Dee Gordon And Winning A Spring Battle

If it seems like we’ve written about the Dodgers second base competition a lot this offseason, it’s because we have. Two months ago, I looked into the questionable depth the team had at the position; a few weeks ago, Eno Sarris revisited the situation to see whether it would present a problem. Now, barely more than a week before the team kicks off the season in Australia, there appears to be a winner, at least if you believe this beat writer or that one or that one, and it’s not $28 million Cuban import Alexander Guerrero: it’s former shortstop Dee Gordon, who has 3.2 career innings at the position.

Yes, that Dee Gordon, the one who has been one of the worst players in baseball on both sides of the ball over the last three seasons, and the same one who essentially lost his job to Nick Punto last season when the team decided it could no longer stomach him at shortstop during Hanley Ramirez‘ semi-regular absences. Since the Dodgers have a payroll of something like $750 billion, and Gordon has been so inadequate in his career, the fact that this might be the best they can do at second base is obviously a bit shocking. Jeff Sullivan called it “incredible” in his chat yesterday; Dave Cameron had a similar reaction in his podcast appearance. I’ve talked about it some at my site. Now we share it with you.

Those reactions aren’t at all unfair, because despite how much was was made of Gordon’s work to bulk up his skinny frame this winter and his perfect eight-for-eight in stolen bases this spring, he’s still hit just .185/.267/.333 to date. He hasn’t hit at all in his career, which cost him a big league job; now he hasn’t hit at all in the spring, and he’s somehow winning a big league job, for a very good team. Though the defensive transition seems to be going nicely, this simple yet extremely important fact seems to go unnoticed by those praising him for his spring.

Now right there, the obvious reply is, “wait, you’re not really quoting spring stats, especially after just explaining away Sergio Romo‘s terrible ERA on Monday, right,” and you’d be absolutely correct. In fact, manager Don Mattingly agrees, as told to Bill Plunkett of the Orange County Register:

“Honestly, I don’t know when it started. But nobody used to even look at stats,” Mattingly said. “It was more about how a guy was swinging. Guys were coming to get ready. And there were guys who knew they had to impress right away. For the most part, spring in the past has been to get ready. So I’m trying to look at at-bats. I’m looking at bat speed, different things like that. I don’t even know who’s doing what stat-wise.”

While it’s maybe a bit hard to believe that a major league manager has absolutely no idea about the stats, it’s an admirable position. So then: what has he seen out of Gordon to believe in him? The steals have been great and the defense has been an improvement — not that it could have been as bad as it was at shortstop — but in 30 plate appearances, Gordon has only five hits and three walks, and just about none of them have come off of pitchers you’d consider top quality:

  • 2/28 (BB): Omar Poveda (eight-year MiLB vet; once traded for Jorge Cantu)
  • 3/1: Kevin Shackelford (split 2013 between Single-A & Double-A for Milwaukee)
  • 3/2: Kevin Quackenbush (reached Triple-A for San Diego in 2013)
  • 3/3: A.J. Griffin (solid Oakland starter)
  • 3/5 (BB): Jeff Francis (five straight seasons with an ERA north of 4.82; had allowed a grand slam to Guerrero earlier in the inning)
  • 3/7 (BB): Michael Kirkman (4.9 BB/9 in MiLB career; 5.17 ERA in 101 MLB innings)
  • 3/8: Andrew Carraway (27-year-old with 6.0 K/9 in 230 Triple-A innings)
  • 3/8: Blake Beavan (replacement-level in nearly 300 MLB innings; referred to by Michael Barr in FanGraphs+ as owning “one of the league’s saddest strikeout rates.”)

Griffin’s got a major league career, potentially a bright one if he can get his homer problem under control. Quackenbush might, if you really squint hard enough. But that’s it. The rest are either never-weres or probably-won’t-be’s, and so far those are the only ones Gordon’s been able to manage to get on base off of. Also of note: of the five hits, three made it to the outfield. One was an infield grounder that he beat out, and one was an admittedly very nice bunt single: 

gordon_2014-03-01-mil-bunt

So this seems like a problem. Not that 30 spring plate appearances are enough to base meaningful opinions on, but to date there isn’t much to refute what we previously knew about Gordon based on the 669 major league plate appearances he’s already had. We’re seeing a player who has rarely performed at the plate in the big leagues doing not a whole lot to change that perception.

