The Miami Marlins just bet a good deal of talent on four years of Dee Gordon taking over at second base. The Fish are expecting the 27-year-old to deliver four good seasons for the franchise, as it gave out Andrew Heaney among other to acquire him and the potentially retiring Dan Haren.
On the surface, it is not entirely out of reason to expect that. Gordon was just an All-Star last season and put up a 2.5- to three-win season. At the same time, you have to expect Gordon to perform at that kind of level or a bit less going forward to make this deal seem reasonable, and the Marlins might be hard-pressed to do so. Gordon, it turns out, is a player with a limited skillset and a series of problems at the plate. He is also someone who has one skill he utilizes very well: his speed. How do players of his ilk perform? What is Gordon's upside?
The Marlins no doubt recalled their history and saw Juan Pierre in Dee Gordon. Pierre and Luis Castillo were the best speedsters in Marlins history and critical parts to the 2003 World Series winning team. Pierre also put up around four-win seasons twice for the Fish back in 2003 and 2004. The Marlins would love for something like that to happen again, and this time with Gordon!
But it turns out Gordon is not quite the same type of player as Pierre, no matter how similar their footspeed appears to be. Pierre came into the league doing two things well on offense: running and avoiding strikeouts. Just like Gordon, he had no power and barely walked, but not striking out allowed him to maintain high batting averages and on-base percentages with decent BABIPs. Pierre hit .340 on balls in play in 2004 and ended up putting up a .326/.374/.407 batting line (.345 wOBA) that was 10 percent better than league average, a career-best season. Last year, Gordon had to hit .346 on balls in play just to reach a .289/.326/.378 (.312 wOBA) line. The difference was in their strikeout rates; in Pierre's three seasons with the Marlins in the mid-2000's, he struck out in only 115 times in 2214 plate appearances, while Gordon whiffed 107 times last season alone.
That does not even account for Pierre's potentially strong defense in some of those seasons as well. Gordon right now is considered an average defender at second base, but at one point in Pierre's career, he was an above average, rangy center fielder. Age and his noodle arm quickly got the best of him, but in the early years, he was an asset on defense as well. That adds another potential obstacle for Gordon to reach a four-win type of plateau.
The Right Type
If Pierre's ceiling was a four-win player, than what ceiling can we spot for Gordon, who is a more flawed player. I looked at the qualified Major Leaguers over the last three seasons and sorted them by stolen base numbers. Gordon leads all players in stolen bases per 600 plate appearances at almost 59 swipes. I took the top 20 basestealers on a rate basis and examined just those names. Then I arbitrarily chose two cutoff points above which I figured Gordon would never reach. I dismissed any player with a walk rate above 10 percent and anyone with an ISO above .120. I figured Gordon's highest points would probably have to be below that, especially since he's reached or about to reach his theoretical prime at age 27.
Only nine other players with at least a 1000 plate appearances over the last three years remained after making these cutoffs. How did those players fare? (Numbers from FanGraphs)
The averages do not look great offensively. The average player among this sample of nine comparable guys put up a .270/.317/.360 batting line good for a .300 wOBA. It should not surprise you to hear that, after Gordon's hot first month at the plate last season, he happened to hit .279/.318/.360, an almost identical batting line to the players listed above. The players above also averaged about seven runs above average on the bases per year, which is a little less than what Gordon averaged.
The WAR totals do not look half bad, however, as the average player put up a 1.9-win season in 600 plate appearances. But don't let that figure fool you, as that includes defensive contributions as well. We currently know Gordon to be an average defender at second base, meaning that Leonys Martin's plus center fielding or Alcides Escobar's ability at shortstop is not going to factor into our ceiling for Gordon. But even after you only include the players closest to league average defensively, you still get about a two-win season on average for a speedster like Gordon.
That's encouraging for the Marlins that this appears to be the average per long season, but what's the ceiling? Jose Altuve appears to be the best player on that list in terms of offense, followed by Ben Revere. What do those guys do well to make them better at the plate? In order to hit that kind of ceiling, Gordon would have to hit strikeout rates closer to 10 percent rather than the 17.5 percent mark he currently owns since 2012. No other player on the list has a strikeout rate lower than 13 percent, and their batting lines reflect that, as none of them have hit as well as Altuve or Revere.
With every ceiling, there is a floor as well. Bonifacio struck out 20.7 percent of the time and did not compensate with enough walks over the past three seasons, and that has gotten him into significant trouble. His .285 wOBA over the last three years is the worst of the group, and he ended up averaging 1.6 wins per season with average or better defense.
If we take the baserunning value at face value, then you can see that Gordon can still be a league average player next season. The concern about his floor is definitely real, but if he retains most of the skillset he had for the rest of the 2014 season, he should be a 1.5-win player at worst. But the problem is that the ceiling just is not that high for just an average defender without strong ability to avoid the strikeout. None of those players of similar ilk really separated themselves, and the best season among them came from a guy who struck out in five percent of his plate appearances. Without making better contact, there is a very hard ceiling capped at 2.5 to three wins for Gordon. We may already have seen his best.