A couple of days ago, FOX Sports Florida got an interesting quote about Dee Gordon and his defiant approach at the plate. It turns out that, while the rest of us keep asking Dee Gordon to start drawing more walks, he has considered it and decided this is not in his best interest.
To be honest, that's probably right. Gordon's approach got more aggressive than it even was in 2014, when he first pulled off an All-Star season. He swung at 50 percent of pitches last season, which of course was the most successful season he ever had at the plate. Then again, in the first half of 2014, when he hit .292/.344/.398 (.329 wOBA, 113 wRC+), he did it in part by being patient, as he swung at only 43 percent of pitches he saw. So Gordon's success has come from both directions.
But I admitted as much in a previous article about the historical path to success for light-hitting speedsters like Gordon.
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.
By default, light-hitting and contact-heavy guys like Gordon are going to get more pitches in the strike zone, and indeed Gordon saw 50 percent of his pitches last season in the zone. This makes natural sense, and it is what Gordon points out in his quote. It makes it harder for guys like Gordon to draw walks because they get more pitches in the strike zone.
This makes sense, though it does not mean that it cannot be done. Chone Figgins was a very successful soft-hitting player with the Los Angeles Angels, and he did it with a career 10.1 percent walk rate and 15.5 percent strikeout rate. In his prime seasons around 2007 to 2009, Figgins swung at only 39 percent of pitches seen, but he was intelligently selective on which pitches he swung at. He limited hacks at balls and focused more on strikes.
Gordon is facing his limitations. He essentially may be saying that trying that Chone Figgins approach is not his style, and it led to more harm than good. So he is choosing the other route from that quote, the limiting strikeouts route. The problem is that thus far, Gordon has not limited strikeouts. Among the 30 best player-seasons since 1993 that involved a guy qualifying for the batting title and having an isolated power less than .100 (essentially encompassing light-hitting guys only), Gordon's 2015 strikeout rate was the fourth highest. As a result of that research, I even made the conclusion that this approach may be the right way to go:
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.
This is a perfectly reasonable strategy! But it means he has to do better at making contact in order to improve on his career work so far. Among qualified players, Gordon's contact rate last year was 15th in the league, but his strikeout rate was 33rd-lowest in the league. He may have to reach a level more akin to Ben Revere's strikeout rate (around 10 percent) in order to maintain batting lines around league average.
The point here is not that Gordon needs walks, much like he does not need power. But baseball (offensively) is about scoring runs, and scoring runs at its essence is about getting baserunners and moving them towards home plate. Gordon already has an impossible time moving other baserunners home because he does not have power. He does mitigate some of that by moving himself around efficiently via baserunning. But the other half of the equation is important, and it's harder if you cannot draw walks. If Gordon wants to keep getting on base at acceptable clips, he has to get more singles and hits. The easiest and most assured way to do that is to avoid strikeouts.
And this does not get into the fact that Gordon has other skills that balance him as a player. From my previous article again:
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.
Gordon does not need to be a great hitter to be an above-average player. To be a four-win All-Star again, however, it will require Gordon to improve other areas of his game. With him limiting himself in terms of walks and already starting off limited in terms of power, he has few other avenues for sustained improvement. Limiting strikeouts even further, perhaps by making better contact or even being wiser about where to swing would be the next frontier for him at the plate.