Mandatory Credit: Denny Medley-USA TODAY Sports

Alex Gordon's Bizarre Season

Over the last couple of years, we’ve come to expect a certain level of production from Alex Gordon. His last 2 seasons have been fantastic, and it seems like he’s well on his way to another solid year. Gordon is currently batting .331, with a .525 slugging percentage, and is on pace to hit 26 home runs and 39 doubles. In his 2011 season, Gordon hit .303, had a .502 slugging percentage, hit 23 home runs and 45 doubles. At first glance, the numbers look very similar.

Upon further review, however, the way in which Gordon is putting up those stats is unlike any other in his career.

Mandatory Credit: Peter G. Aiken-USA TODAY Sports

Gordon’s on-base percentage sits at .353, which is right around his career average. But when you remember that his batting average is only 23 points lower than that, you see that Gordon is actually not excelling in that department. Prior to this season, the smallest separation between his AVG and OBP was 67 points, in his rookie season. In that 2007 campaign, Gordon put up a walk percentage of 6.8, which, prior to this season, was the lowest of his career, by far.

Gordon’s current walk percentage? A paltry 3.6.

In 167 plate appearances, Gordon has drawn 6 walks. For comparison, Alcides Escobar, a player who has never been fond of taking a walk, has already received 7 free passes in 165 plate appearances. Mike Moustakas, who has never posted a double digit walk percentage, not even in the minor leagues, has twice as many walks as Gordon this year in almost 30 fewer plate appearances.

So what is it that has transformed Gordon’s walking ability into that of Jeff Francoeur?

One way to attempt to explain it is by looking at how many strikes Gordon is seeing in his at bats. According to pitch f/x data, Gordon sees pitches in the strike zone 49.3% of the time. That number is basically right in line with the major league average and his own career average, so it’s not that he’s seeing more strikes. Since we know he’s seeing the same percentage of strikes, we can correctly assume that his reduced walk rate can be in part due to him swinging at a greater percentage of pitches overall. To put it simply, swinging at more pitches means you generally will not walk as often. His 2013 Swing% is 45.8, which is the highest it’s been since his rookie year. Still, his career average in that category is 44.8, so it is tough to see how that alone could cause such a drastic drop in his walk percentage.

The real differences can be seen when you break his Swing% down based on whether the balls he swings at are in or out of the strike zone. Gordon’s Z-Swing% (percentage of balls in the strike zone the batter swings at) sits at 59.5, which is the lowest of his career by 1.5 percentage points. His O-Swing% (percentage of balls out of the strike zone the batter swings at) is 32.5. Excluding his rookie season (31.3), the next highest O-Swing% of his career was 27.8.

Basically, Gordon is swinging at fewer strikes, while also swinging at many more balls. That, my friends, is not a recipe for success. Unless, of course, you’re Alex Gordon in 2013.

Somehow, Gordon has combined uncharacteristically poor plate discipline with fewer line drives and more ground balls than his career averages to produce a stat line like that of a player deserving of an All-Star bid. Oh, and did I mention that he’s destroying left-handed pitching, too?

For his career, Gordon has averaged .250/.320/.406 against lefties. This season, he’s hitting .424/.443/.644 when facing southpaws. Granted, that’s in only 61 plate appearances, but still, that’s really, really good. It’s also really, really strange.

Looking for another excellent part of Gordon’s 2013 season so far? How about his “clutch” stats? He is currently batting .441/.459/.676 with runners in scoring position. In late and close situations, Gordon has a .964 OPS. In high leverage situations, he’s got an OPS of 1.032. I’m not totally hip to these things, but I think the kids today* would say that this year’s Gordon has “the clutch gene.”

I don’t care if I’m not old enough to say that. West coast road trips always make me feel older than I actually am.

With all of these weird statistical anomalies in Gordon’s season, at least we know his defense is still solid. Or is it?

In Gordon’s two Gold Glove seasons of 2011 and 2012, he posted UZRs of 12.2 and 14.6, respectively. This year, his UZR is -0.7. Of course, defensive metrics should be taken with a grain of salt anyway, particularly in such small sample sizes, so the negative defensive value Gordon has supposedly provided is nothing more than something to chuckle about. I mean, Francoeur has a UZR of 1.2, and he plays right field with a piano on his back and cleats full of lead.

But what do we make of all the other statistical abnormalities?

I personally find it hard to believe Gordon won’t start walking at a higher rate at some point this season. Players in their prime normally don’t just lose all knowledge of the strike zone out of the blue. I don’t know if he’ll get all the way up to his career average BB% of 9.6, but I do think some improvement will come. And if Gordon is hoping to maintain his high level of production, he is going to need that walk rate to climb. His current BABIP is .392, and even though Gordon hits the ball hard enough to maintain an above average BABIP, we have to expect some regression with his batting average. If he can start walking a bit more, a drop in his average won’t hurt much since his OBP will remain strong.

I would also expect some regression to the mean when Gordon faces lefties. Hopefully that will be countered by an improvement in his line versus right handers, though. His current OPS against righties is roughly 75 points lower than his career average, so it stands to reason that Gordon could maintain his overall numbers while his reverse split begins to normalize. Similarly, Gordon likely won’t be able to keep up his torrid pace of hitting with runners in scoring position, but his numbers with the bases empty probably won’t stay as low, either (currently .638 OPS, vs his career number of .788). The overall effect of the regression should be relatively neutral.

While he’s doing it in a somewhat odd fashion, Gordon is having another extremely good season. He should be an All-Star this year, and he will probably be deserving of getting some top 5 MVP votes after the season is over. That’s assuming, of course, Gordon listens to his manager’s plea for a more patient approach.

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