Mandatory Credit: Denny Medley-USA TODAY Sports
Since the position battles in spring training don’t appear to be all that exciting, I’m going through the Royals’ lineup to get an idea of how opposing pitchers will look to attack each player this season. I use data from Brooks Baseball, Baseball Savant, and Fangraphs to figure out what pitches each hitter loves to see, and what pitches give them nightmares. So far, I’ve gone over the profiles for Norichika Aoki, Omar Infante, Eric Hosmer, and Billy Butler. Now it’s time to move to the player in the fifth spot in the order, whether that is the best spot for him or not. Let’s talk about Alex Gordon.
As I wrote back in December, Gordon struggled mightily against changeups in 2013. He’ll obviously need to improve in that department in order to get back to his previous level of performance. I won’t rehash all the numbers again, since they’re in that previous post, but I’ll just say they’re bad, and move forward.
When Gordon broke out in 2011, it wasn’t just fastballs and changeups he was crushing. Against breaking balls, Gordon hit .289 with a .423 slugging percentage that year. He was even better against left-handed breaking balls, as evidenced by his .333 average and .500 slugging percentage. However, both numbers have declined in each of the last two seasons (.236 AVG, .316 SLG overall in 2012; .173 AVG, .244 SLG overall in 2013). Oddly enough, Gordon was actually better against left-handed breaking balls than those from righties last season. Against southpaws, he hit .233 with a .370 slugging percentage, and against righties, he hit a meager .121 with a .133 slugging percentage. There’s a technical term used to describe those numbers: WOOF.
Going back to 2008, Gordon’s hit .222 with a .316 slugging percentage against breaking balls, so 2011 was probably just a career year in that regard. But while we shouldn’t expect him to bounce back to that level of success, I do think it’s reasonable to expect Gordon to improve against breaking balls in 2014. Even if he just gets back to his career averages, that improvement would be significant.
Opposing pitchers threw Gordon more changeups and breaking balls in 2013 than they had in the previous few seasons, so I do think they picked up on his weakness. Pitchers especially threw more non-fastballs when they were ahead, as Gordon saw fastballs when behind lefties 61% of the time in 2012, but just 50% of the time in 2013. While facing righties, he saw fastballs 58% of the time in pitchers’ counts in 2012, and 51% of the time in 2013. Gordon still hit very well against fastballs last season (.320 AVG, .530 SLG), so obviously pitchers didn’t want to give him more of those to hit.
I believe Gordon will continue to get a heavy diet of breaking balls and offspeed pitches this season, at least until he proves he can hit them with regularity. Despite his massive reverse platoon split last season, I think righties will continue to be even more careful with Gordon this year, which means he’ll likely see even more changeups. He’ll need to get back to being a patient hitter, and lay off pitches out of the zone. Fortunately, all of these things at which Gordon needs to be better in 2014 are skills he’s shown in the past. He’s hit offspeed pitches well. He’s hit breaking balls well. He’s had terrific strike zone judgment. This season will simply be about Gordon getting back to the things that allowed him to have so much success in 2011 and 2012.