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Dee Gordon signing: The history of light-hitting speedsters

The Miami Marlins should look into the history of other speedsters to see how well Gordon will fare.

Kim Klement-USA TODAY Sports

Last Friday, we discussed what the Miami Marlins will have to see from Dee Gordon during his five-year, $50 million extension in order to get what they think they are buying. The contract is unlikely to be an overpay at any point, especially given the cost of free agent wins is going. However, the Marlins probably would not commit $13 million a year to a non-free agent if they were not expecting a performance above league average and among the best on the team. This franchise does not had out contracts lightly, and it will not be happy if he underperforms what the Marlins feel is a potential perennial All-Star level of play.

In these situations, it is always worthwhile to look into the past. Similar to what I did on Friday, I looked at the players from age 28 to 32 (the guaranteed lifetime of the Gordon deal) with an ISO (slugging percentage minus batting average, a measure of power) and at least a positive baserunning contribution since 1993. I ranked these players based on Baseball-Reference Wins Above Replacement and wanted to see just how many players averaged out to the type of years that Gordon is expected to have. The Fans over at FanGraphs are generally an optimistic bunch, and they have Gordon rated at 2.9 wins for next season. Based on FanGraphs' own estimated aging curve, this would put the estimated number of wins for Gordon's contract lifetime at about 13.5 wins.

Over the lifetime of the deal, if Gordon were to pull that off, this contract would still be a great value to Miami in terms of free agent money. But the question is whether he can reach that total, because very few players since 1993, and the honest truth is that very few of them have reached this mark by bWAR.

Player PA AVG OBP SLG Baserunning Runs Defense Runs bWAR
Omar Vizquel 3211 .293 .360 .389 +12 +26 17.6
Jason Kendall 3231 .299 .372 .365 +0 +11 16.7
Chone Figgins 3137 .285 .365 .364 +24 +11 15.7
Michael Bourn 2969 .268 .330 .361 +14 +18 12.5
Luis Castillo 2799 .291 .368 .355 +14 -3 12.3
Mark McLemore 2615 .273 .358 .355 +4 +42 9.6
Jason Bartlett 2309 .270 .333 .369 +9 -9 9.5
Adam Kennedy 2167 .273 .333 .371 +4 +41 9.3
Brendan Ryan 1923 .214 .279 .288 +6 +75 9.1
Mickey Morandini 2781 .283 .359 .382 +5 +4 9.1

Those are the ten players who made it through all of their age 28 to 32 seasons and put up at least nine wins in that time frame without going negative on baserunning or putting up an overall ISO greater than .100. If you want to know where Ichiro Suzuki was on this list, he actually posted an ISO just slightly above .100 in that time frame, making him not eligible. Given that Ichiro has known power that he often claimed he never used during his career, excluding him does not seem unreasonable. One could also include Erick Aybar, who has not yet played his age-32 season but has put up 12 wins as a decent shortstop and a good baserunner.

The list is not necessarily brimming with known talent. Only five of those players reached 12 wins in the five seasons, which is almost what the Fans are kind of expecting out of Gordon. Of those five, one of them is a possible Hall of Famer and one of the best shortstops of his generation, one of them is the best second baseman in Marlins history, one of them was a catcher, and two of them were recent free agent busts. The crew above as a whole averaged 12.1 wins in five seasons, or an average of 2.4 wins per year.

The dropoff in performance among these types of players is pretty steep. Among the guys who completed their age 32 season, only 26 of them made to two wins over the lifetime of those five years. That is two wins combined for five years. A couple more players made it to almost nine wins in those five seasons, and the bottom falls out shortly thereafter. In other words, there is very little room for error in this population.

Looking at the types of players we are dealing with here, you can also see some of the profiles these guys keep.

Player K% BB% BABIP wRC+ Baserunning Runs Defense Runs
Omar Vizquel 8.5 9.3 .313 95 +12 +26
Jason Kendall 6.3 8.1 .316 100 +0 +11
Chone Figgins 15.6 11.3 .337 100 +24 +11
Michael Bourn 21.6 8.2 .345 93 +14 +18
Luis Castillo 8.5 10.7 .316 98 +14 -3
Mark McLemore 12.8 11.5 .311 88 +4 +42
Jason Bartlett 15.9 7.8 .317 95 +9 -9
Adam Kennedy 14.0 7.0 .312 86 +4 +41
Brendan Ryan 18.1 7.2 .259 60 +6 +75
Mickey Morandini 13.5 9.3 .325 98 +5 +4
Total 13.2 9.2 .317 93 +10 +21

The average successful light-hitting speedster did a few things right to get to this point in his career. They averaged positive contributions defensively and via baserunning, two categories in which I have more confidence in Dee Gordon. On average, these guys were putting up two runs a season on the basepaths, something that Gordon is likely to beat out at least early on. They were also averaging four runs above average defensively.

Hitting-wise, however, the players who did succeed did not hit well as a group. The overall batting line ended up being seven percent worse than league average, with an average BABIP of .317. Only three guys, Chone Figgins, Mickey Morandini, and Michael Bourn, did better than the mark of around .317. In addition, as a group this set avoided strikeouts at a reasonable rate but also walked at almost a ten percent clip. This poses a difficulty for Gordon, who has walked at less than a five percent clip over the course of his career. He has maximized contact and improved his strikeout rate, but even then, last year was the first year he sniffed 13 percent in one season.

Gordon has a few hitting problems that could pose an issue if he wants to catch up to these very best light-hitting speedsters. The lack of walks is problematic, and if and when the BABIP falls like it did for many of these elite light-hitters, Gordon may struggle. And worse yet, the downside of all of this is that these were the ten very best players of Gordon's ilk in the last 20-plus years. There is always a possibility that Gordon is not one of those ten best, and some of the hitting characteristic put him at risk for this.

However, the Fans are projecting exactly the sort of batting line that these players put up in their five seasons, a line about seven or eight percent worse than average. They also suspect he will have another great year defensively, and that is what may keep him at the three-win range over the next few years. With strong baserunning and above average defense, Gordon can still be a strong contributor, if not an All-Star player, for the Marlins for the next few years.