What that means is that despite what’s being said, this is less about Gordon winning the job, and more about Guerrero needing some time. It’s a meaningful distinction, but an important one. Though it will be portrayed as a massive failure if and when Guerrero heads off to the minors, do remember that Yasiel Puig spent two months in the minors last year after having hardly played over the previous year, and he was far more impressive in spring training than Guerrero has been. In the history of the Dodgers, no position player has ever jumped straight to the bigs without some minor league time, and while Guerrero clearly isn’t your normal prospect, it was probably never realistic to expect him to have been the first.

So Gordon it is, which is probably preferable to Justin Turner or Chone Figgins (though not, most likely, to Mark Ellis, who had his option declined last fall.) And really, if any team can afford to do this, it probably is the Dodgers. Our current projections have them as a seven-game favorite over the Giants, who are dealing with their own second base issues in the sense that Marco Scutaro is 38 and hasn’t yet played this spring due to a sore back. PECOTA has the difference at a massive 11 wins. That doesn’t mean the Dodgers can simply start coasting in March, but it does mean that they’re likely to have enough breathing room to be able to spend a few weeks with Gordon at second base. If he flops badly, then replacement-fodder like Turner can step in until Guerrero is ready; it’s difficult to see the Dodgers letting Gordon hang on long enough to cost them more than 0.5 or 1.0 win if he’s really struggling.

Besides, if anything, people tend to put too much stock into what the 25-man roster is on Opening Day. Last year, Luis Cruz and Justin Sellers were in the Opening Day lineup for the Dodgers. Neither lasted long. Over the course of the season, 49 different players floated through the 25-man roster, and it worked out pretty well. This isn’t some sort of static construct that can never change. That Gordon appears to have won the job right now doesn’t at all mean that he’s won it for the season; he’ll need to keep on proving it, and it’s more than likely that at some point sooner than later, he won’t be the starting second baseman. Guerrero will.

If Gordon can play well enough to convince the team he’s worth keeping around as a utility player by that point, or to make himself mildly valuable as a trade asset, then that’s a win. If he can’t, then his career is stuck in the same holding pattern it’s been in. None of this is ideal for the Dodgers, who really should have planned ahead a little better here. They didn’t, so here they are. While the idea of “Dee Gordon, Starting Second Baseman On Baseball’s Most Expensive Team” sounds bad,  it’s not the end of the world. It’s just a less-than-optimal setup for a team in a particularly favorable situation to take that kind of hit. It’s better, anyway, than going into panic mode and trying to get Brandon Phillips out of Cincinnati.




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Mike Petriello lives in New York and writes about the Dodgers daily at Dodgers Digest, as well as contributing to ESPN Insider. He wrote two chapters in the 2014 Hardball Times Annual as well as building The Hardball Times and TechGraphs, and was an editorial producer at Sports on Earth. Find him at @mike_petriello.


23 Responses to “Dee Gordon And Winning A Spring Battle”

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  1. mcbrown says:

    Just to play devil’s advocate: If you take Mattingly at his word, it doesn’t make sense to look at Gordon’s 5 hits without looking at his 3 walks and 22 outs – without looking at every PA, really. Ok, his hits aren’t that impressive. What if a bunch of his outs are hard hit balls? What if he has really been working the count well (as the three walks might suggest)?

    I.e., if you’re focusing on the process, then look at the WHOLE process, not a selective sampling of the process.

    And yes, I can’t believe I’m lining up with Mattingly as a process-over-results guy.

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    • Mike Petriello says:

      That’s a fair point, and one I had meant to include a line referencing. Apparently, I neglected to. That said, it’s not like he’s been destroying line drives to the first baseman every other time.

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  2. Swfcdan says:

    Worth a late flyer in our drafts?

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    • Travis L says:

      I’ve already drafted but am going to swap him for a SP who I will DL. I anticipate he’ll contribute a .200/.250/.250 line with 10 SB in April or so before getting demoted.

      IMO, 10 SB is hugely valuable over that period, whereas his slash line won’t affect my results. Cheap steals are the way to go!

