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Alex Gordon: A path to stardom out of left field

THE ASSOCIATED PRESS

Former Husker star Alex Gordon had to start over defensively, after years at third base, and he's since won three Gold Gloves as Kansas City's left fielder.

Humility, sweat transformed 'bust' to All-Star

By Dirk Chatelain / World-Herald staff writer

THE ASSOCIATED PRESS

Gordon's 77 runs saved leads the majors.

RUN AT YOUR OWN RISK


Since 2011, Alex Gordon leads the major leagues in outfield assists by a wide margin.

60: Alex Gordon, LF, Royals
44: Gerardo Parra, RF, Diamondbacks
40: Jose Bautista, RF, Blue Jays
40: Jeff Francoeur, RF, Padres
39: Torii Hunter, RF, Tigers
37: Adam Jones, CF, Orioles
35: Jay Bruce, RF, Reds
34: Alfonso Soriano, LF, Yankees


KANSAS CITY, Mo. — Alex Gordon had traded his Kansas City home for a room at Omaha's Residence Inn. He'd traded the cushy clubhouse of Kauffman Stadium for the cramped confines of Rosenblatt Stadium. He'd traded his status as baseball's next great third baseman for the label of "bust."

Now he was giving away something that predated all those luxuries — his position.

Gordon pulled into the Rosenblatt parking lot seven hours before first pitch; only the manager had arrived earlier. He grabbed his glove, walked past third base and headed for foreign territory — the outfield grass.

It was May 2010, and Gordon's place in the Royals' organization was on thin ice. At 26, he was supposed to be making All-Star teams alongside Ryan Braun and Troy Tulowitzki, players drafted behind him in 2005. Instead, he was at Rosenblatt, where a week after the Royals chose him No. 2 overall in '05, he led Nebraska to the College World Series.

In T-shirt, shorts and tennis shoes, Gordon began stretching, waiting for his next crash course on outfield play. Waiting for his instructor to arrive and test him with another question.

Runner on first, ball hit down the line. Where do you throw?

The hardest part, Gordon says, wasn't learning the rules or hitting cut-off men or catching towering pop-ups. It was the line drive. The millisecond after the ball hits the bat, when the eyes are guessing. When the brain hasn't told the feet what to do.

"It's like that — snap," Gordon says. "If you take a step in, the ball's over your head. That first reaction is definitely the hardest part."

Four summers later, we know Gordon's trajectory. We know where he landed. He's a two-time All-Star, a three-time Gold Glove outfielder. He's arguably the best defender in the major leagues and he's doing it at a position he didn't play in high school, in college or during his first five years of professional baseball.

"He's the best left fielder in baseball," teammate Bruce Chen says.

Back in 2010 — at the crack of the bat — nobody knew how this would all turn out. Not Royals General Manager Dayton Moore, who called No. 4 into the manager's office at perhaps the lowest point in Gordon's career. Not Chen, who worried Gordon's left-field experiment would cost his team games. Not even Gordon himself, who in the absence of clarity controlled the only thing he could.

His first step.

* * *

Google "Alex Gordon catch" and you'll find a string of highlights that can burn an hour of your day.

There's his crash into the wall in Detroit, robbing Victor Martinez of extra bases. There's his crash into the wall in Kansas City, stealing an out against Tampa Bay's Matt Joyce. There's his diving catch against Austin Jackson, where he plants his face in the turf — ouch. There's Gordon's favorite — his home run theft of Minnesota's Danny Valencia.

"I've always wanted to rob a ball," Gordon says.

The best parts of Gordon's reel aren't his responses, though — he casually blows a bubble as he returns to his position. No, it's seeing the look of bewilderment on the opposing hitters' faces when Gordon seizes a double, or fires a rope to second base to nail a runner.

Like, "Really? He did that?"

THE ASSOCIATED PRESS

The hardest part of becoming an outfielder, Alex Gordon said, wasn't learning the rules or hitting cut-off men or catching towering pop-ups. It was reacting to line drives. "It's like that — snap," Gordon said. "If you take a step in, the ball's over your head. That first reaction is definitely the hardest part."

This is Gordon's identity. A decade after emerging as college baseball's most lethal bat, he's revered throughout baseball for his glove and his arm.

Gordon's traditional offensive numbers — .268 average, nine home runs, 44 RBIs — aren't notable, but his advanced statistics say he's a bona fide superstar. Why? Because the sabermetrics quantify Gordon's defense.

FanGraphs, a popular site on the cutting edge of advanced stats, says Gordon ranks third this season in wins above replacement, 4.5. The two men ahead of him: Mike Trout and Tulowitzki.

Since 2011, Gordon is tied for fifth in baseball at 20.1 wins above replacement, according to FanGraphs. The only players in front of him: Trout (26.4), Miguel Cabrera (24.6), Andrew McCutchen (24.2), Robinson Cano (22.1).

