I'm going to reiterate this again: Dee Gordon had a great 2015 year.
No one is questioning that. It was an awesome season. It was worth somewhere close to five wins for the Marlins, and it was the most valuable year of any Marlins starter this year. In fact, it was on par with Luis Castillo's 2003 season as one of or the best season by a Marlins second baseman of all time. I have never questioned this. What happened has happened, and it was great to watch.
That does not mean that such a performance is repeatable, and that is where my concern lies. After a fantastic 4.5-win year for Gordon following a three-win season in Los Angeles in 2013, Steamer is still projecting a two-win season for him in 2016. For some fans, that seems blatantly absurd, but after Gordon finished up the year, that was more or less where I had him pegged for the following year. Regression is a harsh mistress, but Gordon has shown enough tools to keep him as around an average or a bit above average player for the Marlins.
Should such a player earn a five-year, $50 million extension that will probably be worth the deal but not be necessary by the end of its lifetime? That is a good question. But that question hinges upon how Gordon can avoid the variable floor that haunts players of similar skills. Gordon has obvious top-end skills on one side and obvious limitations on the other. On the plus side, he is fast, and he should be a regular contributor on the basepaths for future seasons. On the other hand, he is popless, with a career ISO of .076 and just eight homers to his name. On one hand, his defense was greatly improved under Perry Hill, but on the other hand, he is dependent on batting average to get on base due to a low walk count.
To understand the best path to success for Gordon in the future, I took a look at all player seasons since 1993 with an isolated power (ISO) less than 0.100. Gordon's career ISO is at .079, so this seems like a reasonable comparison group. This set encompassed 383 player-seasons, bested by Ichiro Suzuki's 2004 season (7.1 fWAR) and bottomed out by Neifi Perez's 2002 season (-2.9 fWAR). In total, the average wins per 600 plate appearances in this set was 1.5 wins, meaning the average player with this kind of power limitation was a below average player, and that is just among the guys who made it through a full season.
What did the players who succeed do well? Looking through the list, we can find a few factors.
Low Strikeouts or High Walks
When you don't have power, you have limited tools left to turn to. But one constant among the players involved is the ability either limit strikeouts or maximize walk to a degree. Of the two, limiting strikeouts seems to be more used of the two strategies, as contact-heavy hitters like Gordon often swing often and make more contact that by default has them avoid walks. There were 30 player-seasons with at least four wins recorded among this set; no player in those 30 seasons recorded a strikeout rate higher than Michael Bourn's 20.6 percent mark, and the next lowest was at 15.6 percent by Chone Figgins.
Fourth-highest among the strikeout list among the best years was Gordon's 2015 at 13.9 percent. If he wants to maximize his ability to repeat an All-Star level campaign like last season's, it would behoove him to work on making more contact. He already did so this year by going back to his old approach of swinging more often; after dropping his swing rates each of the last three years in order to force more walks, it seems like Gordon went back to being aggressive and swung at about 50 percent of pitches seen. Given that Gordon's eye for balls and strikes is not very discerning, his best approach may simply be to take smarter hacks at the plate. He did that this past year, having swung at 65 percent of pitches in the strike zone, which was a career high.
Gordon's patently absurd .383 BABIP from last season was the second-highest of any player among the thirty best seasons of this sample, behind only Ichiro's sample-leading 2004 campaign. However, Gordon has never hit that well on balls in play, and expecting anyone to repeat the sort of things Ichiro once did is an impossibility. Over a ten-year span from 2001 to 2010, Ichiro's final decent season at the plate, he averaged a .357 BABIP and a wRC+ of 115, or a batting line just 15 percent better than league average.
Gordon's 2015 season was a batting line 13 percent better than league average, meaning that Gordon's best year was Ichiro's entire peak run at the plate. The other player who shows up multiple times in the top 30 seasons is Michael Bourn, whose peak saw him put up a 92 wRC+ and a BABIP of .343. It is far more likely Gordon retains a BABIP more like his career .346 mark, or even less, than it would be likely for him to be a bat control artist like Ichiro.
Gordon is an elite baserunner, capable of stealing bases at high levels. He was still going strong last season, swiping 58 bases. However, he was also caught a league-leading 20 times, and his overall 74 percent success rate was not all that impressive. Gordon owns just a 76 percent career success rate on steals, which is lower than the average elite runner. By comparison, Billy Hamilton of the Reds has stolen at an 80 percent success rate for his career so far. Michael Bourn owns a 78.5 percent success rate for his career. During Ichiro's prime, he swiped 81 percent of attempted bags.
Gordon's volume steals are not converted as often as other elite stealers, but he too can add value on the bases by advancing on hits and outs at a better rate than league average. He is still a contributor on the bases, but after last season, it seems like it would be too much to expect more than half a win from Gordon's baserunning contributions, which is about what most successful slap-hitting seasons provide.
This is the key to the continued success and the raising of the floor for Gordon. Last year's major difference between the Dodgers' Gordon and the current incarnation is his Gold Glove-winning performance in the field. All of the numbers pointed successfully last year, as Gordon was worth between zero and 13 runs above average, depending on the system you ask. Given that enough voters scouted out a Gold Glover in Gordon, I am inclined to say that the defensive changes are real enough to expect an above average defender going forward.
Gordon even has a reason to have great defensive improvement. As Jeff Sullivan of FanGraphs points out, there is a lot of anecdotal evidence that points to Gordon being positively affected by legendary infield coach Perry Hill.
The long and short of it, simplified: with the Dodgers, for the most part, Gordon was playing defense based on raw talent. That’s half of it, but if you want to make the most of your skills, you need to do a good job of preparing and anticipating. Perry Hill got Gordon better about his positioning, introducing instruction Gordon hadn’t really been exposed to before. He had a better idea of where plays were going to be before they got there, so Gordon could increase his effective range, and also have to hurry fewer plays, presumably cutting down the errors. Some better positioning, and some better footwork. These seem like fundamental things, but Hill and Gordon connected, and the improvement is obvious. There’s enough of an explanation to come away convinced it’s for real.
Defense has been the key to many fantastic seasons for slap hitters. Twenty-two of the 30 best seasons among this sample involved defenders putting up more than 10 runs above average defensively, via both their positional adjustment (playing harder defensive positions like shortstop or catcher) and defensive performance compared to their peers. Even among players with between three and four wins, twenty-five of the 40 players who put up those seasons had 10-plus runs of defensive contribution.
Putting up strongly above average defense is the most attainable way for Gordon to remain a above-average regular. His bat has a known limited ceiling; even the best slappers never could beat out the elite hitters in the league, and as a whole, light-hitters like these guys are much more likely to be average or below-average contributors at the plate. Where Gordon and the rest of them can work out their problems is on the field, where defense can help mitigate the bat problems. Combined with Gordon's speedy baserunning, and the Marlins should have a solid contributor locked up for five years.