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As Royals thrive, Alex Gordon emerges as dark-horse MVP candidate

As Royals thrive, Alex Gordon emerges as dark-horse MVP candidate Photo:

Two years ago, in the midst of a long season-opening road trip, the Kansas City Royals’ team bus pulled up to a famous hot dog stand in Oakland. Most of the players hurried off the bus, lured by the promise of chili-and-cheese-drenched nitrates, but one stayed seated.

"You coming, Gordy?" Ned Yost, the Royals manager, asked Alex Gordon, his leftfielder.

"They got grilled chicken in there?" Gordon asked.

"No, Gordy, no grilled chicken."

"I’ll just stay here then."

"Gordy, come on!" Yost implored. "One hot dog!"

"No."

Even in a sport that can be played, and very well, with a pot belly, most teams have at least one player like that: The guy who is crazy about his diet and turns each day’s workout into his own personal Crossfit session. On the Royals, the 30-year-old Gordon is that guy. Everyone can recall exactly when and where it was that he last consumed a cup of ice cream: 2011, in Seattle. "I almost passed out, for some reason, so I needed some sugar," Gordon explained. (He usually limits himself to chicken, fish, vegetables and good carbohydrates like whole wheat pasta.)

​Each day, the club’s strength and conditioning coach, Ryan Stoneberg, posts next to the lineup a spreadsheet that details the type of workout each of the players should perform. While Billy Butler might be directed to do a "TOTAL BODY WORKOUT W/ CORE" and Norichika Aoki to "WARM UP ONLY!", the entry next to Gordon’s name always says the same thing: "THE USUAL." Gordon can be left to his own devices, which consist of an hours-long routine that doesn’t include much pure weightlifting, but focuses on cardio, stretching and strengthening of his core, shoulders and hips.

If you have been paying reasonably close attention, you probably have some idea that Gordon — who was the second pick of the 2005 draft, and just four years ago seemed to be on the cusp of becoming a certified bust — has become a very good player for what has, in recent weeks, finally emerged as a very good team. He has been an All-Star the past two seasons. Between his breakout in 2011 and now, he has a batting average of .287 and an OPS of .813 — strong numbers, but not so robust as to suggest that he might be among the league’s singularly most valuable all-around players.

And yet, according to a number of metrics whose public acceptance grows by the day, that is precisely what he is. FanGraphs, for instance, has him second in Wins Above Replacement among regulars, behind just Mike Trout — and only narrowly.

While a good deal of his value stems from his bat, even if it is not quite elite, more of it comes from his glove, which definitively is. Conventional and advanced metrics all suggest that Gordon is not just the best leftfielder in the game, but possibly the best defensive player of any ilk. His strong arm, savvy positioning and technical skill have already won him three straight Gold Gloves, and he is essentially assured of a fourth. His Ultimate Zone Rating, which measures how many runs a player saves above that which could be expected from an average defender, is the league’s best, and he ranks highly in virtually every other measureyou can think of.

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All of this would have been rather unexpected back in the summer of 2010. Back then, Gordon was a 26-year-old who, after three-plus seasons as an error-prone third baseman who didn’t hit much either (over his first three big league seasons he batted .250), was demoted to Triple-A Omaha with a directive from general manager Dayton Moore to learn to play leftfield. It was a position that he’d last tried in high school summer ball in Nebraska, and only then because third base was manned by his older brother, and yet he was all for it.

"I was struggling at third, and my confidence was down," Gordon said. "Dayton called me in and thought it’d be best for the team, especially with [Mike] Moustakas coming up to play there. He referenced guys like Ryan Braun that made the switch pretty easily."

It wasn’t so easy for Gordon, at least at first. "There were a lot of mistakes in Triple-A that no one knew about up here," he said. Gradually, though, he got the hang of it, and soon he was thriving. There was no secret to the process: You start with a gifted athlete, which Gordon always has been — "I was a pretty good receiver in high school, so maybe playing the outfield, running and catching balls, related to that," he said — and then you add a drive that few can match.

Yost became the Royals' manager during Gordon’s month-and-a-half stint in the minors, and when Gordon returned as an outfielder, in late July, his new skipper discovered there was something different about him. During batting practice, when most other players who were not currently hitting stood around in the outfield discussing last night’s exploits and lazily shagging flies, Gordon cleared everyone out of leftfield and played it live, sprinting after liners, backhanding grounders, taking proper angles on flyballs and firing throws back into the infield.

"He’s running all over the place, for two full groups of hitters, to the point where I finally told him, 'I’m either going to give you days off or you’re going to start hitting in the second group,' to try to save some of his energy," Yost said. "So now he’s in the second group of hitters, but he’s still out there in the field for the first, playing it like it’s a game. He's worked hard to be a great defender. And he works, to this day, every single day. He doesn’t just go out there and stand."

"For me," Gordon said, "preparing myself out there, like it's a game situation, makes the actual games that much easier for me. I used to make a lot of little mistakes, and I corrected them. It's about repetition, going out and playing every day. I haven’t mastered the position, but I’ve done a pretty good job handling myself."

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If Gordon's skill in left initially took opponents by surprise, it doesn’t any more. "I guess the word’s out, he’s got a pretty good arm," said starter James Shields. While he had 20 outfield assists in 2011 and 17 in both 2012 and 2013 (he ranked first or second among outfielders in each of those three seasons), this year he’s got only six kills. But that is more a function of a new reluctance by baserunners to test him more than anything else. Even as he has yet to gain national traction, Gordon is now a known quantity among his peers.

This is not, however, a story of a player saving his career after having some sort of epiphany about his diet or his work ethic, or undergoing some sudden, drastic transformation. Gordon does believe that the move to the outfield has helped him. "I think it freed me up," he said. "I don’t think I was the best third baseman, so I think in every game, my focus wasn’t on hitting, and more on, 'How am I going to screw up at third base today?'"

​In most ways, though, his is a story of simple resoluteness, of sticking with what he believed was the right way of doing things until it actually proved the right way of doing things. He has always, at least since his days at the University of Nebraska, eschewed hot dogs and ice cream. His training routine ("THE USUAL") has always been harder than everybody else's. When things weren’t working out at all for him — when he was batting .194 in his fourth year in the big leagues and many were suggesting his window might have all but closed— he kept at it and stuck to his principles until that changed.

In many ways, as suggested by those close to him, Gordon’s path mirrors that of his team's, which he used to watch in person when he was growing up in nearby Lincoln, Neb. (in the Midwest, he explains, a distance of 200 miles qualifies as nearby). "Alex scuffled early on, when there were a lot of expectations for him," Moore said. "It’s a incredible story, and he’s a perfect example of who we are as a team."

"If you’re going to judge our team by any one person, Alex Gordon is definitely up there," Shields said.

Gordon leads a defense that is arguably the league’s best, and that kept the Royals above water until their largely scuffling hitters began performing to their abilities. That finally happened this month, as the Royals have scored more runs in August than any other club, and turned what was a four-game deficit to the Tigers in the American League Central as of Aug. 1 into a two-game lead as of Aug. 20. After many lost years, the Royals, like their leftfielder, seem to have persevered until potential turned into reality.

Which teams will remain in the wild card hunt?

On Monday's SI Now, Sports Illustrated associate editor Ted Keith and assistant managing editor Stephen Cannella discuss the leading teams in the wild card race and why the Mariners and Marlins may not have enough to stay in the hunt.

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