Since 2011:

» Gordon has saved 77 defensive runs. That leads the majors.

» His 65.3 ultimate zone rating — measuring range — is second only to Atlanta's Jason Heyward.

» His 339 plays made out of his zone is second only to Austin Jackson.

Gordon's defensive score this year, 19.7, leads the league by a wide margin (Heyward is second at 16.4.)

Prefer more traditional defensive measurements? Gordon's .994 fielding percentage since '11 — he's committed only seven errors — ranks eighth among all outfielders.

In the past 3½ years, Arizona's Gerardo Parra has 44 outfield assists, leading all major leaguers except Gordon. His total?

Sixty.

* * *

The well-documented early years weren't so impressive.

In 2009, Gordon tore his hip sliding into second base. Then he broke his thumb in 2010 spring training. With another power-hitting, left-handed No. 2 overall pick (Mike Moustakas) rising through the farm system behind him, Gordon faced pressure to get better — fast.

On April 29, 2010, Kansas City opened a four-game series at Tampa Bay, losing 11-1. Gordon made his ninth start of the season at third base. His eighth-inning error was his fourth in just 17 fielding attempts on the season — a Little League-caliber rate.

He didn't start the next day, or the next, or the next. Gordon had a feeling something was going to happen. On May 2, Dayton Moore called Gordon into the manager's office in Tampa. The Royals were 10-15; the prospect once compared to George Brett was hitting .194.

We're going to send you down to Omaha, Moore said. (That part, Gordon expected. The next part, he didn't.) And we're going to try you in left field.

"It was not a good moment in my career, to be honest with you," Gordon said.

Said Moore: "I didn't know how he would respond."

He didn't say much. That night, as the Royals flew to Chicago for another series, Gordon flew home to Kansas City. After a long talk with his wife, they made a humbling drive up I-29.

"More evidence they've given up on him," ESPN's Rob Neyer tweeted on May 3, summarizing the popular belief around baseball.

Moore hadn't drafted Gordon. What incentive did he have to give him opportunity after opportunity, especially with a younger version of Gordon — Moustakas — en route to 36 minor league home runs that same season?

Gordon was frustrated, but he hadn't given up. Before his SUV reached Omaha that Monday, he committed.

"I knew this game wasn't easy and sometimes there's obstacles you gotta face," he said Friday from the Royals' clubhouse. "That's how I took it. Something I needed to work on and get back here."

* * *

At 59, Rusty Kuntz has visited enough ballparks and seen enough players to author a baseball encyclopedia.

As a journeyman outfielder, he won a World Series ring with Detroit in 1984. In Seattle, he coached a young outfielder named Ken Griffey Jr. In Florida, he tutored a struggling slugger named Gary Sheffield. In Pittsburgh, he mentored future All-Star Nate McLouth.

But Kuntz had never seen a story quite like Alex Gordon's.

In the summer of 2010, Kuntz was a roving field instructor for the Kansas City Royals. Gordon got demoted to Omaha and Kuntz followed him. Gordon became his project.

When Kuntz arrived at Rosenblatt at noon every day, Gordon's car was already in the parking lot. Coach walked through the gate and player said, "OK, when we gonna get started? Let's go."

Kuntz grabbed his fungo bat and started hitting balls from the infield dirt to Gordon in left field. He started peppering Gordon with lessons.

How do you stay behind a fly ball so you're coming in? Answer: "You look at the top of the ball."

On a line drive, how do you know if it's in front of me or behind me? "The bill of the hat," Kuntz said. "If it stays under the bill, you know it's at you or in. If your head goes up, then you know you have to go back."

How do you keep your body from bouncing? "Open your mouth. That relaxes your jaw, which relaxes your shoulders, which relaxes your body."

Kuntz's sheet detailed about 75 outfielding rules. Snap, snap, snap.

"I would explain something once and it was done; move on," Kuntz says. "I'm Rolodexing through the pages of the outfield play, and he was just picking up stuff left and right."

Together they spent 60 to 90 minutes a day before Class AAA teammates arrived. Then Gordon went through his regular pregame routine, played a game that night. Next day at noon, he and Kuntz were back at it.

"Anytime you feel yourself going back, always throw the ball to second.

"Anytime you feel yourself going away from third or home, always throw it to second.

"Anytime you're going toward the line, go to third or home.

"Anything hit soft in front of you, go to second. Anytime it's a 3-2 count, runners going, go to second."

Gordon wasn't perfect. It seemed like every time he screwed up, Omaha's Philip Humber was on the mound. "I just felt so bad," Gordon said. But day by day he progressed. Kuntz was blown away.

It's one thing to move a player from third base to shortstop, or from center field to left. But going from dirt to grass is entirely different. And Gordon wasn't attempting it in A-ball. This was the doorstep of the major leagues.

Gordon got the call-up July 23. His first game: at Yankee Stadium against the best team in baseball. He started in right field and went 0 for 4 with a strikeout. But that wasn't the worst part. The first Yankee batter of the game, Brett Gardner, doubled to deep right field.

