lingered into the start of the season. His declining offensive statistics in recent years perhaps signaled an inevitable drop off to which every player eventually succumbs.
A workout fiend, he remained muscular and sculpted like a modern day Hercules, but did Gordon have much productivity left in his aging body? Was he simply a player reaching the end of the line well before reaching the last year of his four-year, $72 million contract? (There’s a mutual option for next season.)
Well, Gordon went into this weekend’s series against the Los Angeles Angels at Kauffman Stadium batting .311 with a .396 on-base percentage, .578 slugging percentage, five home runs and a team-leading 21 RBIs (tied for seventh-most in the majors). Since Aug. 1 of last year, he’d racked up the second-most RBIs in the American League behind only Oakland’s Khris Davis.
“Gordo doesn’t look any different to me than he did last year or the year before,” Moore said. “He drives the ball. His raw power is the same in (batting practice). His work ethic is the same. Preparation as a left fielder is the same. Nothing has changed there. … I don’t see anything different in Gordo. You can’t control the result, but you can control the approach. Alex Gordon’s approach hasn’t changed. As a general manager, I look at approaches.”
When Moore referenced approach he didn’t mean a plan at the plate or an approach to hitting, he was speaking of the day-to-day approach to the game, teammates, coaching, preparation, nutrition, exercise and overall love of the game.
Moore has seen players change their approach after having received a long-term contract and financial security. Gordon has not come close to falling into that category in Moore’s eyes.
“Father Time is going to get us all, but if there is anybody who is going to outlast it a little longer — it’s Alex Gordon, because of what he puts into his body, how he prepares, he goes to bed at night and gets his sleep,” Moore said. “He’s committed to his wife. He’s committed to his kids. There’s no player that I’ve ever been around that I respect as much as Alex Gordon, for a lot of reasons. This guy is exactly what you want in your players.”
Aside from not having a hit in the first two games of this season (he reached base four times), Gordon has appeared rejuvenated and perhaps nearly as productive a two-way player as he had been before anyone ever thought of sending the longest-tenured Royal out to pasture.
“You’re going to go through some hard times,” Gordon said. “It’s not an easy game. I definitely finished strong, and I felt good in the offseason. I felt good during spring training. To start the season, the first two games I didn’t get hits but I felt really comfortable, seeing the ball well, and I felt good at the plate. I’m not surprised by the way I started — just how I felt last year and coming into spring training.”
Going back in time
From 2011 through 2015, Gordon posted a batting average of .281, a .359 on-base percentage and a .450 slugging percentage. During that same stretch he averaged (per 162 games) 20 home runs, 64 extra-base hits, 81 RBIs, 92 runs scored and an offensive WAR (wins above replacement) of 3.6, according to Baseball-Reference.com.
From 2016 through 2018, his slash line dipped to .225/.310/.355 and he averaged 16 home runs, 42 extra-base hits, 54 RBIs and 66 runs scored per 162 games. His offensive WAR dropped to 0.2.
He’d also been through some significant injuries in both 2016 and 2018. He missed a month in 2016 because of a scaphoid fracture in his right wrist. Last season, he started off the season ailing — spending a stint on the injured list because of a left hip labral tear.
Ironically, Gordon has pointed to that injury last season as an essential point in his turnaround.
“Really getting 10 to 15 days to kind of get back to my old self and figure out what I needed to do to be successful again (was important),” Gordon said. “Dale Sveum was our hitting coach for while, and when I was struggling he kept telling me, ‘I want you to go back to ‘11 and ‘12 when you were standing straight up and your posture was good.’
“I wanted to do it, I just could never get back to it for whatever reason. You know, you’re going through a season. You’re going through the grind. It’s hard to just make a huge switch like that. The 10 to 15 days allowed me to take a break, step back and feel comfortable with that.”
Crouching player, hidden talent
Sveum, current bench coach for the Royals, served as hitting coach from 2014-17. Having worked so closely with Gordon for years and having studied his at-bats, it struck Sveum how Gordon’s stance had begun folding in on itself.
