Judging the Royals

George Brett, Alex Gordon and hitting the ball to the opposite field

Kansas City Royals left fielder Alex Gordon.
Kansas City Royals left fielder Alex Gordon. jsleezer@kcstar.com

I’m pretty sure I’ve mentioned his before, and I’m 100 percent sure I’ll mention it again, but the winter before George Brett retired he and I hit together once a week. That sounds like a pretty cool story until you get to the part where I realized George was hitting with me because he needed someone to stand by the pitching machine and make sure it didn’t get clogged up while he took his hacks.

But every once in a while George would need to rest, so I’d get to hit and he’d talk baseball with me while I did it. And I’ll never forget what he said to me:

“Lee, your turn’s over; go down to the other end of the cage and unclog the machine.”

OK, George never actually said that to me, but I’m pretty sure he was thinking it. What George did say was that when he got in a funk at the plate, he’d get out of it by hitting the ball to the opposite field.

What hitting the ball to the opposite field does for you

If you’re going to hit the ball the other way — left field for a left-hander — you have to wait. You have to let the ball travel and get deep in the zone and that tends to improve your pitch selection.

Hitters don’t swing at sliders in the dirt because they look like sliders in the dirt; they swing at sliders in the dirt because they look like fastballs down the middle … at least for a while. If you swing too soon, that slider will dip just as you start your swing; if you wait a heartbeat you might pick up the slider rotation (the seams form a red dot on the top of the baseball) and decide to let that slider go by.

The other thing going oppo does for a hitter is improve his swing mechanics.

If a hitter is trying to pull the ball he tends to open up his front shoulder and when that happens, the head tends to follow. This is known as “pulling off the ball” and it results in a lot of swings and misses or weak “rollover” grounders to the pull side of the field.

And that brings us — finally — to the subject of this post: Alex Gordon.

2016 versus the rest of Gordon’s career

Let’s start by saying there’s rarely one simple answer to why a player put up the numbers he did, and in 2016 Gordon had a lot going on; a new contract and a wrist injury immediately come to mind.

But if I did the math right, over the course of his career Gordon has pulled the ball approximately 31 percent of the time, and in 2016 that number jumped to approximately 39 percent.

I doubt that pulling the ball more often is the complete explanation for his .220 batting average and career-high 148 strikeouts, but I also doubt pulling the ball more often had absolutely nothing to do with those numbers.

When a hitter scuffles, one of the first things you can look at it is how often he’s pulling the ball. Pulling the ball pays off in power — Gordon slugs .713 when he does it and slugs .482 when he goes the other way — but the price of power is often a lower batting average and more strikeouts.

And if a hitter is scuffling and wants to get straightened out, he can do a lot worse than focus on hitting the ball to the opposite field — and if you don’t believe me, just ask George Brett.

But you might have to unclog a pitching machine to get him to answer.