It had not been a good day for Alex Gordon. All spring long we’d heard how the former first-round pick was working towards finally fulfilling his potential. Even manager Ned Yost was singing his praises. “He looks much, much better,” he said at the outset of spring training. Yost even went so far as to bat Gordon third yesterday. But through his first four PA he had popped up, grounded out to short, and struck out twice. Then, in the ninth, he had his shot at redemption.
An inning earlier the Royals threatened, but didn’t capitalize on a bases loaded, one out situation. Gordon didn’t help matters, grounding out to short with Melky Cabrera standing on second. If the Royals were going to rally in the ninth, Gordon would almost certainly be part. He was due up fifth in the inning. As fate would have it, his turn came when the Royals had runners at the corners with two outs. Gordon was the winning run.
He stepped in to face Angels wild closer Fernando Rodney, and wisely took a changeup to make the count 1-0. Rodney came back with a fastball on the outer half, and this is where things got interesting. Gordon put a quality swing on it and drove it down the left field line. For a moment it appeared that he had erased his terrible day with a walk-off, three-run home run. Only the ball landed just foul.
The Royals started the inning with just a 19 percent chance of winning the game. Yet with runners on first and third and two outs, their chances had dwindled to 10 percent. Gordon’s homer would have obviously given them that 90 percent boost. But instead Rodney got a second chance, and he attacked Gordon the way that successful right-handed pitchers do.
As our own Jeff Zimmerman wrote just last week, Gordon struggles with high heat. I’m not sure whether Rodney knew this and acted on the information, whether he just played to his own strengths, or he just let loose with two fastballs and they happen to cross Gordon’s unhappy zone. Whatever the case, for this third pitch he throw a fastball up in the zone, inducing a swing and miss. Then, with the count 1-2, Rodney went even higher with the fastball, getting yet another swing and miss — well, a foul tip into Jeff Mathis‘s glove — thus ending the game.
The strikeout eliminated Kansas City’s remaining 10 percent chance of winning, dropping Gordon’s WPA for the day to -.224. But it didn’t have to be that way. The win expectancy swing here was about as enormous as it gets. If Gordon’s opposite field smash hits the foul pole, it’s a swing of 100 percent — erasing the -.100 and adding .900. Rodney then walks off the mound, head slunk, unable to bring the high heat and exploit what is perhaps Gordon’s greatest weakness. Instead, Gordon is the goat, turning in an 0-fer and failing the worst when the Royals had the best chances.
Clearly we can’t read this as a portend of Gordon’s season. It’s not as though his talent completely disappeared in the past few years. But this is a make-or-break year for him, and it got off to a start about as inauspicious as they come. Here’s hoping for better luck later, but he sure could have used some of that on Opening Day.