Remember that old car you owned in high school? You’d fix something particularly aggravating on it, with considerable effort and sweat, and just as soon as you’d finish, something else would break? Doesn’t that remind you of the Royals?
Mike Moustakas and Eric Hosmer were flat tires for the first two months of the season, ever-threatening to crash the team into a roadside ditch. Right around the time George Brett and Pedro Grifol took over as hitting coaches, patching much needed holes in Hosmer’s and Moustakas’s swings, Alex Gordon suddenly imploded. Gordon is the Royal Rock. He was the guy everyone counted on to keep the car tuned up, running smoothly, handling easily. He was Pennzoil 10W-40–the one thing that’s hard to screw up.
Instead, he’s limping through August with a slash of .208/.232/.403. Some analysts might point to his .213 August BAbip and simply say he’s hitting into bad luck, but, unfortunately, it’s more sinister than bad luck. It’s not a mechanical setback, like Eric Hosmer’s problems. It’s not a lingering health issue like Albert Pujols‘ plantar faciitis. It’s more basic. Gordon is suddenly tripping over his own feet on the first step that every big leaguer must take before he finds success–an obstacle that Gordon long ago overcame.
He’s being fooled by changeups.
Over and over, game after game, opposing broadcasters said, “he was way out in front of that one,” as Gordon struck out or grounded out to first base. His whiff % on changeups this year is 21.06% as opposed to last year’s 16.56%. It jumps to 26.83% on two-strike counts. If we only look at right-handed pitchers, who are throwing the vast majority of changeups, his whiff percentage rises to 29.69%. Nearly 1/3 of the time he swings at a changeup from a righty on two-strike counts, he misses. That’s a pretty easy K.
After taking a first-pitch strike, which Gordon often does, he has seen more than 500 changeups in his career. He’s hit .312 on them. On the 98 he’s seen this year on 0-1 counts, he’s hitting .063, whiffing on over 36% of the pitches he swings at. He is only hitting line drives on 5.88% of the balls he makes contact with. Basically, if pitchers throw him a changeup with one strike, he has been an automatic out. He has a similar average on sliders in 0-1 counts, but his line drive rate is more encouraging and some of his poor production there can actually be attributed to bad luck.
Even so, he is struggling against sliders as well as changeups. Last year, Alex Gordon hit .290 on changeups and .278 on sliders. This season he’s hitting below .160 against each.
Righties throw far more changeups than lefties. Only 4% of the pitches that left-handers throw to him are changeups. Right-handers throw about 15% changeups. Both are around league average. Gordon has seen 224 changeups from right-handers this season. In the 57 at-bats in which he swung at a righty changeup or put one in play, he has only nine hits. He’s struck out twenty times and has a batting average of .158. Last year, Gordon hit .310 on right-handed changeups and only struck out nine times in 58 at-bats.
He has an even worse average against right-handed sliders this season (.069), but with half as many at-bats, a higher line drive rate and lower strikeout rate, it’s not quite as bad as it looks. Still bad, but not that bad. Along with below-average hitting on curveballs (.170), and Gordon is starting to look like a legitimate liability at the plate.
Here is why it is a sinister problem: there is nothing to be done about it. A coach can’t teach him anything that will help. There is no pain for a trainer to relieve. Unless he has a vision problem that he hasn’t told anyone about, glasses won’t help. He must continue to grind through games, struggling along the way, until he remembers how to recognize a changeup out of the pitcher’s hand.
Or start guessing better.