HoJo - photo via centerfieldmaz.com

Alex Gordon Ad Infinitum

By now, you’re sick of the predictions (guesses) of when (or if) Alex Gordon will finally realize his potential and start becoming the franchise hitter the Royals expected when drafting him second overall in 2005.  It wasn’t intentional to make this Alex Gordon and relief pitcher month, but that’s kind of how it’s shaken out for the Royals this spring.

We’ve written at length about Gordon – about his demotion to Omaha, a letter of unwavering devotion, simulated challenges, you name it – and I think I’m among the more patient with his development or lack thereof.

I’ve said it a lot that I’ll be one of the last ones on the Alex Gordon bandwagon if it finally breaks down. But you’ve heard it all before. He’s working on his swing. He’s in a new position. He’s being more selective. Same old song and dance and the struggles continue.

So maybe it’s time to finally ask – is it ever going to turn for him? Gordon isn’t the first prospect to struggle in the big leagues; he won’t be the last. What makes his case unique is that he looked like a can’t miss coming out of Nebraska as College Player of the Year.  With the Minor League Player of the Year honor bestowed upon him in 2006, the expectations grew. And he’s flopped so far.

Looking at some comparisons on Baseball-Reference, I found one that gives me hope that not only can Gordon turn things around, but he can develop closer into what we all figured he’d be. B-R compares players on different criteria and assigns scores, even going so far as to compare players at particular ages to show similiarities in development.  One of Gordon’s strongest comps for his age is that of Howard Johnson (at least through age 25, Gordon is 27 now but with his lost time due to injuries, I think it works.  It’s what I’m using anyway.)

Johnson was drafted out of high school by the Tigers in 1979 as a first round pick and worked his way up the ladder, never really showing much until 1981 when he put up a .961 OPS at the age of 21 in Triple A.  He made his major league debut the next season at 21 years old. He had a pretty decent year with Detroit in part-time duty.  In 173 plate appearances, he racked up a solid .810 OPS – not bad for a rookie.

His tenure in Detroit wasn’t stellar, though, and he often ended up platooning or shuttling back and forth from the minors to the big league team.  Sound familiar? Before the 1985 season, he was traded to the Mets, where, again, he was set to platoon, despite being a switch-hitter.  The third baseman struggled again in his first year in the NL, batting .242/.300/.393/.693.  He improved, but just slightly, in 1986 to a .245/.341/.445/.786 OPS but had just ten homers.  To that point, he’d had 1330 plate appearances and just a .731 OPS to show for it.  He didn’t look like much more than a platoon guy.  A bust for a first round pick.

Then a funny thing happened.

He arrived.

From 1987, after becoming the full time third baseman, until 1991, the season just before his 31st birthday, Johnson’s 3220 plate appearances resulted in a modest line of .258/.347/.492/.839 line, but it was good for a 135 OPS+ for the period.

He also averaged 31 homers and 32 steals per season during that period, reaching the 30/30 mark four times, earning two All-Star appearances and Silver Slugger Awards and landing in the top ten in MVP voting in the NL three times, twice in the top five.

He struck out a fair amount, an average of 113 times a year during that stretch, but the power made up for it. After toiling around the big leagues for five years, Johnson finally exploded.  I wish there was batted ball data for that period, but I couldn’t tell you if it was a shift to more line drives and fly balls that led to the surge.

What I can see is that from the ages of 21-25, HoJo homered in 3% of plate appearances, struck out 18.7% of the time and walked 9.6% of the time, all higher rates than league average.  Starting with that 1987 season until 1991, he increased his HR rate to 4.9% (almost a 67% jump), decreased his strikeout rate and increased his walkrate (probably a function both of improved pitch selection and pitchers working around him more).

Alex Gordon‘s numbers over that period aren’t very far off.  He’s homered in 2.7% of his appearances, just above the league average.  He strikes out a lot – we all know this – at 22.1% but he also walks at a higher rate than Johnson did in those first few years (Gordon’s walkrate is 9.9% for his career – omitting 2007, it’s at 11.6%). Johnson made negligible improvements to his strikeout rate between his two periods, but he did improve.  That’s a handful of at bats that go from being strikeouts to at least being put in play or becoming walks.

Gordon already walks at a better rate than Johnson did at the same stage, and while it’s not a guarantee of success, it’s a good sign.  If he pairs that keen eye with adjustments to his swing that seem to be working, he’s at a similar point in his career as Johnson was.  With 1664 plate appearances under his belt, Gordon may be poised to make a similar breakout. That’s the hope.

In both cases, they look like two prospects who may have been rushed to the big leagues and took time to adjust.  In Johnson’s case, he’d shown success in the upper minors and earned a shot, but the part-time status really didn’t help him.  He wasted a couple of years that he could have used to get regular at bats.  Gordon, at least, has played everyday at every level, be it the minors or majors.

Gordon’s success in Omaha last year shows that he can still hit and has the power to produce.  This spring, he hit .343/.459/.729 and hit six homers, led the team in walks and RBI, and yeah, it’s spring and it’s Arizona, but it’s better than .210/.301/.390, right?

For now, it’s all about the adjustments.  By all accounts, his swing does look different.  Greg Schaum’s down in spring training, and his opinion is one that I respect and he had this to say about Gordon’s swing:

The odd thing about the progression – or stagnation – of Gordon’s career is how it fits within the context of the upcoming youth movement as the best prospects in baseball make their way through the minor leagues and into Kansas City.  The expectations are gone from Gordon.  Many fans have written him off as a bust already and while some still hope and believe, part of us knows there’s a chance he may never pan out. We’ve shifted our attention to Eric Hosmer and Mike Moustakas and this time next year, Wil Myers.  We’re ready for Brett Eibner and want Lorenzo Cain in center already.

Perhaps that kind of environment, where he doesn’t have to be The Man, will work for Gordon and with a new swing and a patient approach, he might work in a couple of All-Star seasons in his peak years. Kind of like HoJo.

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Tags: AL Central Alex Gordon Baseball Howard Johnson Kansas City Royals KC MLB Royals

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