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  3. stan says:

    Isn’t he still a better gamble than Billy Hamilton though? It’s less of a position switch and he’s shown to be a better hitter in the minors than Hamilton. He’s less of a baserunning threat than Hamilton (who isn’t?) but he’s still unquestionably elite in that area, so is this such a bad thing?

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    • Iron says:

      I think this comment just shows how far the Billy Hamilton pendulum has swung. Sure, a few people get too excited about him, but the backlash against that extending to considering Dee Gordon a better gamble is ridiculous.

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      • stan says:

        Why is it ridiculous? Hamilton’s slash lines in the minors are 278/340/360 (2011), 306/410/410 (2012) and 256/308/343 (2013). Gordon’s slash lines are 333/373/410 (2011), 228/280/281 (2012, in the majors), 297/385/390 (2013). Gordon’s one year older, so not much separation there. Gordon’s walk rate is consistently better and it seems like he’s changed his body so that he can hit with more authority. That makes him a better gamble, though he’s “only” guaranteed to get you 50 steals if he plays regularly whereas Hamilton is guaranteed to get you 75.

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        • Iron says:

          1) Gordon is almost three years older ( 4/22/88 vs. 9/9/90).

          2) You give Gordon’s minor league numbers, but he has three years in the majors showing no ability to hit. His minor league numbers don’t much matter that this point.

          3) Look at their Steamer/ZIPS/Etc. projections. They don’t support your argument.

          4) At this point Gordon has little ceiling left. Hamilton’s floor is probably close to Gordon’s actual performance over the last few years and his ceiling is much higher.

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        • stan says:

          635/599/681 v. 615/619/618 are the Steamer/Oliver/Zips OPS projections for the two. That means that even before Gordon got stronger over the winter, they weren’t all that different in projection.

          Gordon has all of 669 major league at bats that you’re calling “three years of major league experience”.

          Dee Gordon is all of 25 years old, and you’re saying he has no projection left?

          I can only guess that you’re a Reds fan and are hoping against hope that Hamilton will make it, since the Reds’ season is really riding on him. Frankly that’s the only thing he has in his favor, since the Dodgers won’t stick with Gordon long if he can’t show that the improvement is real.

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        • Iron says:

          No, I don’t think Hamilton is necessarily going to ‘make it’ or be great. Just that Gordon is even less, much less, likely to do so.

          There is a reason Gordon will be available after the fantasy drafts, and it isn’t because he projects to have success.

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        • stan says:

          The reason Gordon will likely be drafted after Hamilton is that baseball fans are constantly enamored with the brand new shiny rookie, just like they were when Gordon got drafted highly two years ago. However, those same fans also tend to write off guys if they don’t make it right away, which is why smart owners will win their leagues after passing on Hamilton and drafting Gordon 10 rounds later.
          Did you happen to see Howard Bender’s bold prediction #1, posted today?

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        • jpg says:

          Well the slash lines for Hamilton are all marginally more impressive because he, as Iron points out, is three years younger which is a major point in his favor. Gordon is a dreadful defensive shortstop and might be a passable defender at second. Based on every report I’ve read, Hamilton has a terrific arm, otherworldly range and has adapted so well to CF that many project plus defense immediately with the potential for plus-plus defense in the near future. Hamilton has a career 10.5 BB% in the minors whereas Gordon’s is roughly half of that number and has only shown the ability to takes walks in the last year.Gordon’s improvement there might be real but his track record is what is. Lastly, Gordon one elite skill is his base stealing and Hamilton has him, and every other human being, beat pretty soundly. Saying Gordon is the safer bet is indeed ridiculous.

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        • Iron says:

          There’s a reason Howard’s prediction was ‘bold’. As he explains, it is very unlikely to happen.

          I am not enamored of Hamilton, as I pointed out some are way too excited about him and he will be drafted higher than I would or he probably deserves. That said, nobody (other than you, seemingly) is enamored of Gordon and with very good reason.

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        • stan says:

          Gordon is 2 years, 5 months older than Hamilton.

