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Dee Gordon and the Billy Hamilton extreme

If Dee Gordon continues to hit like this, he has to be like Billy Hamilton on the bases and in the field to be worthwhile.

MLB: Miami Marlins at Pittsburgh Pirates Charles LeClaire-USA TODAY Sports

Dee Gordon has now spent 115 plate appearances back with the Miami Marlins since returning from his suspension in late July. They have not been the best, nor have they been the worst, with Gordon hitting .286/.339/.324 (.292 wOBA) and putting up about half a win in that time frame. Gordon’s hitting has been a disappointment all season, and some fans will undoubtedly attribute that to his suspension for performance-enhancing drugs, or a lack of those drugs rather. But a performance like this season’s .276/.313/.332 (.283 wOBA) was perfectly possible for a player like Gordon if he does not hit well on balls in play.

Interestingly, looking at the subtype of players like Gordon naturally leads you to the most extreme example in all of baseball: Cincinnati Reds outfielder Billy Hamilton. Since 2014, no player in baseball has had a better baserunning track record than Hamilton. He has stolen a league-best 166 bases while only being caught 38 times. He leads all hitters in FanGraphs’s Baserunning Runs statistic, which measures how many runs above or below average a player has contributed in steals, extra bases, and avoiding double plays. According to FanGraphs, Hamilton has been worth 33 runs above average in that regard, an average of 13 runs better per 600 plate appearances.

Gordon stands fourth in that list at about 19 runs above average since 2014. Both players have played very similar amounts of time and they have accrued about the same amount of value in those years. However, they have done it in different ways thus far.

Player, 2014-2016 PA AVG OBP SLG wOBA BaseRunning UZR Avg WAR
Billy Hamilton 1497 .246 .299 .333 .278 +33 +49 7.0
Dee Gordon 1515 .306 .339 .389 .319 +19 +6 7.6

Gordon has been a more balanced player, having hit better than Hamilton ever did thanks to a stellar 2015 season with the Marlins. However, you can still see that he is vulnerable to a down campaign when the ball does not bounce as much his way. Hamilton, on the other hand, represents an extreme, when the down campaign occurs at all times. Hamilton has yet to prove that he has the ability to hit well enough and get on base. His 71 wRC+ is the third-lowest in all of baseball among qualified hitters since 2014.

The two hitters below him, Omar Infante and Freddy Galvis, have not been effective big leaguers since that time period. Indeed, out of all of the 30 worst hitters in baseball since that time period, Hamilton has been the most valuable of them all according to FanGraphs. This is because Hamilton does what he does better than almost anyone else. He has been the best center fielder in baseball by UZR and DRS in that time frame. He is the best runner in the game. Excelling at baserunning and defense has made Hamilton an above-average player despite the fact that he is one of the worst offensive contributors in the game with his bat.

The reason this is relevant for Miami is that there is some risk that Gordon declines from where some thought he was after last season. Remember, Gordon had never had a season as strong as 2015, and the expectation was that he would keep some of those gains and lose others. Now with a mediocre 2016 campaign a month away from ending, Miami has to once again reconsider what kind of hitter Gordon is. His career .291/.327/.365 line (.305 wOBA, 94 wRC+) is informative, and at that kind of batting line, it would not take much to be at least an average contributor. Yankees starters Didi Gregorius and Jacoby Ellsbury each averaged around 2.5 wins per 600 plate appearances batting at around a 92 to 94 wRC+, and both only had to mildly excel at baserunning and/or defense to reach that level. Both averaged a meager five runs above average per year and were above-average players.

The good news is that, if Gordon is what his career batting line is right now, he is certainly more than capable of putting up strongly above-average baserunning and defensive seasons. Last year he won a Gold Glove with a stellar defensive campaign, and so far this season he has at least hovered around average. Meanwhile, his worst baserunning season came last year at around five runs above average. Gordon can definitely pull off above-average seasons in these two areas to make up for below-average hitting and be at least an average player.

But what if the Marlins are expecting more? Can Gordon take it over the top with an extreme campaign on either side? What if, instead of being his career batting line, Gordon ends up being more like Ben Revere (.288/.319/.355, .296 wOBA, 86 wRC+ since 2014) going forward? The good news for Gordon and Marlins fans is that Gordon has the ability to put up a ridiculous baserunning season like Hamilton. In 2014, he put up a +10 run season by stealing 64 bases in 83 attempts and doing a great job avoiding the double play and taking extra bases. From 2011 to 2014, he averaged about nine runs per 600 plate appearances in terms of baserunning. When Gordon was a younger player, this kind of running was his norm. While that is not as easy to do at age 29 as it probably was a few years ago, Gordon still has the off chance of being still average even if he is a hitter more like he has been in 2016.

Gordon still does have enough skills to at least emulate the Billy Hamilton extreme route. He has less of a margin for error given his age, but he may at least be able to tap into his baserunning skill more often if the bat is not going his way. That being said, Marlins fans have to be hopeful he can avoid this line of thinking entirely and just start hitting again, because for a light-hitting speedster, value is a hard thing to make up.