Thirty-five year old hitters are typically not very good. History suggests that age for a hitter is around the time they continue a gradual shift to league-average offensive production, while typically seeing each coming season yield lesser results. This is just the median expectation. Hitters that find themselves producing at a below-average level throughout their early-30’s can expect even worst results when 35 comes, and that’s if they are still receiving regular major league at bats.
Because of this, the handful of “breakout” seasons that come each season are reserved to those that are in their twenties. It’s not often we see a hitter with a 30 percent boost in production jumping from their age 33 to 34, 34 to 35 seasons, and so on. This has become even more rare in the current age of baseball, where pitchers are seeing their velocities increase each and every year, leaving the hitters with declining bat speed with a recipe for disaster.
The biggest increases in wRC+ among qualified hitters so far between 2018 and 2019 are about right what you would expect age-wise, for the most part. There’s 23-year-old Cody Bellinger, 30-year-old Elvis Andrus, 27-year-old Trey Mancini, 29-year-old Tim Beckham, and 28-year-old Anthony Rendon. Finding a way in the middle of that bunch, though, is 35-year-old Alex Gordon.
Once one of the top outfielders in baseball for a credible stretch of time, he earned himself a four-year, $72 million contract in his first taste of free agency, re-upping with the Royals. Since then, things haven’t gone very swimmingly with his performance, as he has yet to break league-average offensive production in the first three full-years of his deal, a feat that was only put up by him once in his career, all the way back in 2007.
It’s not hard to see why a performance like this, even in such a small-sample size, is a refreshing site. It’s been years since we’ve seen Gordon hit like this. Also, it’s probably the first time we’ve seen Gordon hit in this certain fashion. He’s never been a great contact hitter at any point in his career, owning a career strikeout-rate of 21.6 percent. He’s also never been once to take walks at an insane level, with his career walk-rate of 9.6 percent sitting mildly above the average standard. Yet somehow, 66 plate appearances into his age 35 season, he’s talking walks (10.6 percent) and avoiding strikeouts (9.1 percent) at a more ideal-combined rate than we’ve ever seen from him.
Looking at every month in Gordon’s career where he has at least as many plate appearances as he does in this month (66), this is the only one where he has walked more than struck out. With time still left in April, this has by far been the best contact-month of his career, as his 9.1 percent strikeout-rate for the month tops his previous low-mark of 12.2 percent in May of 2014. The next lowest was 13.1 percent in June of 2012. While he’s doing all this, he’s managed to keep his walk-rate above his career-norm and way above his recent level.
Top K-BB% months of Alex Gordon’s career
To find the level of precedence in what Gordon is doing, I found hitters since 2000 from the ages of 31 to 34 that could compare to Gordon’s below-average contact skills. I set a constraint for players to have a greater than 20 percent strikeout-rate. I then compared the strikeout-rate in those four seasons to the their age 35 season. Among the 24 players that qualified for this, the lowest strikeout-rate in an age 35 season was Jayson Werth at 18.0 percent, followed by Curtis Granderson and Jeromy Burnitz both at 20.5 percent. Again, Gordon is currently at 9.1 percent.
To even out the sample sizes more, I then took the same group of players and looked at just their April strikeout-rate. Even then though, Gordon still comes out as a major outlier.
Trying to find some causation in this whole thing isn’t too hard, as Gordon has explained it himself in a piece by Rustin Dodd at The Athletic.
“The feeling, Gordon says, stems from a simple mechanical adjustment last August. He changed his posture at the plate. He focused on his approach. He leaned on the Royals’ committee of hitting gurus, including hitting coach Terry Bradshaw and coaches Pedro Grifol and Dale Sveum, each of whom has held the title of Royals hitting coach. ‘It was getting my posture back, staying straight up,’ Gordon said. ‘It has allowed me to be more athletic in the box and use my hands a lot better. I don’t know how I got to it, but I started hunching over. That’s just not a good place to be, and I just couldn’t get out of it.’”
Most of his improvements lie in his change in approach. Among 89 qualified hitters from the last two seasons, Gordon has the 20th biggest decrease in out-of-zone swing percentage, second biggest increase in in-zone swing percentage, 15th biggest increase in out-of-zone contact percentage, the 11th biggest increase in in-zone contact percentage, and the fifth biggest decrease in first-pitch strike percentage. It seems like every one of his plate peripherals is heading in the one direction. Adding it all up, it makes sense as to why he’s seen such an improvement in his strikeout and walk numbers (third biggest increase in BB/K).
Gordon also mentioned how he used his hands a lot better. BTBS alum Devan Fink astutely pointed this out visually over at FanGraphs, as Gordon clearly has his arms and hands in a different position, along with standing more upright.
Perhaps that could be the cause of his improvements against offspeed pitches, something he’s struggled with mightily in the past few seasons. After putting up a .374 xwOBA against offspeed pitches in 2015, Gordon went on to collectively put up a .269 xwOBA from 2016-18, ranking 274th out of 401 hitters with at least 200 results.
So far in 2019, his .549 xwOBA against offspeed ranks 17th out of 305 hitters with at least 10 results. A lot of these issues against offspeed lied with contact consistency, as the previous three years saw him post strikeout-rates of 21.7, 27.7, and 34.3 percent. This season, he has yet to strike out on an offspeed pitch. His whiffs per swing on offspeed offerings have taken a plummet.
This new approach doesn’t look like noise in a small sample size, as it’s been something Gordon has been working on since last season, and he’s shown he can succeed with it. The question of him sustaining comes from him being able to adjust. The league might start attacking him differently soon, so his future success lies in his ability to counter back.
But the fact of the matter right now is that Alex Gordon is in one of the better stretches of his career. At the moment, he’s an improved hitter. That’s not supposed to happen at age 35, where on average players lose one win in value, along with a seven point drop in their wRC+. But Gordon’s changes are combatting it.
Patrick Brennan loves to research pitchers and minor leaguers with data. You can find additional work of his at Royals Review and Royals Farm Report. You can also find him on Twitter @paintingcorner.