Alex Gordon, as we know him now, is a top-five outfielder on a team surging in the playoffs. We can’t forget the Alex Gordons who came before, though. Because it was those struggles that minted the current version. In terms of mindset and mechanics, we wouldn’t have today’s Gordon without yesterday’s. And we might be seeing some of the lessons Gordon learned in play with his younger teammates, too.
Because we put more weight on what we’ve seen recently, it might be hard to remember Kansas City’s left fielder once was supposedly a bust. In his fourth season — 2010 — he was sent down and told to learn a new position. In 2009 and 2010, he combined to put up replacement-level stats. Those were tough times. “I struggled early on,” Gordon admitted last year. “There were a lot of expectations, and I struggled early on, maybe tried too hard.”
Google Gordon then and you might have gotten plenty of articles questioning his ability to be a star. Google Gordon now and you get pages of results about his workout regimen. I asked Gordon when he last had a slice of pizza. He said it had been more than a year, and he had it because he “wasn’t feeling good that day.”
This dedication to working out has always been with Gordon, but it has changed over the past few years after the struggles. “In college, in Nebraska, they’re pretty big on working out,” he said. “I do go into the weight room a lot, but I’ve changed my work out since I’ve been playing professional baseball. I’m not crushing weights, I’m doing things that help me on the field, staying flexible, things like that.”
Getting older and wiser has lead to a change in his approach. But those years — 2010 in particular, when he was sent down — led him to hire a trainer. “Now I do lifts that imitate baseball activities,” Gordon said. No more bicep curls, trying to get big. No more heavy lifting.
Changing positions might have also helped him stay healthier, and it has shaped his approach in the weight room. “I was a guy that stayed low in my stance, so going up and down all the time might have hurt my hip or something,” Gordon said. In 2009, he fixed the hip labrum with surgery, and his new position has perhaps allowed him to stay on the field more. He’s averaged 156 games played per season since 2011. Even if you add in Gordon’s minor-league games, he only averaged 127 per season in his first four years.
His subsequent workouts also focussed on the demands of his new position. “My legs are underneath me a lot better now than when I was a third baseman — just running out and back to the dugout, plus all the conditioning you have to do keep your legs underneath you,” Gordon said. “I feel like my legs are in great shape.”
But Gordon has also changed at the plate, and he can also thank the dark years for that. When he first came up, his approach was mostly “see ball, hit ball and try to crush the ball,” as he put it. That led to strikeouts, but not a whole lot of power. “The easiest out in baseball is the lazy fly ball, besides strikeouts,” Gordon said of the lessons he learned back then.
He might have had the stadium to thank for the lack of power. “I got carried away with hitting home runs early on in my career, and especially in a big stadium like Kauffman, there’s a lot of balls that you hit to the wall that don’t mean anything,” he said. In 2014, Kauffman suppressed lefties’ home runs by 16%, just a few ticks more hitter-friendly than Oakland’s consensus pitcher-haven (18%).
Being sent down was a wake up call, but it also gave Gordon a chance to work with Kevin Seitzer, then the Royal’s minor-league hitting coordinator. Part of their work was mechanical, as they worked to flatten Gordon’s swing. “I wanted more plate coverage, and to keep my bat in the zone longer,” he said. As much as you can tell from two blurry GIFs of two swings spread six years apart (2008 on the left, 2014 on the right), it look as if Seitzer was successful:
But another part was mindset. “Now I actually have a plan every time I go to the plate, what I’m looking for and where I’m trying to go with it, and what the pitcher is trying to do with me,” Gordon said. A flatter path, a less pull-conscious approach, and a defensive mindset has helped Gordon to a .356 on-base percentage since 2011 — much better than the .328 number he had after his first four years in the big leagues.
It hasn’t turfed his power at all to change his focus away from selling out for power. Going all out gave Gordon a .161 isolated slugging percentage in his first four years. His new approach has given Gordon a .170 ISO over the past four years. More balls in play (19.8% strikeout rate since 2011, 22% before) and more line drives (20.7% line drives since 2011, 18.7% before) can do that for you.
That better strikeout rate is all part of the plan. “I was striking out a lot because people were getting the outside corner on me and I wasn’t looking to go the other way,” Gordon said. “Now I’m not trying to go up there and slap the ball the other way but now having more plate coverage, it’s helping me out a lot. I’m looking to drive the ball middle, or the other way. But if they come inside, I can still get my bat and barrel inside and pull the ball.” The heat maps agree. Check out how Gordon’s ability to make contact has changed from his first four years (left) to his last four years (right). You can see his contact zone has grown larger.
“Over the last couple of years I’ve tried to cut down on my fly balls and tried to cut down on my strikeouts,” said Gordon, calling attention back to his flatter bat path. “Line drives and ground balls are going to be key in my approach.” Look at what the change has done for several key stats, and you have to agree with Seitzer and Gordon that they found the best approach for Gordon’s skillset.
All of this wouldn’t have come without the reset that was being sent down and told to learn a new position. “I didn’t want to look at it negatively or have a bad attitude about it,” Gordon said of that time. “I went down to Triple-A, and from day one, I told myself that this was a position that I am going to become a good player at — that’s taking every day bp, playing catch, taking it seriously and trying to get better every day. That’s the attitude I’ve taken the last three years.”
And when it comes to passing on advice to fellow young players tasting struggle in the big leagues, Gordon thought that attitude was as important as work ethic. “The one thing I can tell you is to come to the field and have the right attitude and have the right mindset, and have fun,” Gordon said. “Once you come to the field and it’s not somewhere you want to be or not something you’re having fun with, and you’re worried about how you’re going to do on the field, it’s not going to turn out well.” Maybe we’re beginning to see that right now.
— Pete Abraham (@PeteAbe) October 12, 2014
Alex Gordon tries to infuse that mindset into his scouting work, his preparation and his workouts. And when you tell him that he was once again a top player by Wins Above Replacement, he’ll admit some pleasure. “I’m surprised at how well I’ve done, but it’s great to hear those kinds of things,” he said. “As a baseball player, I don’t look to improve at one certain area, I try to be an all-around great player — offense, defense, baserunning. I feel like that’s being a good teammate, being an all-around player.”
And yet none of this would be possible without the dark times he went through just four years ago.
With a phone full of pictures of pitchers' fingers, strange beers, and his two toddler sons, Eno Sarris can be found at the ballpark or a brewery most days. Read him here, writing about the A's or Giants at The Athletic, or about beer at October. Follow him on Twitter @enosarris if you can handle the sandwiches and inanity.