Everything is going right for the Royals right now. They tagged Justin Verlander and Max Scherzer for a combined 17 runs over the last two games. Yordano Ventura has been worth all the hype and then some with a 3.20 ERA and 3.36 xFIP. Wade Davis has, for the second time, transitioned into one of the best relievers in the game thanks to a 40% strikeout rate. All of this has combined in the form of a nine game winning streak to help them overtake the Detroit Tigers for first place in the AL Central. But that wouldn’t be possible without their biggest contributor this year: the amazingly underrated Alex Gordon.
2014 wasn’t supposed to be anything special for Gordon. A once post-hype prospect, he had his breakout season in 2011, with declining performance every following season. His offensive value dropped to average, a wRC+ of 103. Even websites that value fielding highly, which has been his best tool the past two years, deemed him boring and over the hill. Every major projection season saw yet another drop in production for this season. From his FanGraphs+ player profile written by Jeff Zimmerman:
Alex Gordon has turned into a unexciting player who gives his owners a fairly consistent return. He’s past any hitting peak and it is all downhill here from now. He may see a larger than expected drop in production because of a new approach at the plate.
Gordon did little to quell concern in March and April, especially with the Royals’ atrocious offensive start, seeing his wRC+ drop to a below average mark of 96. Yet, the wonderful thing about Alex Gordon is just when you think he’s toast, something special happens. It happened in 2011 after years of questioning if he would ever reach the expectations that come with being a number two overall pick. And it happened again this year.
Offense is known to increase as the temperature does, and Gordon is doing the same. He hit for a 132 wRC+ in May, his highest monthly mark since 12 months prior. In June, he’s hitting for an absurd 178 wRC+. Not only is his bat getting hot, but his game is well-rounded as usual. He’s second in the majors in fWAR in June with 1.2 so far (behind only reigning MVP Andrew McCutchen) and is leading all of baseball in fWAR over the past 30 days with 2.6, a full half win above the second best player over the span, some kid named Mike Trout.
Part of the fuel behind his torrid pace is improved patience. One of the issues many had regarding a potential decline was his decreasing walk rates, down to a career worst 7.4%. What’s so troubling about that is plate discipline is supposed to improve as hitters age, then fall off once their careers reach their ends, usually in the mid to late 30s. And Alex Gordon looked even worse in the opening month of the year, walking only 6.5% of the time. So his response was to more than double it, up to 14.7% over the last 30 days. He stopped chasing so many pitches outside of the zone, and even became more selective inside the zone, as displayed below:
Gordon is developing a much more advanced approach at the plate, and the results are showing. It’s helping him lead the league in OBP at .466, and put up the fifth best wRC+ over the last 30 days.
Of course, Gordon’s value wouldn’t be as high as it is without some stellar defense to boot.
He is the league leader in UZR/150 since the start of the season, a stat developed by Mitchel Lichtman that measures how many plays a player makes in different fielding zones. He’s saved 6.3 runs over the past 30 days, again tops in baseball, according to John Dewan’s DRS (defensive runs saved) system, which is run by a group of video scouts. To summarize, Alex Gordon is an elite defender and good luck to any fly balls or line drives that try to get by him.
Alex Gordon seems to thrive under two circumstances; pressure and hot weather. Both situations are great news for the Royals, who have one of the best outfielders in baseball playing to his full potential. Gordon’s already eclipsed last year’s fWAR total of 3.4 with a 3.9 value so far in 2014, barely over a third of the way through the season. The ZiPS and Steamer projection systems both think the white-hot streak is for real, and project him for career highs in most offensive and defensive categories, as well as a career high in fWAR.
Alex Gordon remains one of the best players in baseball, and he just keeps finding new ways to improve.