“There’s no doubt in my mind, and I think now in his too, it was holding him back,” Sveum said of Gordon’s stance at the plate. “Hitters will find themselves sometimes gradually getting into some habits that they don’t even realize they’re in. It’s causing them numerous different things, but he started getting into such a crouched position, shoulders turned, a lot of things were just breaking down.
“He was struggling with the fastball, struggling with breaking balls. I think it took a couple tough years, a year and a half, whatever it might be, for him change something.”
Sveum explained that sometimes hitters fall into the trap of being able to see the ball better from a crouched position when their swing mechanics won’t allow you to hit it from that position.
Why did Gordon fall into the trap in the first place?
“I don’t know. Maybe struggling, injuries, it’s just baseball,” Gordon said. “I don’t know. I couldn’t tell you. I wish I didn’t do it, but I like where I’m at now so that’s all that matters.”
One thing Sveum has identified as a commonality among consistently good hitters is the separation between their hands and their front hip at the moment when their front foot hits the ground.
By standing more upright and starting his hands lower before he loads to swing, Gordon created more separation and therefore a more fluid path to the baseball, greater leverage at the point of contact and more bat speed.
“Like anything, it takes you a small amount of time to get into a bad habit but a long time to get out of a bad habit. That’s kind of the gist of it,” Sveum said. “It takes time because a lot of times it’s like, ‘Man, I just don’t feel comfortable hitting like I used to.’ When he first came up to the big leagues, he almost stood and looked a little bit like Ken Griffey Jr.”
Standing up taller also made Gordon more linear, Sveum also explained. That’s particularly crucial for Gordon because he’s has always been of a “rotational” hitter. The crouch meant his bat wasn’t in the strike zone very long and left him vulnerable on more pitches.
“To his credit, he pulled himself out of about a year and half of pretty tough seasons,” Sveum said. “Now for pretty close to two months, he’s been swinging the heck out of the bat, a really good two-strike approach. He’s done a really good job for this late in his career to be able to do that.”
Gordo is back
Gordon’s final month of 2018 showed signs of an upturn. He posted a slash line of .265/.333/.431 with 19 RBIs and eight doubles. He moved into the third spot in the batting order, where he has stayed this season, and Gordon believes he’s a more aggressive hitter in that spot. He knocked in 17 RBIs in the final 21 games while batting third.
Of course, that success at the end of the season never guarantees a hot start.
“I was hoping that it would continue,” Royals manager Ned Yost said. “He’d come off a couple tough years, but made some adjustments and he was looking good and freed up his swing and started changing his mindset a little bit, more going (the other) way. It just all kinda pointed into a direction that if he could keep this up it would be pretty good. He’s kept it up.”
Royals infielder/outfielder Whit Merrifield always expected Gordon to return to form. Merrifield believed in the resume and, similar to Moore, believed in the work he’d seen Gordon put in on a daily basis.
Too often, Merrifield said, people look at numbers and think that tells the entire story.
“He’s six-time Gold Glover. He’s a three-time All-Star,” Merrifield said. “Defensively, he’s one of the best left fielders to ever play the game in my opinion. You know, he had a couple bad years lately, but he was also battling a lot of injuries. It’s hard to go through some of the stuff he went through and pick right up where you left off. I think now he’s finally feeling good.
“He’s 35, but his 35 is a lot different than a lot of other people’s 35, the way he takes care of himself. People age differently. Just because he’s 35 doesn’t mean he can’t go out and do things that few other left fielders can do. It’s good to see him swinging the bat well, because we know that’s the type of player he is.”
If Gordon felt a need to prove doubters wrong, to show that he still had the ability to play at a high level at his age, he hasn’t let on. Instead, he has stressed wanting to be a better player for his team, particularly coming off a 104-loss season.
Gordon’s attitude remains that if he plays hard and contributes to winning games, the numbers will come.
However, he’s acknowledged seeing the end to his baseball playing days approaching.
“I just wanted to feel comfortable, enjoy this season and have fun with it,” Gordon said. “I know as you get older you start to realize that you might not be playing this game as long as you want to. At times you just want to go out there and have fun and enjoy it. That’s kind of how I’ve looked at it.”