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Should Dee Gordon be the Mariners leadoff hitter?

Speed is good, but is it everything?

Seattle Mariners v San Francisco Giants Photo by Jennifer Stewart/Getty Images

The Mariners have essentially set the first five spots of their Opening Day lineup in stone, pending health. Beyond that point, it will likely look something like this:

  1. CF Dee Gordon
  2. SS Jean Segura
  3. 2B Robinson Canó
  4. DH Nelson Cruz
  5. 3B Kyle Seager
  6. RF Mitch Haniger
  7. C Mike Zunino
  8. 1B Ryon Healy/Daniel Vogelbach/Mike Ford
  9. LF Ichiro Suzuki/Guillermo Heredia

That is, by almost any measure, a strong lineup. The 2018 Mariners will once again be led by their hitters. This should be the third straight year Seattle has an above-average offense, something they failed to do once from 2008-2015. But is the expected lineup above the best composition? Critiquing lineup construction is a venerable tradition in baseball blogging, and today I will step up to the void that so many others have approached.

Traditional lineup stylings would agree with the lineup above in large part, perhaps with Healy slightly higher. The leadoff spot would/should be occupied by a player with blazing speed. The core conceits of sabermetrics would argue otherwise, prioritizing the ability to get on base above the ability to run quickly once you’re there. The initial part of that logic is likely no surprise to many of you. It’s valuable to have players with elite speed in front of your best hitters. They can take extra bases, steal bases to get into scoring position, and potentially pressure the pitcher into throwing more fastballs. What has empirically been proven more valuable, however, is having a greater number of opportunities with runners on base for your best hitters. That means sacrificing a little bit of speed in those times when a guy does get on base for an increased number of times with a runner on base, period.

This puts the Mariners’ guarantee of a leadoff spot for Dee Gordon under scrutiny. Gordon is a good player with undeniably elite baserunning and speed. Every time he gets on base he’s a threat to steal and take extra bases on balls in play. But a guy with a lifetime 4.5% BB rate and a 93 wRC+ doesn’t seem like the guy who unquestionably should lead the team in plate appearances this season. Lets look at that projected lineup above with their 2017 lines:

2017 Stats for 2018 Batting Order

Player OBP ISO wRC+ BsR
Player OBP ISO wRC+ BsR
Dee Gordon 0.341 0.067 92 9.2
Jean Segura 0.349 0.128 111 -0.5
Robinson Cano 0.338 0.172 112 -3
Nelson Cruz 0.375 0.261 146 -4
Kyle Seager 0.323 0.201 106 -0.9
Mitch Haniger 0.352 0.209 129 -2.1
Mike Zunino 0.331 0.258 126 -1.7
Ryon Healy 0.302 0.181 100 -1.8
Guillermo Heredia 0.315 0.088 80 -1.3

If we’re going by pure OBP, Nelson Cruz is our leadoff man. Both traditional and saber-based lineups highlight the importance of having your best sluggers hitting 2-thru-5, however, so lets pocket that one. Mitch Haniger has a strong case, with both the second-highest wRC+ and OBP on the team. Last year’s leadoff man, Jean Segura, also comes out looking strong.

According to Scott Servais, Jean will be pushed to the 2nd spot in the order, which doesn’t seem like a bad spot for him. Despite Dee and Jean running below-average walk rates, both have excellent bat-to-ball skills that allow them to avoid strikeouts. With their speed, they run ~.290-.310 batting averages, boosting their OBPs to be 3rd and 4th on the team in spite of their negligible BB%. The league-average leadoff hitter in 2017 had a .331 OBP and a 99 wRC+. Segura has easily eclipsed those mark in each of the past two seasons since his mechanical adjustments went into place. Dee’s overall offensive prowess is below-average because, Spring Training homer surge aside, his microscopic ISO reminds us there are few hitters who generate less power. For Dee to justify his place atop the lineup, his baserunning and ability to get on base with his legs will have to carry his game.

That’s a tough road to hoe, however. The Mariners are running an overall plan out there that seems to depend on riding a razor’s edge for success. It’s frustrating to feel the need to evaluate every decision in a large-scale perspective, but when the team has a rotation full of question marks and a complete lack of depth behind the starting lineup at most positions, every extra run across the course of the season counts even more.

Gordon’s success is dependent on batted ball fortune and his blazing speed, which is a better recipe for success for him than just about anyone in baseball today. Trea Turner of the Nationals was the lone below-average hitter to work nearly full-time in the leadoff spot of a team with a winning record last year, and his slash-and-dash style is a good approximation of Gordon’s. Unfortunately, Seattle lacks a roster as strong as the rest of Washington’s. They might be better served looking instead at one of their likely Wild Card competitors, the Minnesota Twins. The Twins gave Brian Dozier 704 PAs as their leadoff man. Not only was Dozier their best hitter with a 125 wRC+, he was a capable enough baserunner and on-base machine to help set the table well for Minnesota’s fleet of slightly above-average hitters. That’s something Mitch Haniger seems capable of doing if you believe last year was a good representation of his skills. Moving Dee down to the lower part of the order removes some of his baserunning opportunities, but would still be beneficial with the power of guys like Zunino and whichever 1B Seattle is rolling with that day.

Gordon’s speed and on-base skills are assets, but unless his baserunning generates significantly more value for the team every time he reaches base, the Mariners may regret not giving those extra turns at the top of the order to a more potent bat.