On Tuesday night, Alex Gordon was the straw that broke the camel’s back; on a 3-2 pitch in the bottom of the eight inning, Gordon hit the 5,694th home run of the season, officially breaking the record for most home runs hit in a single season of Major League Baseball. In a game that is oft criticized for being slow and uneventful, home runs rule the day, and those who hit the most garner the most fame. As news of the broken record spread, pictures accompanied by Aaron Judge, Edwin Encarnacion, Giancarlo Stanton, and the like, peppered people’s twitter feeds.
On the other hand, those players who are home-run challenged have to work extra hard to get recognized. The case is especially so for Dee Gordon. In addition to sharing the spotlight with 2017’s home run king, Dee has had to break through in other ways to get his due. In his three years with the Fish, Dee has seen the top of the mountain, and he has seen the very bottom of the valley. While Miami isn’t the biggest baseball market, the lights still shine bright in Little Havana. Sometimes when there is so much background noise, the best thing a player can do is grind in silence. And that’s what Dee has done.
A brief history
After moving up the ranks and being experimented on by the Los Angeles Dodgers, Dee had his first breakout year with the Boys in Blue in 2014. That year, Dee recorded a career best 10.4 baserunning runs-above-average, and hit just above average with a wRC+ of 102.
In the following offseason, the Dodgers pulled off a blockbuster trade, that saw Dee Gordon, Dan Haren, and Miguel Rojas arrive in Miami at the expense of Kiké Hernandez, Austin Barnes, Chris Hatcher, and Andrew Heaney. In 2015, Dee flourished in his home state for the Fish, setting career watermarks in almost all categories. Over 145 games as a leadoff hitter, Dee recorded absurd numbers: a .359 OBP, a 115 wRC+, 205 hits, and ultimately, a career high fWAR of 4.8. For his fielding, Dee paced the National League in Defensive Runs Saved by eight runs, with a total of 13, as well as Ultimate Zone Rating by 4.3 runs, with a total of 6.4, earning him a Gold Glove. He also won the Silver Slugger and the NL Batting Title. This was the top of the mountain for Dee.
Dee was challenged by adversity in 2016. After coming out of the gate slow, Dee was suspended in late April for failing a PED test. Despite sitting out 81 games, Dee accrued by all means modest numbers in 79 games. However, it wasn’t until September 25th that Dee Gordon’s season truly bottomed out; when the Marlins were shocked by the death of Jose Fernandez.
On September 26th, in his first at-bat following Fernandez’ death, Dee Gordon crushed a home run in Jose’s honor. It was his only home run of the season. We didn’t know it then, but a year later, we know now: that was the first day of Dee’s comeback campaign.
The volume hasn’t been turned down since 2016. With the All-Star Game, an ownership change, 55 home runs, and tons of trade making their way to Miami, the Marlins haven’t run out of ways to stay in the news. 2017 has proven to be as mentally taxing a year as ever. Yet, a gamut of scrappy players has secretly propelled the Marlins to relative success this year; so much so that as I’m writing this article — on September 20 — the Marlins are still yet to be mathematically eliminated. Dee Gordon may be the leader of that group. Let’s see how he has contributed to the Fish campaign this year.
When he won the Gold Glove in 2015, among NL second basemen, Dee Gordon placed first in Defensive Runs Saved, second in Ultimate Zone Rating, and second in fielding runs above average. Danny Espinosa led the league in UZR and fielding runs; however, his numbers were inflated because he played half the amount of innings at second base that Dee played.
This year, among NL second basemen, Dee Gordon is third in Defensive Runs Saved with two, first in Ultimate Zone rating with 5.3, and first in fielding runs, 7.7. As mentioned in a previous article, although DRS and UZR are calculated according to similar criteria, in similar manners, they can sometimes yield very different results.
The difference maker in the fielding inquiry here is errors. Dee Gordon is tied with Cesar Hernandez for most errors among NL second basemen, with 11. With that being said, according to Range Runs — a metric incorporated in calculating Ultimate Zone Rating, Dee has far and away the most range of any second basemen in the NL, with 4.9. Brandon Drury is second in range, and he trails Dee by 2.3 whole runs.
