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Dee Gordon and the best slap-hitting seasons in baseball

Dee Gordon is hitting about as well as can be expected for a guy with a lack of power.

Robert Mayer-USA TODAY Sports

Dee Gordon's batting average on balls in play finally dipped under .400 for the first time all season, and his subsequent .339/.360/.418 batting line (.338 wOBA) is the worst that it has been all year long. Gordon's line is undergoing the slow regression to the mean that was expected all of this time ago, and the only thing masking his declining work over the last few months is the fantastic start he had in April and early May.

Still, Gordon is hitting well enough and, just as importantly, defending well enough to be a deserving All-Star starting second baseman. The two-time All-Star has almost three wins to his name thus far this year according to FanGraphs, and even his declining batting line is still a reasonable 14 percent better than league average. Only two Marlins with at least 150 plate appearances have a better line than that mark, and one of them is the almighty Giancarlo Stanton. The Marlins have to be happy about at least the first half batting returns from Gordon.

However, as we have been mentioning all year long, there is very little room for improvement in Gordon's game. He is depending on an astronomical BABIP to remain above league average, and without power or the ability to take a walk, he just would not get on base or slug enough to augment his value. This remains true despite his success.

To wit, it would be interesting to see where Gordon's current season stands among the best slap-hitting campaigns of recent memory. It is easy to remember guys like Juan Pierre and Luis Castillo fondly as Marlins fans, but how often have slap hitters been successful like we remember them? I looked at all qualified player seasons from 1993 to 2014 and examined only the ones with an ISO of .120 or less. These are the players with a distinct lack of power. How well did the very best fare, and what did they do to get there?

Player K% BB% BABIP ISO Batting Line wOBA (wRC+)
Tony Gwynn, 1995 2.6 6.1 .364 .116 .368/.404/.484 .387 (137)
Tony Phillips, 1993 14.4 18.7 .369 .085 .313/.444/.398 .388 (136)
Jose Altuve, 2014 7.5 5.1 .360 .112 .341/.377/.453 .363 (135)
Ichiro Suzuki, 2004 8.3 6.4 .399 .082 .372/.414/.455 .375 (131)
Nick Johnson, 2009 14.6 17.2 .338 .114 .291/.426/.405 .376 (129)
Casey Kotchman, 2011 11.7 8.5 .335 .116 .306/.378/.422 .354 (127)
Derek Bell, 1995 14.2 6.6 .377 .108 .334/.385/.442 .367 (127)
Ichiro Suzuki, 2009 10.5 4.7 .384 .113 .352/.386/.465 .367 (125)
Placido Polanco, 2007 4.7 5.8 .346 .118 .341/.388/.458 .372 (125)
Kenny Lofton, 1997 14.7 11.3 .390 .095 .333/.409/.428 .374 (125)

Those are the ten best years by players with weak power numbers in the last two-plus decades. The wRC+ numbers do not look promising for any potential improvement in Gordon's play. Even the very best barely managed to pass 20 to 30 percent above league average. That is nothing to scoff at, of course. Only 49 of 146 qualified batters reached 20 percent better than league average in 2014, while 48 out 140 batters hit that mark in 2013. It appears that about a third of the hitters who qualify for the batting title every year actually reach marks that only 18 out 679 slap hitting seasons could reach (2.7 percent of all seasons).

How did the very best reach their best marks? You can see that a majority of them had more power numbers than Gordon to start. Seven of the ten hitters listed above had ISOs above .100, something that Gordon is unlikely to reach this year. With his one home run (an exciting inside-the-park job), Gordon now has five career homers in 1676 plate appearances. Kenny Lofton had the lowest number of home runs among the top ten above, and he hit five in total in 1997.

More importantly, each of those seasons utilized high BABIPs combined with one other skill to translate into success. The players listed above either struck out at a very low rate or walked at an above average rate with a low strikeout rate. Five of the above guys appeared to succeed mostly via the strikeout route, while three other players clearly worked the walk route. Kotchman had a pretty mixed successful year for the Rays a few years ago. The only player listed above who did not appear to excel in either avoiding strikeouts or drawing walks was Derek Bell, and even his strikeout rate was about two percent lower than the league average that season.

How does Gordon match up in those areas? Not nearly as well. His current walk rate is less than half of the league average, while his strikeout rate is five percentage points below the league average. When viewed as a percentage above or below the league average rates, Gordon's strikeouts and walks do not add up.

Player K+ BB+ BABIP+
Dee Gordon, 2015 76 41 134
Tony Gwynn, 1995 16 67 122
Tony Phillips, 1993 95 215 126
Jose Altuve, 2014 37 67 120
Ichiro Suzuki, 2004 49 74 134
Nick Johnson, 2009 81 193 113
Casey Kotchman, 2011 63 105 114
Derek Bell, 1995 88 73 127
Ichiro Suzuki, 2009 57 53 128
Placido Polanco, 2007 27 68 114
Kenny Lofton, 1997 86 127 130

Just like wRC+, the above table shows percentage above or below average as a number out of 100, with 100 at average. Gordon's strikeout rate is 24 percent lower than league average, which is the fifth-highest rate among the 11 names listed above. At the same time, his walk rate is 59 percent below league average, which is the lowest rate among those names. The closest comparison is Ichiro's 2009 season, during which he struck out less than Gordon as well. No other season is within 10 percentage points.

That Ichiro year may be the most closely associated campaign to Gordon's. Ichiro hit just .352/.386/.465, but he had to hit 11 home runs (just the third time in his career that he had hit above 10) to reach a 125 wRC+. There is no way Gordon is going to hit that many bombs, so he would have to make up for those numbers elsewhere. Can he lower his strikeout rate, since we know the walk rate is not going to climb? Or will Gordon have to keep up his astronomical BABIP, a mark only Ichiro and Kenny Lofton similarly reached among the top ten slap-hitting seasons in baseball's last two decades? It should be among the interesting things to watch going forward in 2015.