          Hamilton’s projected walk rate for this year according to steamer/ oliver/ zips is 7.1/5.7/7.4
          Gordon’s is 7.1/ 8.2/6.4

          Hamilton’s walk rate in the minors is 9.5%

          The outfield projections for Hamilton have ranged from “adequate” to “plus”. You both are very obviously only reading the positive scouting reports on him. I guess you weren’t baseball fans long enough ago to recognize that Gordon was an even more highly touted prospect just two years ago and may have just now put it together.

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        • Iron says:

          It’s not impossible the Gordon has ‘put it together’ and if so he will be a steal for somebody who picks him up undrafted or in the final rounds. But that still doesn’t make him a safer bet. He’s still projected for half of Hamilton’s steals and less than half of Hamilton’s WAR. Anyway, good luck, and we’ll just see how it goes.

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        • jpg says:

          Well if Hamilton’s defensive floor is adequate and Gordon’s defensive ceiling is adequate than it’s pretty clear Hamilton gets the edge. Everyone concedes that Hamilton is in a class by himself on the base baths. That’s two out of three facets of the game where Hamilton is either clearly better or at least strongly projects to be better. Oh and those happen to be the only two facets that Gordon has a chance to provide provide any kind of positive value. Gordon’s only chance to make up ground is with the bat…good luck with that.

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    • Stan Kasten says:

      Dee Gordon is the worst player in major league baseball. Chone Figgins would be a better gamble, seeing as how he could once play.

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    • Travis L says:

      Given that Hamilton is regularly picked in round 5, whereas Gordon goes undrafted, YES. You are correct. Payoff is similar (700 OPS, 50 SB), amount wagered is hugely different.

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      • Iron says:

        If you make the statement that Player X is a safer bet than player Y, then you either must be talking about raw output or specify the context of which round each player is to be taken.

        Is taking Dee Gordon off the waiver wire a safer bet than drafting Billy Hamilton in round X? Depends on the value of X. I saw nothing in Stan’s argument that implied that Gordon’s value came in a later draft status and lots of belief that Gordon would just outperform Hamilton. Which isn’t impossible of course, just not likely.

        And according to steamer, Gordon projects to 19 SB; zips has him at 41. They have Hamilton at 67/68. That is not a similar projection. (If you want to count it as a rate stat and ignore projected total plate appearances, which is fair, the difference is 0.075 SB/PA vs 0.12 SB/PA which is still a pretty large difference).

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  4. Scrap Irony says:

    “I can only guess that you’re a Reds fan and are hoping against hope that Hamilton will make it, since the Reds’ season is really riding on him. Frankly that’s the only thing he has in his favor, since the Dodgers won’t stick with Gordon long if he can’t show that the improvement is real.”

    Baseball is a phenomenal game largely because of arguments like the one above. But comments like the one above are fallacious at best and dishonest at worst. Discuss the argument, not the poster.

    As to the argument of Hamilton v. Gordon, ZiPs, Oliver, and Steamer project Gordon at a 76 wRC+. They project Hamilton at 76 wRC+. When you add the projections of Hamilton as a far better defensive player and far more valuable base runner, the evidence is clear: Hamilton is, by far, the better bet.

    Not only is he likely to add significant WAR in secondary skills, he also has higher upside (if only because he’s significantly younger and less likely to get benched).

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    • Bip says:

      I think people are ignoring the fact that Hamilton may be basically unplayable at the plate. Given that his minor league hitting numbers were no better than Gordon’s, and that Gordon has been basically unplayable at the plate, it certainly looks like Hamilton has a significant risk of having the same outcome.

      That said, I agree, there is no good reason to think that Hamilton will be worse than Gordon. Even if Gordon hits a little better – which is plausible to me due to having more MLB experience – his defense to this point has been about as bad as it gets, and his base-running instincts are below average as well. In other words, Gordon will face an uphill battle to even get over replacement level.

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  5. DK Dodgers says:

    This article and these comments are especially amusing six weeks into the season as Gordon is simply fulfilling his projections from 3 years ago. Sure, he under-performed in parts of 3 seasons before 2014, but he had never been on an active MLB roster for a full season before now. I published an article on Gordon on dodgersbeat dot com a full month before this one and reached a completely contrary conclusion.

    http://www.dodgersbeat.com/dee-gordon-deserves-a-fair-shot-to-win-the-dodgers-starting-second-base-job/

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