Corey Kluber probably had a feeling this was going to work; history would have told him so.
The Indians starter had run his cut fastball inside to Alex Gordon seven times in 2018 with great results: Gordon had taken the pitch three times, fouled one off and swung through it on three other occasions.
Sunday’s cutter at Kauffman Stadium was a decent one too. Kluber’s offering started its path toward the inside corner then broke in, turning sharply toward Gordon’s back knee.
Gordon began to swing ... then stopped. The pitch was called a ball.
And perhaps no moment this season has shown a better example of the new Alex Gordon than this one.
The Royals outfielder is off to an outstanding start, ranking 11th in position player WAR while hitting 74 percent better than league average.
One can point to many reasons for his improvement, but an important factor appears to simply be this: Gordon isn’t getting himself out as often as he was a year ago.
A quick look at his strikeout percentages show that, so far, Gordon has been a different player in 2019.
Gordon has more than cut his Ks in half from a year ago, with a rate that is less than one-third of what he had during a down year in 2016.
That’s the macro look at Gordon’s change, though. Dive deeper, and we can see that Gordon not only is succeeding with improved plate discipline.
He also has a rare streak going.
Statcast gives the data here. The tracking system rates certain pitches as “chase” and “waste,” with each of those coming at least 3.3 inches from the strike zone — a distance slightly farther than the diameter of a baseball.
Using these labels, we can look at all pitches to batters that aren’t borderline calls.
Here’s where it gets interesting. Gordon has received 25 “chase” or “waste” pitches inside this season.
And he’s swung at exactly zero of them.
As you might guess, that’s an unusual feat.
Gordon, as of now, leads all left-handed batters when it comes to inside pitches without a swing (25). Count in righties, and he ranks third, just behind Boston’s Mookie Betts (28) and Tampa Bay’s Yandy Diaz (26).
The 2019 streak continued Wednesday. Chicago threw Gordon three more inside pitches, as he was hit by one and took the other two for balls.
It seems like a small change, but it can be considered one reason for Gordon’s improvement. Statcast shows Gordon swung at 29 of those inside pitches in 2018, missing 17 times with only one hit to show for it: a bloop single against Oakland on June 8.
In short, Gordon has become a tougher out in 2019, partly because he’s refusing to swing at certain bad pitches.
Kluber and the rest of the league will likely learn quickly: An inside pitch to Gordon — this year at least — isn’t apt to bring a good result.