One of the few downsides of signing a $72 million contract is knowing you will never have anyone’s empathy for your professional struggles. That suits Alex Gordon just fine. He’s never been much for empathy, anyway, and the Royals outfielder never liked excuses any more than he’s liked men who made them.
“I hate trying to say, ‘This is why I played bad,’ ” Gordon said. “Obviously if I knew why played bad, I would’ve done something about it. You need to look in the mirror and say, ‘Hey, I didn’t get it done, bottom line.’ ”
So Gordon has said, a few times already in a spring camp that’s barely a week old, “I sucked last year.” The idea is to kill the drama, to squash the rehash and move on. Gordon has always preferred to focus on the positives. A strikeout is a chance to learn. An injury is an opportunity for someone else.
This has served him well, through more than his share of professional drama — drafted to a lost organization, major injuries, a demotion, and a position switch — but it makes for a rotten way to understand what exactly went wrong in the worst full big-league season of his career.
Gordon hit just .220, with a career-worst .312 on-base and .380 slugging percentage. He missed about five weeks because of the wrist he injured in a collision with Mike Moustakas in Chicago, but still struck out a career-high 148 times.
A wrist injury is the worst a hitter can have. It diminishes everything about a swing — power, speed, control. Timing is thrown off, then confidence. Many hitters have had seasons wrecked by wrist injuries.
Gordon allows that the injury was a particular problem, because it kept him from baseball work for a month in the middle of the season, at a time when pitchers are getting sharper.
“It was almost like being left behind a little bit,” he said. “I was playing catch-up the whole year, and I never caught up.”
There’s a pause.
“But was (the wrist) bothering me after the fact, when I came back? No,” he said. “It was tough, but I was playing.”
Skepticism circulates around the clubhouse about Gordon dismissing the wrist. He is likely the most respected man in the room, and third baseman Mike Moustakas says the quiet stubbornness is part of the reason.
Gordon turned 33 this month, the age when you’d expect a player’s best season to have been in the past rather than the future. But his batting average, on-base, and slugging percentages each dropped more than 50 points. Some of it had to be the wrist.
“I don’t think we’ll ever know,” first baseman Eric Hosmer said.
Gordon is, in some ways, the worst type of player to return from a midseason injury like this. Everything he does on a baseball field is hard. Intense. Nothing is smooth, his actions are never easy. His swing has always made him streakier than most, both good and bad, and he needs repetition for all the parts to work in concert.
The injury, then, blasted all of that away.
Nobody wants to hear this about a guy with three years remaining on the biggest contract in franchise history, but Gordon’s struggles were compounded by some awful luck.
According to FanGraphs, he had more hard contact last season than any in his career, and less soft contact than his breakout 2011 season — the followup to his “dominate” promise.
According to Baseball Reference, 28 percent of his balls put in play were line drives — the best rate of his career, and far above the major-league average of 19 percent. His batting average on balls in play, generally viewed as an indicator of luck, was among the worst of his career.
None of that matters as much as the production, of course, and the Royals need more of the Gordon from 2011 to 2015 (his .809 OPS was higher than Shin-Soo Choo, Evan Longoria and Ben Zobrist, among others) than 2016 (his .692 OPS ranked 135th among 146 qualified hitters).
This is the time of year for pure and genuine optimism, and Gordon feels plenty of reason. He stayed in Kansas City this offseason, mostly so his oldest son wouldn’t need to change schools, but it was better for him professionally as well — closer and easier access to his trainer and baseball work.
Health is always the most important thing. Few know that better than Gordon. Two straight runs to the World Series left the Royals with little juice last season. You could see that. Some of the players have admitted that.
Gordon thinks about how he felt stronger in September than April, and how his body feels as strong as ever. A full offseason to rest, then train, can only help. This feels like a good year. That’s what he says, anyway.
“I always think of the positive things,” he said. “That’s one.”
Year to forget
The 2016 season wasn’t kind to Alex Gordon, who said, “I sucked last year.”
Batting average (his lowest since hitting .215 in 74 games in 2010)
OPS (on-base plus slugging percentage) — also his lowest since 2010
Strikeouts (a career high despite playing 128 games)