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40 in 40: Dee Gordon

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An outfield experiment that could go right

Philadelphia Phillies v Miami Marlins
“Only projected to be worth 2 wins at center? With MY speed?”
Photo by Rob Foldy/Miami Marlins via Getty Images

When my little sister was six, my mom signed her up for tee-ball. She, my sister, wanted to play because I, the cooler big sister, had started playing softball the year before. She was as much of a slap-hitter as the tee would allow and hit from either side, though she preferred to throw lefty. The teams rotated players throughout the field every inning, and soon it was her turn to play in the outfield. Prompted by those of us on the sidelines, she hustled out to left field; two minutes later we looked back over and she was sitting criss-cross-applesauce on the grass, picking daisies and blowing dandelion weeds. Coaches yelled at her, parents called out to her, but she was unfazed. The next inning she hustled out to center field and, a few batters in, had somehow coerced the new left fielder to join her in left-center, where the two continued to pluck flowers from the outfield grass. Same thing when she moved over to right.

If you’ve ever played softball/baseball, or watched little kids play, you know that the outfield is where they stash the weak links; the daisy-pickers or, often, the nose-pickers. If you’ve had the misfortune of watching some of these games, you know how frustrating the utter lack of offensive production can be. It’s a miracle if players can make contact with the ball, so at these lower levels the outfield becomes a safe space from potential projectiles. As the level of coordination and offensive capability grows, so does the quality of the outfielders. Somewhere along the way, some of those pickers decide that the game is actually kind of interesting; that, maybe, there’s something more to the outfield than the joys of agrostology.

Dee Gordon wasn’t a picker of daisies or noses (that we know of). Dee Gordon didn’t even pick [up] baseball until high school, because it got in the way of basketball. We’ve seen Gordon change positions once before, after the 2013 season. Moving from one middle infield spot to another isn’t quite as unusual, and is often done somewhat seamlessly- just ask Jean Segura. Gordon put in the hours at this new position, and was recognized for his work in 2015, when he won the National League Gold Glove Award for second base. He has goofed around shagging fly balls during BP, and played a few games in the outfield for the Tigres del Licey but now, in 2018, he is expected to be the Seattle Mariners’ starting center fielder.

Traditionally center fielders were expected to be the captains in the outfield, and to cover the most ground out in the grass. Between the growth of shifts and the steady desecration of tradition, this isn’t necessarily the case anymore, as evidenced most recently by the 2017 Cleveland Indians. Following Bradley Zimmer’s injury, as detailed here by Travis Sawchik, Cleveland stuck long-standing second baseman Jason Kipnis in center field. For the most part it worked, despite the fact that Kipnis’ sprint speed was below league average for center fielders and that his defensive prowess didn’t shine as brightly on the major league stage at age 30 as it did when he played for the Sun Devils nearly a decade ago. Cleveland did their best to flank him with more defensively competent players in left and right field, but a large part of the success from this experiment came from the fact that Kipnis simply didn’t have to make as many plays out there. It’s the exact same reason why, when little kids play the game, coaches stash their weak players in the outfield - the kids are small, so they’re not hitting much, and it’s rare for a ball to roll past the infield. Cleveland had one of the best pitching staffs in baseball and, as Sawchik noted, “as the game becomes more extreme, more of a Three True Outcomes affair, individual defense has become less important.”

The Mariners will not have one of the best pitching staffs in baseball. In fact, they’re in the midst of transitioning away from an ill-fated attempt to utilize fly ball pitchers at the same time home runs were being hit at an historic rate. Perhaps, instead of limiting the number of plays Gordon has to make, the Mariners pitching staff will do the exact opposite and ensure he has plenty of action in the outfield. Practice makes perfect?

I’m obviously a little biased, but few MLB players are set to have a more intriguing 2018 season than Dee Gordon. Changing positions at the major league level, particularly going from a Gold Glove-winning middle infielder to a starting outfielder, is immensely unusual and almost entirely without precedence. Most transitions to the outfield happen as a result of injury and/or aging; in the American League, right field is often the last stop on a power hitter’s defensive journey, before he settles in as a designated hitter. Gordon, however, is arguably at his peak. He displays all the natural attributes of a dynamic outfielder - quick, athletic, a strong arm, according to the scouts who wrote up the reports - just without, you know, any actual experience in an MLB outfield. For all the examples of players who have changed positions at the major league level, Dee Gordon’s situation is unusual, and it’s this unknown element, this room for the human element amidst our metrics, that makes his impending season so compelling.

On a basic level, he should transition just fine. His sprint speed made him the fourth-fastest player in all of baseball last season, so his range shouldn’t be a problem.

He’ll also be flanked somewhat regularly by Mitch Haniger, and Guillermo Heredia, who combined for 10 outs above average. Statcast is overwhelmingly unenthusiastic about Ben Gamel, but perhaps he and Dee can just agree that Gamel can cover anything hit in front of them, while Gordon can cover the rest.

On the plays when he’s not able to catch the ball on the fly, Gordon’s arm is going to need to be strong enough to get the ball into the infield quickly. Scouting reports from Baseball America were optimistic about his arm 7-8 years ago, grading him out at 65, and noting he “has an above average arm,” and that “his tools would make him a plus defender in center field.” That arm has been making quick throws across the infield for the entirety of Gordon’s career, but it seems possible he’ll be able to stretch it out and have a perfectly adequate outfield arm. Or maybe he won’t. It’s impossible to accurately predict his outfield success, so we’re just going to have to wait and see.

When there were rumors that Brad Miller was going to transition to the outfield, a lifetime ago in 2014, Eric Blankenship took a close look at prior transitions. The sample size was small, but his findings were generally optimistic and, based on the gathered data, he concluded that “a shortstop with plus range typically becomes an outfielder with plus-plus range.” That experiment crashed and burned on the big stage, but Eric’s math wasn’t at fault. It makes sense, statistically and emotionally, that an athletic middle infielder could transition that athleticism into the outfield. Ultimately that wasn’t true with Miller, but Dee Gordon is not Brad Miller. We’ve been burned, as a fanbase, many a time, but we do Gordon a disservice by expecting him to fail simply because another player failed while following a somewhat similar path. This is mostly uncharted territory and, above all, this is baseball. Anything could happen.

He’ll be in a new city, a new league, a new organization; in times of newness we often find ourselves falling back on whatever bits of familiarity that we can cling to. Dee will still be playing baseball; working to get the ball on the bat, and running like hell once he gets on base, but beyond that everything is different. The first step he’ll take now will be back, he’ll be hitting his cutoff man instead of being the cutoff, and each time he runs out onto the field he’ll have to hustle just a little bit further beyond his comfort zone.