June 29, 2012; Minneapolis, MN, USA: Kansas City Royals left fielder Alex Gordon hits a double in the first inning against the Minnesota Twins at Target Field. Mandatory Credit: Jesse Johnson-US PRESSWIRE

Alex Gordon and the Magic Leadoff Spot

Sports are weird. Baseball is weird. Athletes are weird. Take a player like Melky Cabrera. For years, he floundered to be an average big leaguer, then a new environment and improved fitness turned him into a surprise breakout, record setter, All-Star MVP and a hit leader. Just like that. R.A. Dickey floats all over the place, but then refines a knuckleball and turns into one of the key stories of 2012.

Alex Gordon was the second overall pick in 2005 and his resume is highlighted by an NCAA Player of the Year Award and a Minor League Player of the Year Award. He looked as can’t-miss as a prospect could get. Then he missed.

After some injuries slowed him down, the Royals were hoping that he’d maybe be fine as an everyday player and the move to the outfield in 2010 seemed to revitalize him. Then he broke out in 2011, earning down-ballot MVP votes, a Gold Glove and being a complete hitter. The emergence has multiple factors – he’s been healthy, the shift to the outfield may allow him to see the game differently and relax more, and the Royals have taken advantage of his patience by putting him in the leadoff spot.

For some reason, the leadoff spot suits Gordon better than any other. He looks like a ballplayer, and seeing him hit the ball hard last year, you’d think he’d be a good fit for the third spot in the order, perhaps cleanup, maybe fifth. After leading off regularly last year, the Royals kept him there to start this year and he shuffled a bit before getting in gear. Once he started showing signs of hitting well, the Royals tried to put him in those third, fourth, sixth spots and he struggled again. Maybe it was just a usual slump, or maybe it was being moved around in the lineup, but he showed a drop in production.

On May 11, he’d been hitting first or second in the order most of the time and had a .267/.362/.433 line . On May 12, he was moved to third, then fourth, then sixth. By May 26th, he had only eight hits in 52 at bats and a .484 OPS since being shifted (though he did lead off on May 23rd randomly in the middle of that stretch and went 0-3).

On May 27th, he was put back in the leadoff spot. He hasn’t been moved since. Since that time, he’s gone on a tear, hitting .346/.422/.497 with 20 doubles in 218 plate appearances. In all but six of those 47 games, he’s reached base at least once.

Throughout his career, hitting at the top of the order has shown better production. In 696 plate appearances batting first, he has an .887 OPS. Batting second (only 81 plate appearances) he has an OPS of .969. In every other spot in the lineup (1975 plate appearances), he’s put up a .739 OPS.

Yes, there’s a bit of a “chicken or the egg?” going on here. Did Gordon start producing because he was finally healthy during a stretch where he was batting leadoff or is the leadoff spot a particular comfort zone for Gordon and, combined with opportunity and health, allows him to thrive? As I said before, sports are weird.

There’s no definitive answer, but I imagine there’s a difference in his mental approach when Gordon’s batting leadoff and knows he has Billy Butler, Mike Moustakas or Eric Hosmer behind him. He may just be more comfortable as a player setting the table, getting his first appearance out of the way at the top of the order and jumping right into the game.

Whatever is spurring Gordon’s production, the Royals will take it. He’s not the prototypical leadoff hitter in the sense that he’s a speedy basestealer, but he does what the job asks – he gets on base. Only Prince Fielder and Miguel Cabrera have reached base more than Gordon, and David Ortiz was tied with him entering Saturday. Gordon also leads the AL in doubles and has developed into one of the better overall players in the league.

If it’s the leadoff spot, great, if it’s just health, great. If it’s the special combination of both, again, great. After so many years of frustration and missed expectations, Gordon has found his role and spot on this team and he’s thriving.

 

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