If you’re looking for a face of the Royals franchise, right now, look no further than Alex Gordon.
Sure, Billy Butler was an All-Star last year and Eric Hosmer is the wunderkind, but after two Gold Glove Awards and two strong seasons in a row (plus his pre-majors hype and pedigree), Gordon fits the bill. He’s a local-ish kid (Lincoln, Nebraska’s close enough right?) playing for a team he grew up following. He does just about everything in the field. He looks the part. There’s a contest to see which Major League player gets put on the cover of MLB ’13 The Show for Playstation 3 and if the Royals had a candidate, I’d say it’d be Gordon.
Aug 18, 2012; Kansas City, MO, USA; Kansas City Royals left fielder Alex Gordon (4) drives in a run with a double in the first inning against the Chicago White Sox at Kauffman Stadium. Mandatory Credit: John Rieger-USA TODAY Sports
But if it weren’t for Gordon realizing success in 2011 and proving it in 2012, he wouldn’t be in line for that kind of stature. Dubbed “the next George Brett” – an unfair set of expectations – Gordon is now setting himself up to be his own player and, if the Royals can get some playoff games over the next few years, is setting himself up to be among the most beloved players in franchise history. He’s already in the middle of one of the best stretches in franchise history.
I was thinking about which batters might break out in 2013, but started to think that Butler is established. Salvador Perez has had two parts of seasons combine for a strong debut, and he’s drawn a share of buzz. Eric Hosmer had a strong rookie year, Mike Moustakas had a strong end of 2011 that carried into 2012, and Alcides Escobar has been on the map for a while. So rather than dig into who that might be, my mind drifted into Gordon’s breakout two years ago and some other reasons for it occurring.
I read this article from Beyond the Box Score regarding which hitting metrics correlate from one year to the next. Gordon’s batting average on balls in play was .358 in 2011 when he finally produced for a full season. He seemed like a prime regression candidate as that measurement would, presumably, fall more towards the league-average .300 range. It didn’t. His BABIP was .356 in 2012 and his numbers were similar other than his home run and double numbers (which isn’t a huge difference in extra base hits, but does create a gap in his slugging percentage).
BABIP doesn’t correlate strongly from one year to the next, but what helped Gordon maintain his production so well was that he had high line-drive percentages both seasons (22% and 25% according to FanGraphs) and line drives usually turn into hits.
We know that he did a lot of work with Kevin Seitzer and made slight changes to his approach to hit the ball the other way more. His hit charts from TexasLeaguers.com show some of those results:
On the left, Gordon’s hit chart for 2007-2010. On the right, his hits from 2011-2012.
Hits are bunched more towards center and left field in 2011 and 2012. He also worked more gap-to-gap from the looks of the charts.
What the BtB article showed as the metric that correlated most from year-to-year is contact percentage. While the approach seemed to help Gordon hit the ball to all fields, I figured maybe he made more contact as well in the last two seasons. Turns out that he did.
In his time in the majors during his first four years, Gordon made contact 75.5%, 76.3%, 76.3% and 78.1% of the time, progressing each year. In 2011, that trend continued when he made contact 78.8% of the time and reached 80% last season. As he’s made more contact, he’s had more success. I see that as a combination of his talent, the approach and making solid contact (he’s strong, patient enough to get his pitch and barrels up the ball, all good things).
What I didn’t anticipate, though, was that Gordon swung at pitches outside the zone more in 2011 and 2012 than he had in the earlier period. While he’s willing to take a walk, he’s also more aggressive when a pitch is close to the zone. Part of that could be the approach. Where he may have laid off a pitch outside in the past, now, he knows he can drive it as long as he doesn’t try to pull it. He’s also swinging at pitches all over the strike zone.
At left, pitches swung at from 2007-2010. At right, swings from 2011-2012.
What’s interesting on his old swing chart is the gap in the top- and bottom-right corners. I should point out that from 2007-2010, Gordon saw 6390 pitches. In 2011 and 2012 combined, he saw 5659. Gordon seems to have expanded his selection both in and out of the zone. Where he was passing up pitches on the inside corner, he’s recently been going for them. He’s also swinging at down and away pitches a bit more from the looks of it. He’s not swinging more frequently, but he’s swinging at a more varied set of locations.
Gordon has looked much more comfortable at the plate the last two seasons. Possibly that’s from his switch the outfield. Maybe it’s because Billy Butler has developed into a key producer. Maybe it’s the advancement of prospects to the big league level that don’t make him have to be the savior of the franchise all by himself. Maybe it’s all of that. Whatever it is, with an increasing contact rate every year, better luck with his health, and an approach that works, it looks like Gordon’s a good bet to continue the solid production.