by John Viril—
Kansas City Royals LF Alex Gordon is mired in a three-month-long slump. Gordon was hitting .340 with an OPS of .882 when the Royals hired George Brett as hitting coach on May 30. Today, Gordon is hitting .262 with an OPS of .734. He’s declined to become an exactly league average hitter with an OPS+ of 100.
The simple fact is that Alex Gordon’s problem seems to be his sudden inability to hit the inside pitch.
We can see this fact by comparing his batted ball results from the first two months of the season to the last three (through August 18). Heat maps below depict slight decreases as light blue progressing to dark purple for large drop-offs, while marginal improvement is shown as light green to red for extreme increases. The heat map below is from the perspective of the catcher—thus a left-handed hitter like Alex Gordon would take his stance to the right side of this diagram from baseballheatmaps.com:
If we limit the sample to hard stuff—i.e. Fastballs, two-seam fastballs, four-seam fastballs, and cut fastballs—we see an even more pronounced decline:
What we see here is improvement hitting outer half fastballs high in the strike zone and a pretty pronounced decline everywhere else. Run the same comparison with off-speed pitches (changeup, curve, sinker, slider, split-finger fastball) and we see he’s hitting those pitches better than he did in the first two months of the season, with the exception of inside pitches:
The other big number that jumps out from Alex Gordon’s data is his batting average on balls in play (BABIP) has sharply declined compared to the standard he set the last two seasons. This year his BABIP is .311, down from .358 and .356 the last two years. The drop may be a simple case of regression, since a BABIP of .350 is well above the league average of .296 this season.
Otherwise, Alex Gordon’s plate discipline and the pitch mix he’s facing from opponents seem very similar to prior years. His contact rates and line drive rates are right in line with career norms. What we do see is a significant drop in his isolated power. In 2011 Gordon’s iso was .200, which fell to .160 in 2012, and is now .146 this season.
We find something more interesting if we look at his average batted ball distance on home runs and fly balls from his peak season in 2011 and compare it to his hot start in 2013 at baseballheatmaps.com. We find that those distances are an almost identical 288.03 in 2011 and 288.96 in the first two months of 2013. His batted ball distance has sharply declined to 280.87 in his last three months.
Add it up, and it looks like reduced bat speed has caused Alex Gordon’s problems. The logic behind this conclusion is that slower bat speed results in less distance. The trouble hitting hard stuff supports this conclusion as well as his problems hitting inside pitches (the bat head has to travel farther to get solid contact on inside pitches). The idea that fly ball distance reflects bat speed rests on the observation that Gordon’s contact rates and batted ball rates (line drive, fly ball, ground ball, ect) have remained relatively constant.
If this analysis is correct, it begs the question of why has Gordon’s bat slowed down? Does he have a nagging injury, or is it age?
To address this question I looked at his batted ball distance in Gordon’s 1st two months vs. the rest of the year over the last three seasons. I found that his batted ball distance on flies and home runs remained constant in 2011, but has shown sharp reductions the last two seasons as the year wore on:
1st 2 months rest of season
2011 288.51 287.73
2012 287.37 281.83
2013 288.96 280.87
That data looks like age has caused 29-year-old Gordon to wear down as the season progressed the last two seasons. The only logical alternative is if he’s suffered nagging injuries the last two mid-seasons that slowed down his bat speed but have not been severe enough to sideline him.
The caveat to this conclusion is that in 2012, Gordon’s splits showed he struggled his first two months and performed well from June onward last season (though he showed a progressive decline each month until season’s end after his peak month in June).
If Alex Gordon has indeed worn down the last two years, the obvious solution would be to increase his rest days. Second, Gordon might consider a Hosmer-like adjustment of moving his hands closer to the plate to help him get around on the inside pitch. The other, uncomfortable suggestion is if Gordon can’t find a way to maintain his bat speed throughout the year, the Royals front office should consider dealing him while he still has a relatively high trade value. GM Dayton Moore needs to do this before Alex Gordon goes “full-Francoeur” on us—especially since his final two contract years are for $10 million in 2014 and $12 million in 2015.
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