"I got it and kinda bobbled it a little bit and he went to third," Gordon said. "I got an error. I was like, holy (crap), are you kidding me?"

Bruce Chen doubted the position switch — and questioned bringing Gordon back so soon.

"When you're a pitcher, you don't want to get a project in the big leagues. ... I don't want him to play the outfield and misplay a couple balls and cost us the game. They're my runs. That's in your head. You're like, that's not really gonna work."

It did. Following his bobble at Yankee Stadium, Gordon made only two errors the rest of the season.

Then he got good.

* * *

Around Kauffman Stadium, Gordon's pregame regimen is renowned. During batting practice, the Royals are instructed to "power shag" balls. When a teammate hits a ball, you play it live.

Gordon has raised the standard, staying in the outfield for two hitting groups instead of one. It's 30 minutes of nonstop fielding work. It got so intense that manager Ned Yost called Gordon into his office and ordered him not to power shag for two consecutive groups.

"162 days, Gordy, you're gonna run out of gas."

It got so intense that the Royals recorded Gordon power shagging spring training, so they could use it as an instructional tool for minor leaguers. "When we talk about power shagging, boys, this is what it looks like," Kuntz says. "You wanna wear the gold? This is how you attain the gold, right here."

Said Royals pitcher Danny Duffy: "He's the hardest worker I've ever met in my life. There's not a close second."

In 2011, Gordon led the majors with 20 outfield assists. His arm accuracy seemed to stun base runners who underestimated him. In late October, less than 18 months after his meeting with Moore and then-manager Trey Hillman in Tampa, Gordon got a call from his agent: He'd won a Gold Glove.

"I just had a smile the whole day," he said.

Gordon earned another Gold Glove in 2012, then another last year.

Now he's learned all the tricks. How to jump sideways at the warning track so you can see the wall and the ball. How to one-hop a throw to maximize accuracy and help the infielder receive the ball.

"You can put another guy who's faster with a better arm out there," Chen said. "I don't think he's going to make the plays and throws that Alex does. He just knows the field."

The more Gordon learned, the more his infield skills translated to outfield. His precise footwork and quick release gave base runners fits.

“You can put another guy who's faster with a better arm out there. I don't think he's going to make the plays and throws that Alex does. He just knows the field.”
— Royals pitcher Bruce Chen

When Gordon chases a ball rolling down the line, grabs it backhanded and fires to second to nail a runner — ask Albert Pujols — he looks like a third baseman again.

Gordon says the greatest advantage is on balls hit in front of him. He's more comfortable charging than the typical left fielder.

"He's on the ball so fast that the third-base coach (throws up the stop sign)," Kuntz says. "Before the runner even gets to third, Gordy's already got the ball. He gets frustrated sometimes because the outfield assists aren't that abundant anymore, but it's due to the respect. He's got the reputation.

"Everybody in baseball just rants and raves. He just blows it off like, 'Ehh, that's what I'm supposed to do.' But everybody in my circle, they're just like, 'Wow, what's it like to have that right there?' "

According to the advanced metrics, the Royals are by far the best defensive team in the American League. Gordon sets the tone.

Take a guy like Lorenzo Cain, Kuntz says. He sees Gordon's work ethic and realizes what it takes. "He says, 'I'm a smart guy, I can watch that. I can do that.' "

Kuntz doesn't remember the last time he even looked at left field — he knows Gordon has it covered.

"To tell you the truth, he's been around for four years now and there will be times when I go up — because I'm getting old and I can't remember (crap) — I go, 'JD Martinez, what did we do with him last time?' "

Gordon answers: The corners were on the line; the center fielder was straight up covering the gaps.

"That's right!" Kuntz says. "So he knows not only what he's supposed to be doing, but also what the other guys are supposed to be doing.

"Or he'll run in and he'll have that look on his face and I'll go, 'What's up?' He'll go, 'Why are we playing him over there again? He's not trying to go that way.'"

Kuntz's reply: "At least I'm smart enough as a coach to listen."

* * *

Tuesday night in Minneapolis, Gordon will hear his name announced to an audience of more than 10 million TV viewers. He won't play in the All-Star game because of an injured wrist. Too bad, because every Midsummer Classic needs a web gem.

The casual baseball fan may not recognize Gordon or his talent. That's the plight of playing in a small market. But his peers selected him as an All-Star for a reason.

He's 30 years old and he isn't baseball's next great third baseman. Nor is he a bust. Gordon is something different, something new. Harder to label, but easier to appreciate.

Could anybody have seen this coming when he drove up I-29 four summers ago and moved into a Residence Inn? No.

But Gordon kept showing up early at Rosenblatt. He kept taking the empty field. And when he could've stopped at third base, he kept walking.

Contact the writer:

402-649-1461, dirk.chatelain@owh.com, twitter.com/dirkchatelain


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