A naturally occurring phenomenon for infielders is that as their range increases, and they get to more difficult batted balls, their errors tend to trend upwards. That is the case here; although Dee might not be making the play on every difficult batted ball, he is at least getting to them. DRS melds range and errors into one component: Plus/Minus runs saved (rPM), which only focuses on whether the ball played was converted into an out or not. On the other hand, UZR separates errors and range; UZR calculates how many runs a player is worth by their range. It isn’t until the final calculation that error runs are added or subtracted from range runs. This accounts for the discrepancy in DRS and UZR.
The case in point is that to accurately account for Dee’s speed and range, it’s necessary to evaluate him by his UZR. There, he reigns supreme. Furthermore, UZR is used over DRS to calculate fielding runs for the fWAR equation. Thus, in terms of say-all-end-all defense, Dee is the most valuable fielding second baseman in the league.
To put the argument in perspective, consider the second-best second basemen in NL fielding runs, DJ LeMahieu. While Dee Gordon is completely average in terms of adding/costing his teams runs with his errors (0 ErrR), DJ LeMahieu is worth 4.6 whole runs according to his ability to avoid errors. He makes all of the plays he’s expected to make — that’s great right? Well let’s add some context: compared to Dee’s aforementioned sky high RngR of 4.8, LeMahieu is costing his team -1.9 runs due to his lack of range. While in his weaker category, Dee doesn’t actually cost the Marlins at all, LeMahieu’s range deficiency accounts for 1.9 runs the Rockies could have with an average second baseman.
This illustrates the point perfectly: if a batter squares a ball right up to DJ LeMahieu, chances are that he will make the play. You can probably say the same for Dee Gordon; he’s a Major Leaguer, so chances are he can field a routine ground ball. If the ball gets hit in the hole however, the situation changes. On one hand, LeMahieu will be hard pressed to exhibit such range. On the other hand, the numbers tell us that Dee Gordon is making it to said ball. If he makes the play, he gets credit, and that’s great. But if he doesn’t, he gets docked with an error on a hard-to-reach ground ball. Thus, the errors dragging down his DRS are related to his range. When we examine his range — in collaboration with his other attributes — in UZR, Dee is more than worthy of winning his second career Gold Glove.
As a lead-off hitter, it’s hard to pierce the leaderboards in attractive power categories such as SLG, OPS, and wOBA. It is the leadoff hitter’s job to set get on base and set up runs for the team, rather than drive them in. Thus, as far as metrics like wRC+ and Win Probability go, Dee’s game events are of comparatively lower weight than those of batting leaders like Daniel Murphy and DJ LeMahieu. With an ISO of .065 and a SLG of .372, the point is further illustrated that the majority of Dee’s hits are made up of singles.
If a leadoff hitter’s job is to get on base, Dee Gordon is doing his job this year. Compared to the league average on-base percentage of .325, Dee is getting on base at a clip of .344. That puts him at sixth in the National League among second basemen. However, a true testament to Dee Gordon’s hitting is his BABIP; this season, he actually owns the highest BABIP among NL second-basemen with .355. For comparison’s sake, league average BABIP is an even .300.
Recall that BABIP measures a player’s batting average for balls in play. It is a useful metric for adding context to players’ performances over short samples of time. A high BABIP shows that a player is either getting lucky, facing unchallenging pitching, hitting against inept defenses, or just actually hitting the crap out of the ball; a low BABIP will reflect the opposite.
Hypothetically, if Dee Gordon was sporting a .344 OBP with a high BABIP in just April, we could surmise that his success should be taken with a grain of salt; the numbers could very well be a product of a month of luckily facing bad defense or bad pitching. However, given a full season, you can eliminate some of the possibilities that accompany BABIP. Dee has played in 147 games this year. How many bad pitchers can Dee face over 147 games? How many bad defenses can Dee hit against in 147 games? Those alternatives get systematically eliminated as the sample size grows. The only conclusion we’re left with now is that Dee is quietly having an incredible hitting season for the Marlins.
As far as batted ball data and swing discipline metrics, Dee has made negligible changes across the board. However, his zone-swing percentage and swing-percentage are at career high’s, and he has seen more in the zone pitching this year than he has in any year before. Despite swinging more, Dee is striking out less than ever as well; his K-percentage of 13.5% is lower than his 2015 total. This could be the result of moving Stanton into the second spot in the order; although the concept of lineup protection is often debunked, it could ring true here that Dee is getting better pitching, in the interest of getting him out before pitching to Stanton.
