Judging the Royals

Does Alex Gordon deserve another Gold Glove?

Royals left fielder Alex Gordon slid for a catch against the White Sox on Aug. 10, 2016.
Royals left fielder Alex Gordon slid for a catch against the White Sox on Aug. 10, 2016. jsleezer@kcstar.com

Last week the finalists for the 2016 Gold Glove Awards were announced and three Royals — Alex Gordon, Eric Hosmer and Salvador Perez — were on the list. So while we wait for spring training to come around again, let’s take a look at what these three players bring to the table when playing defense.

We’ll start with Alex Gordon and I’ll eventually get around to Eric Hosmer and Salvador Perez.

So how about it: Does Alex Gordon deserve another Gold Glove?

Here’s the problem: I can’t tell you much about the other two finalists, Houston’s Colby Rasmus and New York’s Brett Gardner. I’ve seen them play some and I can look up their numbers, but in my opinion to really know what a player has under the hood you need to actually watch him play and play a lot.

I’ve watched just about every game Alex Gordon has played for the past six seasons, so while I can’t really tell you if he deserves another Gold Glove, I can tell you an awful lot about Gordon’s game. Every player has strengths and limitations so we’ll use that format.

Strengths

Positioning: Bad outfielders play deep. Teams often try to hide a guy with a good bat and weak glove in one of the corner outfield spots. And if an outfielder is uncomfortable going back on the ball, he’ll play deep and let the ball fall in front of him. He might be killing his pitcher and his team, but it won’t look like his fault.

Gordon is comfortable going back on the ball so he’s willing to play in and take away the stuff that would fall in front of a lesser outfielder.

Focus: As long as we’re talking about positioning, we might as well talk about focus. Some players — outfielders especially — struggle with that. Let’s say you’re going to play Kurt Suzuki to pull or go up the middle early in an at bat, and then play him to go the other way if he gets into a two-strike count (which is how the Royals play him).

If you’re Royals outfield coach Rusty Kuntz, you need to check your outfielder’s positioning once Suzuki gets to two strikes: did the outfielders make the move to the opposite field?

Rusty says he doesn’t have to worry about Gordon. Rusty knows Gordon will be in the right spot and that means Rusty can give more attention to center and right field.

Routes: If you look up the explanation of “Route Efficiency” it says that under some circumstances outfielders prioritize getting behind the ball to make a throw, but then goes on to say this:

“Still, every outfielder wants to take the most direct route possible to a batted ball, and Route Efficiency measures exactly how well an outfielder does that.”

Umm … not as much as you might think.

Direct lines from an outfielder’s starting position to a batted ball are usually reserved for emergencies; a screaming line drive hit into a gap or a flare that’s dropping in front of an outfielder would be two examples. Otherwise an outfielder wants to make his lateral move first — get in line with the ball’s flight — and then field the ball while moving forward. Since human beings rarely make 90 degree turns at full speed, this means the outfielder’s route will curve.

Alex Gordon excels at running routes.

Watch him on a ball hit down the left-field line. Balls down the lines are usually doubles, but Gordon curves his route to get behind the ball and then fields it while running toward second base. If an outfielder fields the ball while coming toward second base the runner will usually shut it down and be happy with a single. If Gordon were to run a straight line to the ball down the left-field line, he would field it while running away from second base and that would mean no momentum on his throw. So don’t get too worked up over Route Efficiency numbers; they can be misleading.

And while we’re at it, the same thing can apply to first steps; when a ball is hit directly at an outfielder, the right move is to not move at all. Balls right at you are hard to read so a step in or back can kill your chances of making the catch; taking a quick first step in the wrong direction is not a great move. So sometimes the outfielder has to wait until he reads the ball’s trajectory and then take that first step.

Aggression: Some outfielders slow down as they approach a ground ball; they’re uncomfortable fielding a grounder at full speed. Gordon started his career as a third baseman and doesn’t mind charging ground balls.

And Gordon’s aggressive approach also shows up on sinking line drives.

Back to Rusty Kuntz: he thinks the toughest outfield spot is in left because right-handed hitters tend to hit balls to right field with backspin — which keeps the ball in the air a while — and balls to left field with overspin — which keeps the ball low and makes it sink. Some of Gordon’s best catches are coming forward and diving for sinking line drives. A lot of other outfielders will play it safe, hang back and let the ball fall in for a single.

Arm: Infielders and outfielders use different throwing motions. Infielders tend to bring the ball directly behind their ear before cutting loose; outfielders have a longer throwing motion because they tend to let their arms drop down and then bring the ball up behind their ear. Outfielders’ longer, slower throwing motion generates momentum and is more powerful. Gordon uses an infielder’s throwing motion, but he’s strong enough to get away with it.

So an outfielder who charges the ball well and has a quick and accurate arm can turn a lot of doubles into singles and keep a lot of runners from going first-to-third or second-to-home.

The wall: Watch outfielders approach the wall and you’ll see a fair number of them give up once they hit the warning track. They slow down and make a half-hearted leap or back up and play the carom — they don’t want to risk running into the wall.

As anyone who has watched him play for any length of time knows, Gordon keeps going. One of the reasons Gordon gets hurt is his tendency to play all out, so that’s both a strength and limitation: he’ll make that catch up against the wall, but he might end up on the DL doing it.

Limitations

Speed: Gordon is not a “burner.” He doesn’t have flat-out “burner” speed like Jarrod Dyson and that limits his defensive range somewhat, but Gordon tends to make up for that with a lot of other positives.

Summary

If you’re thinking: “Wow, that’s an awful lot of time spent on Gordon’s defensive strengths and barely any on his limitations”… no kidding. It might be why Gordon already has four Gold Gloves and is going for his fifth. I can’t tell you if Alex Gordon deserves another Gold Glove, but I can tell you he’s a very good left fielder.

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