To be fair, on the surface this does not seem like a very relevant article. Obviously, Dee Gordon’s value stems from his speed and stolen bases, things he does at elite levels. But what is troubling about a weak bat is the obvious, fewer hits, and then the implications which are: without a bat, he can’t get on base which lets him steal bases, and that allows him to score and create runs. And if he can’t hit, he can’t drive anyone home for RBIs. When a guy can’t produce he begins to lose starting opportunities, and suddenly Gordon goes back to being the fringe utility player he was for a while with the Dodgers.
Clearly, Gordon has changed to become a more effective hitter over the past two seasons. He has put up triple slash lines of 289/326/378 and 333/359/418 in 2014 to 2015, respectively. And because of a more effective bat, he has stolen 122 bases over that same time frame, scoring 180 runs. So what switched?
Often times when looking at a player who has seemingly made a shift to swing or approach, batted ball profiles explain this. Changing the swing plane will dramatically affect this, and even different mindsets at the plate can affect this. But his profile has been virtually the same his entire career, with the exception of a 2013 season where he hit a bunch of fly balls. Gordon’s career trends are all about pounding the ball into the ground and hoping either the ball gets through or he is able to get to first before the throw. His 58.6% ground ball rate sounds like he’s basically using a swinging bunt every time, but why not? His 12.1% infield hit rate is one of the best marks in the league, thanks to tremendous wheels as well as where the ball goes.
When you aren’t trying to hit the ball hard, it’s pretty easy to put it in play (well, easier than the other option). Gordon’s bat control isn’t about to rival teammate Ichiro’s, but his 15% strikeout rate is a mark reserved for well above average hitters.
If you look at where he’s putting the ball, he is getting an absurd amount of hits in the infield. His strategy has been successful.
But there’s no clear change in approach or swing, yet all of a sudden he has gone from a fringe bench player to playing at an all-star level. Barring some new super-advanced procedure that requires Gordon to fly to Japan every other full moon, there isn’t a lot to look at. But something does pop up as a little worrisome, and the concern only grows.
Obviously as a fast player, Gordon is going to beat out more infield grounders, and his average on balls in play will be high. But when we look at his mark (remember that most players will regress down or up to around .300, although with some extremes) we get .346 in 2014 and .383 in 2015. Fortunately for Gordon and his fantasy owners over the past few years, he has been at the top of a lot of leaderboards. At the same time, unfortunately, he has been at the top of this one as well, which starts to paint him in a different light.
Gordon absolutely needs both his wheels, and lucky bounces off grounders to continue to be so successful. Only one does he have any control over (speed), but even that is going to start to decline. He’s entering his age 28 season, around when we start to see things like power and contact go down, but especially speed. Stolen bases are a young man’s game, and although the wiry Gordon is fit to play it, it’s going to be less elite and more good. He’s on a three-year decline in his speed score, a statistic created by the father of sabermetrics Bill James, to put a quantitative score on how fast someone is (it uses things like stolen bases, first to third success rate, infield hits). Not only that, but his walk rate has been in decline for four consecutive seasons, down to a minuscule 3.8%. If he can’t hit his way on base he needs to be able to draw free passes to first, but he’s showing no ability to do so.
And here lies the worrisome nature of Gordon. His bat is fluky, there’s nothing that he has shown statistically to suggest that any of his improvements are anything but luck, and we have a wealth of data on him and his cohorts to attribute that to him. With the speed declining, not only do we worry about stolen bases going down, but we also have to realize this will make his infield hits decrease, a tool that he has been relying on to be as effective as we’ve seen. Without even good discipline to help hedge these issues, the future for Gordon is as dark as the center field sculpture is outlandish.
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