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2016 Marlins Season Review: Dee Gordon

What does 2016’s abbreviated performance for Gordon tell us about what to expect in 2017?

NFL: Pittsburgh Steelers at Miami Dolphins Steve Mitchell-USA TODAY Sports

Another day, another review! Today we will hone in on second baseman Dee Gordon.

Gordon came over to the Marlins in the 2014 off-season following a trade with the Dodgers. In his first season with the Fish, he was nothing short of phenomenal. With a season ending slash line of .333/.359/.418 and 58 stolen bases to his name, Gordon secured the NL batting title and led the league in bags swiped. Coupled with a substantial improvement in defense (8.6 DEF) that also won him his first gold glove, Gordon as an almost 5 fWAR player looked to be one of the biggest Marlins success stories on the trade front of all time.

Dee would play just shy of one month in 2016 before he was suspended for use of performance-enhancing drugs (testing positive for exogenous testosterone and clostebol) immediately following a victory against his former Dodgers squad on April 28th. He wasn’t exactly lighting the world on fire prior to his suspension: A .266/.389/.340 slash line in 97 plate appearances, with a mere six stolen bases.

Gordon would go on to miss 80 games as part of the ban, taking him out for two games in April, all of May, June and the majority of July. The Marlins fared well in his absence, going 45-35 over the stretch.

From his return on July 28th until the end of the season, Gordon would post a .268/.312/.333 slash line in 248 plate appearances, continuing to steal bases at a near elite clip with 24 in that span but not getting on base enough to really take advantage of his speed as a weapon (posting a dismal .283 wOBA). His contact numbers were down across the board, but not considerably so, only by a couple of percentage points (87.7% contact rate in 2015 to 85.1% contact rate in 2016).

Gordon would only hit one home run the entire season, but it was one for the ages:

Unless you’re the second coming of Ted Williams, players don’t typically challenge for back to back batting titles, so anyone with sense was rightfully expecting some sort of regression. You throw the suspension into the mix, however, and the real question becomes this: What can we realistically expect from Gordon going forward?

To say that Gordon is not much of a power hitter is akin to saying that Ringo was probably the worst Beatle*. Gordon is not here to be THE star, he’s here to lay down a steady beat at the top of the lineup, an important cog in the Marlins offensive machine. To that end, I wanted to see if I could locate anything in the numbers to suggest his ability to set the table has been compromised.

*No offense intended to Mr. Starr.

Gordon is at his best when he’s making significant contact and using his plus speed to to reach base at a high clip. He’s never been much of a base on balls kind of guy (in his batting title season, he had a 3.8% walk rate which put him in the bottom 15 in baseball), and thus he relies upon putting the ball in play to make an impact. Some Hang Time charts courtesy of Fangraphs are illustrative of Gordon’s skillset.

Source: FanGraphs

Source: FanGraphs

Dee Gordon hits a lot of ground balls (his GB rate essentially remained stable, around 59%, between 2015-2016), and because of his speed, some of those infield ground balls turn into hits. His BABIP took a substantial dip (from fifth in baseball in 2015 to 87th in 2016) but was a still respectable .319, so making contact was not an issue.

The kind of contact matters, however, and it is here where we saw a change for the worse. In 2015, 61.7% of balls in play hit by Gordon were considered medium contact, and 20.8%, soft contact. In 2016, his medium contact rate fell to 53.5% while his soft contact rate rose to 29.7%. The latter number was second in baseball behind the notoriously light-hitting Billy Burns, who began the season as the A’s starting center fielder but was demoted, then later traded to the Kansas City Royals.

Soft contact can theoretically be helpful when trying to leg out infield ground balls; it’s not particularly useful when the ball is in the air. Soft contact creates more hang time on fly balls which in turn creates more outs. Put simply, if the Marlins hope to see a Dee Gordon closer to the 2014-2015 version, he will need to hit the ball harder.

I like Dee Gordon and I want him to succeed, but I wont lie: It’s a disturbing trend that Gordon’s hits are weaker in a season where he was suspended for PED usage. That being said, he is entering the typical baseball prime at 28 years old (29 in April), so it’s certainly within the realm of achievable possibility that he could return to previous form. You combine this with defensive gains that appear here to stay and there is certainly reason for optimism. I suspect with 2016’s distractions in the rearview mirror, Marlins fans can expect to see a good “bounce back” campaign from Dee Gordon in 2017.