Ultimately, the answer to Dee’s success may just be a maturation in his approach. Dee is at his best when he is punching ground balls through the infield and putting pressure on the defense. This may tailor in elements of luck and bad defense; even if Dee doesn’t get enough on a hit to get it past the defense, him sprinting down the line can cause any given infielder to botch a play. But this still isn’t a knock on Dee. Rather, his recognition that his job is to get on base however he can to let Stanton/Yelich/Ozuna drive him in is a comfort he can take to the plate with him. He knows that he doesn’t have to square up the perfect pitch to do his job; rather, if he can put the ball in play and make the defense squirm, he can find himself on first.
In the future, Dee could really benefit by tempering his plate discipline to draw more walks. Among NL second basemen, Dee ranks eighth in walks, and ninth in walk percentage and walk-to-strikeout ratio. To put this in perspective, Joe Panik trails Dee in batting average and BABIP by 20 points and 53 points, respectively. Still, because Joe Panik has the highest walk-to-strikeout ratio and walk percentage, he eclipses Dee’s OBP by 4 points. If Dee could hone in on that type of plate discipline, he could see MVP caliber on-base numbers, and drastically increase his value. After all, Dee may be his most valuable when he is in position to swipe a bag, which brings us to...
In the fWAR equation, Baserunning Runs (BsR) accounts for how many runs above average a player contributes by his endeavors running the bases, including stolen bases and getting caugh stealing. This year, with 7.9 runs, Dee Gordon ranks second in the NL in BsR, and fourth in the entire Major Leagues. As far as stolen bases, Flash has 55 this year — three bags behind Billy Hamilton, who has been sidelined since earlier this month, but may be waiting in the wings to return soon. Dee has stolen 55/69 for a success rate of about 80 percent; Hamilton, who is 58/68, sits at about 85 percent. Overall, Flash contributes 4.6 runs to the Marlins for his stealing success.
Counting just his baserunning outside of stolen bases, Dee has an Ultimate Baserunning value of 3.4 runs — good enough for eighth best in the Bigs, and third in the NL, behind Kris Bryant and Corey Seager.
Ok what do you guys want me to tell you? The dude can fly. His nickname is Flash, you guys. When Dee gets to first base, everyone knows he’s a threat to steal. And guess what, he’s still stealing bags at a B average. On any given ball, Dee can take an extra bag. His speed is a bona fide asset that makes him an absolute threat on the bases.
There’s no award we can give Dee Gordon for being arguably the best baserunner in the league. There’s no Silver Spikes or PF Flyers trophy to give him. That’s why the steals title matters. Dee set his personal season high for stolen bases in 2014, when he nabbed 64 bags. Although he might not break his own record, being able to put the 2017 steals trophy on our proverbial mantle next to Giancarlo Stanton’s home run belt would definitely add some feel-good to the Marlins’ season.
Despite his across-the-board consistency, Dee Gordon racks up an fWAR of 3.0, good enough for 25th in the National League. On the Marlins, Dee’s fWAR sneaks him just into the top 5, behind the Big Three Outfielders and JT Realmuto.
Currently, Dee Gordon is in the second year of a five-year deal with the Marlins, with an option available for 2021. The $50 million deal pays Dee an average of $10 million a year. Referring back to my article on surplus value, if we value a win at $9 million, Dee owes the team 1.11 wins a year and 5.55 wins over the course of the contract for the Marlins to get the benefit of their bargain. Inserting Dee’s numbers, the Marlins are currently reaping a surplus value of approximately $17 million this year, and $49.23 million on his contract as a whole.
Although Dee’s name has been amongst the many thrown around in trade rumors this season, it’s clear that trading Dee would be a mistake. He is currently with the Marlins on an incredibly lucrative contract. With a box full of tools at his disposal, Dee is likely to find similar success in the coming years, only increasing his surplus value.
Ultimately, Dee plays a larger role than dollars and cents — a role that can’t be measured by any tangible stats. He is very much the resilient soul of the Marlins. 2016 was a reality check for Dee Gordon. For most players, compounding an embarrassing suspension with the horrific tragedy of losing a best friend can be career-crippling. That hasn’t been the case with Dee. Instead, Dee has risen to the foreground and has led this team all year. From the first at-bat in every game, to the last fist bump, Dee has been a team player.
I’m not sure if you can win a Comeback Player of the Year award for coming back from being suspended for PED’s. However, if you could, I would submit that Dee Gordon is most deserving of said award.
Statistics courtesy of Fangraphs.com
Statistics current as of 9/20/2017