In Middle of $72M Deal, Alex Gordon Is the Worst Offensive Player in MLB

Zachary D. Rymer@zachrymerMLB Lead WriterAugust 22, 2017

Kansas City Royals' Alex Gordon walks to the dugout after scoring on a Lorenzo Cain double during a baseball game against the Texas Rangers in Arlington, Texas, Friday, April 21, 2017. (AP Photo/Tony Gutierrez)
Tony Gutierrez/Associated Press

Alex Gordon was the first and best cornerstone player of the Kansas City Royals' back-to-back World Series teams. It's fitting that he owns the largest contract in franchise history.

But it's also increasingly inconvenient.

When the Royals re-signed Gordon for four years and $72 million in January 2016, he was 10 years removed from being selected No. 2 overall by Kansas City in 2005, fresh off a starring role in their first World Series title since 1985 and well-established as one of Major League Baseball's best players.

Between 2011 and 2015, only six position players racked up more wins above replacement. That had much to do with Gordon's peerless defense in left field, but good offense was also part of the bargain. He averaged an .809 OPS with 18 home runs and 10 stolen bases per season.

"No man has greater symbolized the Royals' rise from charred rubble to championship rings like Gordon, and that continues now," Sam Mellinger of the Kansas City Star wrote to commemorate Gordon's re-signing.

But in just the second year of the pact, the 33-year-old has turned into a symbol for the Royals' descent into mediocrity. His once-solid offense has deteriorated into nothing.

Gordon's bat showed signs of decline last year, producing just a .692 OPS across 128 games. Now it's downright bad. Through 112 games, he has a .572 OPS that ranks dead last among batting title qualifiers:

 Alex GordonKCR.572 
 Alcides EscobarKCR.585 
 Dansby SwansonATL.623 
Jose IglesiasDET.625 
Billy HamiltonCIN.627 

Albert Pujols has accounted for less offensive WAR than Gordon, but he's hit 18 home runs to Gordon's five. Since Gordon also ranks last among qualified hitters in adjusted OPS+ and is the only qualified hitter with a slash line worse than .200/.300/.300, calling him MLB's worst offensive player is fair game.

Mind you, continuing to play him every day hasn't been a total loss for the Royals.

He remains an elite defender, as he leads all left fielders in ultimate zone rating and ranks second in defensive runs saved. This is keeping his WAR out of the red, hence why he didn't make the cut as one of the most overpaid stars of 2017.

Another silver lining is that Kansas City's payroll doesn't revolve around Gordon. His $16 million salary accounted for just 11.2 percent of the club's $143 million in Opening Day commitments. Among payroll-hogging stars, that ranks near the bottom.

That's it for the bright sides, though. And none of them can hide the dark side that is Gordon's offense.

He can still put the ball in play, as his strikeout rate is back down to a passable 22.3 percent after spiking in 2016. The catch is that he's no longer dangerous when he does make contact. Both his average launch angle and exit velocity are at their lowest points of the Statcast era.

In plain English: He's hitting the ball lower and softer. That's leading to all sorts of trouble.

Colin E. Braley/Associated Press

Gordon's ground-ball percentage is the highest it's been since 2009, and his spray heatmap reveals how an overwhelming majority of his grounders have been pulled to the right side of the infield.

That's no way for a left-handed hitter to live in the Golden Age of Shifts. Sure enough, Gordon is seeing more of those and is being humbled by them to an even greater degree than usual:

YearPA/G vs. ShiftOPS vs. Shift

What is causing all this? Theories abound.

Back in April, Jesse Newell of the Star cited a possible mechanical flaw as the culprit. Later in May, the Star's Rustin Dodd reported that Royals manager Ned Yost was pointing an accusing finger at the broken hand Gordon suffered last season. For all anyone knows, perhaps he never fully recovered from the groin injury he suffered in 2015. Or, this could just be a 33-year-old feeling his age.

Regardless of the exact cause, pitchers have caught on to Gordon's demise as much as defenses have. He's seeing a career-high rate of pitches in the strike zone. That's sent his walk percentage careening below the league average.

Thus, the reality of Gordon's offensive decline. He used to provide contact, power and patience. He retains only one of those skills, and the collapse of the other two renders it largely useless.

This wouldn't be a deal-breaker if the Royals were getting enough offense elsewhere, which was the case for a time. After starting slow, Kansas City's offense came to life with a .788 OPS in June and July, leading to a 33-19 surge.

But August has been a back-down-to-earth period. The Royals' OPS has deflated to .768, and they have struggled with a 7-12 record. Their deficit in the AL Central race has grown to seven games from just two at the end of July. They're also 1.5 games out in the crowded race for the American League's second wild card.

The Royals need the old Gordon back now more than ever. But after briefly showing signs of life in June and July, he's since regressed enough to warrant a benching earlier this month.

"It's just been a struggle for him," Yost told reporters. "We'll take some days off here and see if he can hit reset a little bit."

There has been no reset. Gordon has a .483 OPS in 10 games since his breather and is down to a .526 OPS since the All-Star break.

As long as Gordon's defense remains elite, it is worth the Royals' while to keep running him out there. But there's virtually no hope that his bat will come alive.

That'll only make it harder to get a leg up in an AL wild-card race in which every contestant needs all the help it can get. Should the Royals fall short, the long list of players they stand to lose to free agency could spell the end to their rise to prominence.

If that's not how things turn out, Gordon will get his chance to relive his better days in October.

If it is how things turn out, he'll spend the latter half of his contract as the Royals' resident reminder of their own better days.


Data courtesy of Baseball Reference, FanGraphs and Baseball Savant.

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