Even after the recent offensive explosion by the Royals offense, there still aren’t many bright spots. Eric Hosmer‘s swing looks completely out of whack. Billy Butler hasn’t bounced back fully from his terrible first month. Nori Aoki has been incredibly disappointing in the leadoff spot. The list goes on and on.
However, there is one player in the lineup who has been on an absolute tear in the last few weeks, who deserves some recognition here. Alex Gordon is back to playing like the Royals’ best player.
It was a rough start to the season for Gordon, who had a .654 OPS through his first 32 games. In that span, he walked in just 6.7% of his plate appearances, mostly due to swinging at 34.5% of pitches that were out of the strike zone. The highest O-Swing% of his career is 31.6%, from his rookie season. For whatever reason, Gordon chased too many pitches, which led to fewer walks, and fewer well-struck balls. His line drive rate at that point in the season was 11.4%. It’s tough to be a successful hitter if you can’t get on base and can’t hit for power, and that 2.4% HR/FB rate clearly wasn’t helping, either.
I’m not sure if Gordon made any specific adjustments, but since May 7th, he’s been outstanding.
In that time, he’s hit .333/.436/.527, including walks in 12.7% of his plate appearances. That awful chase rate normalized, as he swung at just 22.9% of pitches out of the zone in his last 26 games. While his line drive rate still hasn’t been great, at 17.5%, his HR/FB rate has increased to 16.1% during that time, indicating he’s been hitting the ball with a bit more authority lately. He’s not completely fixed, since his infield fly ball rate is much higher in that span (19.4%), but there is definitely progress.
It’s unlikely that Gordon returns to his career-best 2011 season, but repeating his 2012 season is very much a possibility.
There are some fairly sizable differences in the two seasons, of course, most notably in the batted ball department. Gordon hit liners on 25% of batted balls in 2012, and obviously 25 is much higher than 14.1, which is his current season-long line drive rate. That high line drive rate helped him to a BABIP of .356 two years ago, which was certainly beneficial. This year’s BABIP is at .307, which is a bit lower than his average, but it makes sense, considering his batted ball mix.
However, the reason Gordon has still been able to produce at such a high level with a slightly lower BABIP is his newfound ability to put the bat on the ball. This isn’t to say he’s never had solid contact skills, since his career strikeout rate is just a touch over 20%. But in 2014, Gordon’s struck out in only 13.5% of his plate appearances. That’s a significant drop.
The biggest driver of that change is, predictably, his contact rate. Following last night’s game, Gordon is making contact on 82.6% of the pitches at which he swings. Prior to this year, his highest contact rate came in 2012, when it was 80.1%. Now, as we’ve learned far too often this season, more contact isn’t always a good thing, so let’s take a look at where Gordon is making contact.
Gordon is currently making contact on 93.5% of pitches in the zone at which he swings. That’s well above his career average Z-Contact% of 86.3%, and well above his previous career high of 87.0% in 2010. The difference is much less pronounced in his O-Contact%. In 2014, Gordon’s O-Contact% is 62.8%, but that’s only the 3rd highest rate of his career, since it was 66.5% in 2012, and 63.2% in 2013. In other words, Gordon’s making more contact overall this season, mostly because he’s making more contact on pitches in the zone.
Of course, Gordon hasn’t been excellent all season, so we should probably look at how his contact rates have changed this season in an effort to find a correlation to his overall production. You know. For science.
March 31-May 6
May 7-June 3
The sample size certainly isn’t massive, by any means, but I do think it’s logical to see a connection here. Gordon has been swinging at fewer pitches out of the zone, and making less contact on pitches out of the zone, all while maintaining a high level of contact on pitches in the zone. In other words, he’s making contact at basically the same frequency as he was earlier this season, but he’s making more contact on pitches in locations most often associated with hard contact, and less contact on pitches in locations most often associated with weak contact. That’s a recipe for offensive success.
As I mentioned, Gordon’s strikeout rate is much lower this season than it’s been before, and during his current hot stretch, it’s been even lower. Prior to May 7th, Gordon struck out 14.9% of the time. Since then, his strikeout rate has been 11.8%, which is lower than his walk rate in that span. If a player walks more frequently than he strikes out, he’s probably going to be a good player. Gordon is a really good player.
While I like the trend of Gordon’s increased contact skills, that walk rate makes me even happier. The patience he showed in much of his career disappeared last season and for the first part of this season, so to see Gordon exhibiting terrific plate discipline once again gives me more hope that what he’s doing is sustainable. Even if he begins to regress some with batted balls, the patience he currently has will allow him to still be a very productive hitter.
A guy like Gordon doesn’t necessarily have to be elite with the bat to be a very valuable player. He’s a phenomenal defender in left field (currently having his best season there, if you like defensive metrics), and he’s an above average baserunner. Put it all together, and an average offensive season could arguably merit an All-Star selection. However, if this recent surge is for real, the Royals could be looking at an improved version of the 2012 Alex Gordon, who was among the best players in the league. That is a player this team has lacked for much of the season.