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40 in 40: Dee Gordon

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Flash, aaAAAAhhh, victim of the Mariner curse?

Texas Rangers v Seattle Mariners
When they start explaining walks to you
Photo by Stephen Brashear/Getty Images

I watch Dee Gordon play baseball the same way I listen to 2 Chainz: not sure if it’s good or not but I do know it’s a lot of fun.

The tricky thing about Dee Gordon’s 2018 season was the part where it was objectively bad, and knowing that he’s capable of being much, much better. At this point it’s probably safe to say the Dee Gordon of 2014-17 is miles in the rearview mirror, but the traits that created those productive seasons are still deeply rooted in him. This is to say, Dee Gordon is still fast. He still runs a contact percentage in the mid-to-high 80s. But last year, a debilitating combo of poor BABIP luck, lots of soft contact, and even fewer walks than normal birthed a disappointing first season in Seattle.

By both FanGraphs’ Offensive and Defensive Runs Above Average metrics, 2018 was the first time that Gordon was simultaneously a negative presence with the bat and glove. Part of the porous defense is probably due to starting out of position, then having to transition back to the infield during the season. Still, Gordon made 10 errors in 676.1 innings at his natural second base position, one season after making 12 for the Marlins. While the defense could use some attention heading into the post-Canó era, the easiest way for Gordon to ease fans’ ire toward him is at the plate. Again, replicating his incendiary 2015 campaign is likely out of the question, but these easy improvements could mark useful baby steps back above replacement-level.

Texas Rangers v Seattle Mariners
Brrdat brrdat brrdat
Photo by Lindsey Wasson/Getty Images

Take literally two walks a month

As impossible as it seems, Dee Gordon’s young Mariner career features the same amount of hit by pitches as walks. The spry second baseman earned just nine free passes in 2018, making him the only player in the league with less than 10 walks in at least 500 plate appearances. Drawing walks has never been a part of Flash’s game—a career walk rate of exactly 4 percent will attest to that—but his recent plate discipline numbers show a disturbing trend. If we exclude his 2016 suspension-shortened season, Gordon’s walk rate has inched downward with each turn of the calendar, and he’s also swinging at more junk than he did five years ago.

Dee Gordon MLB Stats

Year BB BB% O-Swing%
Year BB BB% O-Swing%
2014 31 4.8 32.5
2015 25 3.8 37.5
2017 25 3.6 36.6
2018 9 1.5 41.4
Data courtesy of FanGraphs

Last season, Gordon famously walked zero times in the entire month of July. He went 106 plate appearances between a June 29 walk from Brandon Maurer and his next stroll, which came on August 2 from a pitcher making his first appearance of the season. For a player whose best skill is entirely muted if he’s not on base, it’s maddening to see Gordon’s complete avoidance of the base on balls. Earning a modest two walks per month would be a refreshing and reasonable change of pace from Dee. It could also hopefully lead to more opportunities for him to steal bases and race home on teammates’ hits, which is precisely why Jerry Dipoto traded for him in the first place. At Media Day last week, both Dipoto and Servias emphasized that the team is going to get back to their old C the Z (control the zone) ways in 2019, and mentioned Gordon’s name specifically (along with fellow low-OBP culprit Ryon Healy) as someone with whom they’ll be emphasizing C the Z skills. That’s encouraging, but we will have to see if those words transfer into Dee not doing this so much, behind in the count and forced to chase:

Try to hit the ball a little harder, and not in the air so much

Something I found interesting when researching Dee’s down year was that the 30-year-old made the most hard contact of his career (20.4%), but also made the most soft contact (20.0%) of any of his seasons as a full-time starter. Even in going from 16.1 Hard% in his last year with Miami to a new career-high, Gordon still ranked last in the American League in that category. Obviously, we’re not screaming for Dee to start hitting the ball over the fence, but even a minor uptick in hard groundballs could greatly improve his sub-.300 batting average and on-base percentage.

Photo courtesy of FanGraphs

As you can see, there’s a whole lot more groundballs turning into hits than flyballs, which is generally true for someone with a unique profile like Gordon’s. A 22.4% flyball percentage, and even worse 10.2% infield fly number, zapped several opportunities for Sweet Dee to beat the defense with his speed. He can surely survive on groundballs—both the seeing-eye type that get through the infield or dribblers that don’t clear the pitcher’s mound—but it certainly helps to avoid weak exit velocities and lazy pop-ups whenever possible. Something like a 16-18% soft contact clip with a flyball percentage under 20 would be a godsend for a hitter who thrives on making fielders rush to balls on the turf.

Be a leader

Yeah, yeah, yeah, newfangled analytic-types will push back against the value of intangibles like leadership and mentoring. But Gordon is one of the older and most-experienced Mariners on the current 40-man roster. Even if his statistical pages take another hit, Gordon can be extremely useful to the team by ushering in the crop of youngsters, especially the five new black players, each younger than Gordon, who undoubtedly can see part of themselves in Dee.

As Little League as this may sound, the two things any athlete can always control are hustle and attitude. We know Dee will hustle his slender ass off any chance that he gets. He’ll do it at a faster pace than all of his contemporaries, too. Armed with blazing speed and an infectious smile, the second-year Seattleite possesses two qualities that are largely slump-proof. Whether he hits .220 or .320 this year, we can all expect to see the high energy and wattage of Dee’s personality christen T-Mobile Park.