Sam Mellinger

The agony of Alex: It’s been a painful season for Royals star Gordon

The Royals expected a lot from left fielder Alex Gordon when he signed a four-year, $72 million contract in the offseason. Instead, he’s having his worst season as a professional.
The Royals expected a lot from left fielder Alex Gordon when he signed a four-year, $72 million contract in the offseason. Instead, he’s having his worst season as a professional.

Alex Gordon is hurt. I don’t know that, and I can’t prove that. Gordon would never admit to anything that sounds like an excuse. But I do believe it. I know that at least some within the Royals believe it, too.

Gordon is having the worst year of his professional baseball life. Worse than 2008, when the Royals nearly sent him to the minors. Worse than 2009, when they did send him to the minors. And worse than 2010, when they told him to switch positions because they were out of ideas.

There is no joy in any of this. Gordon is an irreplaceable part of the Royals’ rise from rubble. No player has been with this team longer. None are more respected. At some point, he will be an easy pick for the team Hall of Fame. He has had the best Royals career of anyone since George Brett.

But, well, there’s no other way to say it. Gordon has (stunk). He had two hits in the Royals’ 3-2 win over the White Sox in 14 innings on Wednesday, but also came up twice in extra innings with the winning run in scoring position. He struck out both times. Less than one-third of the season remains, and he is hitting .203 with the worst power production of his career. He had been among the game’s best left fielders for five years. The drop is both sudden and drastic.

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The cyborg jokes have always been about Wade Davis, but that’s a better description of Gordon’s personality. He rarely excited, rarely down, preparing for every game with the same exercises in the same order. That routine is still going, and he doesn’t appear to be losing confidence, but who could know?

“He’s hard to read,” Royals manager Ned Yost said. “You know? He’s hard to read.”

Gordon’s performance is the single biggest letdown in the Royals’ disappointing follow-up to the 2015 World Series championship. Not that he’s the only one. With the exception of catchers Salvador Perez and Drew Butera, there is not a single part of the Royals’ roster that is as good as it was last year. Not the offense, not the defense, not the rotation and not the bullpen.

But if you wanted one man to symbolize the grander drop, Gordon would be your guy. He signed a four-year, $72 million contract to stay with the only organization he’s ever known. That was a good moment, applauded by many around baseball, and was supposed to be a sign that the Royals could extend their championship window a few more years.

But, now, Gordon will almost certainly be the biggest underperformer in the first year of a major free agent contract in franchise history. By FanGraphs’ calculations, he is on pace to be worth negative $2.3 million. By the same math, and using the average value of contracts, the only worse underperformer could be the third year of Jose Guillen’s contract — and the Royals cut him.

Any number of theories exist, and you can likely find some truth in many. He’s not hitting fastballs, which works against him in many ways, including the confidence and options it gives pitchers to attack him. He’s pulling everything. His swing path isn’t in the zone as long, and either his timing or bat speed might be down, because he appears to be late on more pitches. Or, maybe that’s because he’s guessing too often.

If you watch him regularly, you have probably seen elements of at least some of each of those theories.

Royals pitcher Dillon Gee got the win for the Royals after pitching perfect 13th and 14th innings. Gee said he'll be ready to go again on Saturday if the Royals need him to start.

And each of them can be explained, at least in part, by another theory: He’s not fully recovered from the broken scaphoid bone in his right hand. Hand and wrist injuries are the worst for hitters, and why coaches and executives cringe when they see a star slide headfirst.

Hitting is about timing, and strength, and speed. Nothing wrecks the whole thing quite like a major hand or wrist injury. You can hit with a bad ankle, or a sore knee. But with an injured hand or wrist you lose power, speed, flexibility. You compensate with bigger muscles, but then the swing is stiff, and full of holes for pitchers to exploit.

Again, there are some in and around the club who also believe Gordon is playing with pain or diminished strength. If he truly is at full strength then there is a bigger problem here, but that’s different than saying his struggles can be explained simply by the injury.

He’s entering a new part of his career. He will turn 33 in February, and needs to make some adjustments with his swing and approach. He’s been too often buried in pitchers’ counts, and one scout thinks Gordon needs to concentrate on staying in the middle of the field with his swing.

This may be part of the bigger acceptance of where the Royals are in the standings, but some of the conversation has shifted from Gordon turning this season around to Gordon returning to form next year.

“You know guys have good years, and you know guys have bad years,” Yost said. “Alex, in my mind, is going to bounce back and have a really, really good year next year.”

The search for precedent here is mixed. Melvin Upton signed a five-year, $72.25 million deal in 2013, and his OPS dropped 195 points. That contract is now on its third team. Michael Bourn signed a four-year, $48 million contract in 2013, and was bad enough to be released in April 2016.

Alex Rios was making $12.5 million when he bottomed out with a .613 OPS for the White Sox in 2011, but the next year hit .304 with 25 homers, 37 doubles and eight triples. He even got some MVP votes.

Adam Dunn signed a four-year, $56 million contract with the White Sox before the 2011 season. Later, then-manager Ozzie Guillen would say he saw something wrong in Dunn’s swing early in spring training, and Dunn had one of the all-time worst seasons ever for a good player — he hit .159 with 177 strikeouts and just 11 home runs in 496 plate appearances. The next year, he made the All-Star team, led the league in walks, and hit 41 home runs.

There is a path out of this for Gordon, in other words, and once removed from the misery of the moment Dunn was able to articulate the feeling of hitting bottom.

“I can’t even put it into words,” he told Fox Sports. “You’re not doing your job. When you’re not doing your job, you’re letting everyone down in here. Your teammates expect a lot out of you.

“Not that I don’t expect a lot out of myself. I do. But every day, I was like, ‘I’ve got to get going. If I get going, our team will get going.’ Last year was a disaster year for me, but for the team, too.

“If I don’t have that happen, I think we had a chance to get into the playoffs. Actually, I know we did.”

Dunn was being hard on himself. That White Sox team had plenty of other problems, too.

But it’s not hard to imagine Gordon — who’s always demanded much of himself, and felt responsibility for the greater cause — feeling and perhaps someday expressing that same sentiment.

Gordon has earned a rare place in Kansas City sports history. He is a beloved teammate, and an adored star player. This isn’t how anyone around the Royals wanted to see this go, and they are pushing forward with the belief that with better health and an adjusted approach it won’t have to be.

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