Thursday, April 7, 2011

Alex Gordon Is On Fire

It's absurdly early in the season obviously, but one player who's making his presence felt is Alex Gordon of the Royals. The first round pick who became a can't-miss prospect that would save the franchise - and then missed horribly - has become a sort of punch line for Royals fans and detractors alike about the sorry state of the franchise. Hailed as the next George Brett, he has instead been consistently derailed by injuries throughout his career, while staggering his way to a .733 career OPS mark and being shuttled between the infirmary and the Minors.

After sitting out much of 2010, and then being demoted to AAA to learn a new position (left field), Gordon seems more comfortable and at peace with himself than ever before. More importantly than any of that however, he might be truly healthy for the first time in a long time. Any pressure that there may have been on him is gone. The Royals no longer need Gordon to do anything. Whether he hits or not, the team already has a couple solid bats in Billy Butler and Kila Ka'aihue, and there are plenty more big sticks set to arrive soon.

After two seasons in which he failed to play in more than 75 games, and all the missed development time, people have slowly forgotten about him. Writing him off when his name is brought up. Yet despite having been in the league for four years, Gordon will be just 27 this year. Just entering his prime.

Blessed with fantastic natural tools including great bat speed and hand-eye coordination, he was an elite hitting prospect who crushed his way through the minors in just one season. Yet those tools never translated at the Major League level. Against MLB pitching Gordon has struggled to make contact, striking out in exactly 25% of his career at-bats, and for all his size and power he's hit just 46 home runs in 1,667 trips to the plate.

While a sudden career revival and fulfillment of his former promise remains highly improbable, it's not impossible. Learning to become a quality Major League hitter isn't easy to do, plenty of talented young hitters take a couple of seasons to adapt before finally figuring it out. Usually they don't take quite this long, but then again, most haven't had to deal with as many injuries as Gordon has either.

With health in hand and any pressure that had lingered now vanished, he is off to the best start of his career. Through the first six games of the season he's hitting .379 with five double and a homerun, good for a 1.075 OPS. Those numbers are obviously boosted by a wildly unsustainable .523 BABIP, but I'm not suggesting that he's going to hit like this all year long either.

To be clear, Gordon still struggles to make consistent contact, and his seven strikeouts so far this year are right in line with his 25% career strikeout rate (24.1%). Striking out a lot doesn't prevent you from being a good hitter, but it enhances the need for a batter to hit for power and take walks since hitting for average becomes nearly impossible.

Thankfully, one thing Alex has usually done pretty well is draw walks. His career 9.8% mark isn't phenomenal, but it's above average. What he hasn't done, is hit for much power. With a career .409 SLG, he's done little to strike fear into the hearts of opposing pitchers. But if the spike we've seen so far this season is real, then that changes the equation.

Let's say we make some adjustments to Gordon's numbers. If he can improve his walk rate from around 10% to 13% while continuing to provide some of the extra power we've seen thus far and maintain a .500 SLG, then suddenly his triple slash could leap into the .260/.350/.500 range. That would be good enough to make him one of the best offensive let fielders in the game.

Yeah, it's a bit of a long shot, but even by simply maintaining his current walk rate and seeing an even more modest boost in power, say into the .450 range, you're talking about a .780-.800 OPS hitter. That's not great, but it's a perfectly useful complementary bat on a playoff team.

It's been a tough road for Alex Gordon, but maybe with good health, less pressure and a bit of luck, the ride could be smoother in the future.

Corey Ettinger is a Senior Writer for Baseball Digest as well as a proud contributor to both,, and He also provides extensive analysis of the American League Central Division at his own blog, AL Central In Focus. Be sure to follow me on Twitter @Coreyettinger for the latest updates, random thoughts and general tomfoolery.

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