Weighing Dee Gordon

Dee Gordon is the skinniest baseball player I have ever seen. The revelation was one of my most profound at this year’s Futures Game, which might tell you a few things: a) I am not a scout, and b) Dee Gordon is really skinny. I’ve searched for the best image evidence I can find — try here or here — but it’s really something that must be seen to be believed. Someone pointed out to me that Eric Davis was probably that skinny, but Eric Davis was also 6-foot-2. He had room to, and eventually did, put on some weight. Gordon is listed at 5-11, and at best, could probably push his generous listing to 160 pounds if he packs on 10 pounds of muscle over the next decade. And even then, he’ll probably actually weigh about 140.

The probably-shouldn’t-have-taken-me-this-long revelation has since really altered the way I thought about Gordon as a prospect. In the offseason, it seemed that Gordon was talked about in prospect circles in the same neighborhood as Starlin Castro. With the value of hindsight on my side, I needed to think about the comparison more thoroughly. It’s important to put Gordon’s size into context.

Since 1990, Baseball-Reference finds 131 player seasons in which a player listed at-or-below 160 pounds qualified for the batting title. It appears some of those listings — like 1999 Deivi Cruz — were generous, but we’ll run with it. After tallying these 131 seasons, I found that, cumulatively, this lightweight division hit .278/.346/.386, which would put their wOBA in the .320′s and their wRAA at a few runs below league average. Their BABIP was .305, and as a group, they stole 2602 bases in 3,620 chances, a success rate of 71.9%. Certainly not too far from the 72.6 mark that Gordon was at this season in the Southern League.

The numbers don’t actually seem terrible, but it’s important to look at upside here. Only 21 player seasons had a slugging percentage above .440, and in that group, 12 of them stole fewer than 15 bases in their season of work. Players like the aged versions of Lou Whitaker and Tony Phillips aren’t good comps for Gordon, and neither are players like Deivi Cruz, Shane Halter, or the bulked-up version of Juan Encarnacion (did the Tigers only scout skinny players from 1980-2000?). Speed is the name of Gordon’s game — he has swiped 144 bases in 324 minor league games — and it should hold true for players to whom we are comparing him. Therefore, I chopped off the 72 player seasons in which the player didn’t steal more than 15 (arbitrary number alert! Selection bias understood!) bases.

Surprisingly, when we take out that group, the numbers improve. The 59 player seasons remaining hit .288/.355/.387, the bump due to an increase in BABIP, which moved up to .316. It should also be mentioned that this group stole bases at a 74.9% clip. Peripherally, they averaged a strikeout rate of 12.0%, and a walk rate of 9.1% versus Gordon’s career minor league rates of 16.0% and 6.5%, respectively. There is clearly work to be done in those columns for the young Dodgers shortstop.

The problem with this group, in my eyes, is one of potential. Considering that Gordon does not possess, nor profile to possess, any power to speak of, he’s not going to have seasons like Lenny Dykstra in 1993, Julio Franco in 1991, or Damion Easley in 1997. The literal ceiling for a player with his skillset is Lance Johnson in 1996: .333/.362/.479, good for a .369 wOBA, and, with +17 runs on defense, a 6.5 WAR. And this is from a guy with a career strikeout rate of 7.1%. For what it’s worth, here are the players that had 3 or more seasons that fit my criteria (1990-2010, </= 160 pounds, more than 15 steals, qualified for batting title) — and next to the number of seasons are their corresponding WAR numbers for those seasons:

Bip Roberts – 3 seasons (5.3, 5.0, 1.7)
Brett Butler – 6 seasons (4.9, 4.9, 5.0, 1.9, 3.4, 1.0)
Jose Offerman – 5 seasons (0.9, 1.5, 2.5, 5.0, 2.8)
Juan Encarnacion – 4 seasons (1.6, 1.2, 2.5, 1.2)
Lance Johnson – 7 seasons (2.0, 3.2, 3.9, 5.1, 1.5, 3.4, 6.5)
Luis Polonia – 4 seasons (2.1, 0.6, -2.3, 0.8)
Ozzie Smith – 4 seasons (3.3, 5.4, 2.7)
Tim Raines – 3 seasons (2.8, 3.3, 6.1)
Tony Womack – 7 seasons (-0.6, 1.0, 1.0, 0.2, 1.4, 0.5, 2.5)

After I saw Gordon in the Futures Game, I wondered what his “perfect world projection” could possibly be. I’ll tell you what: it’s explained somewhere in the players above. But while there are 10 seasons with 4.9 WAR or more, there are also 18 seasons with 1.9 WAR or below. The median strikes a balance at about 2.5 wins above replacement. This is how it is for skinny players — some good upside if you walk a lot (Butler, Raines), strike out a little (Johnson, Roberts), or play defense really well (Smith, Johnson). But if you don’t succeed in those areas, preferably more than one, performance potential slips fast.

And if this article is guilty of selection bias, it also ignores the much larger sample of sub-160 pound players that never qualified for a batting title, and didn’t make a splash in the Major Leagues. Gordon is facing an undeniable up-hill climb, but admittedly, it’s a little more paved than I previously thought. I refuse to be as bullish as other outlets until Gordon’s peripherals improve, but I don’t want to be guilty of overrating just how much size matters.




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32 Responses to “Weighing Dee Gordon”

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  1. Mike Green says:

    It’s not weight that troubles me about Gordon. If Gordon had any chance to be the second coming of Ozzie Smith, that would be good enough. The problem is that he has nowhere near Smith’s defensive ability, and by age 22, Smith was already posting a positive W/K and continued to do so for his entire career, whereas Gordon strikes out about twice as often as he walks.

    Hell, even Lance Johnson walked more than he struck out in the minor leagues.

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    • Bryan Smith says:

      Right (and said more succinctly than I did in the piece). He’s much more a slightly better defensive version of Tony Womack than a slightly worse defensive version of Ozzie Smith.

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    • jar75 says:

      We also have to keep in mind that Gordon was a late convert to baseball and is still considered exceedingly raw in all phases of his game. The fact that he held his own while skipping high-A can only be seen as a positive to me.

      With the amount of range that Gordon supposedly has, I do think he can be an elite defensive SS in time. Power will never be his game, but I like the rest of the package enough to be on board.

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  2. regfairfield says:

    “This is how it is for skinny players — some good upside if you walk a lot (Butler, Raines), strike out a little (Johnson, Roberts), or play defense really well (Smith, Johnson). But if you don’t succeed in those areas, preferably more than one, performance potential slips fast.”

    Isn’t this true for any one without power, no matter how fat you are?

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    • Bryan Smith says:

      Ha, fair point. Although looking at this sample, we’re talking about a lot of guys with NO power. Heavier people have a better chance of profiling to hit for some.

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  3. MikeS says:

    How about Alexei Ramirez? He’s listed at 6’2″, 170 lbs. And the 170 is probably a little generous.

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  4. fjkagreklg says:

    “He had room, and eventually did, to put on some weight.”

    lrn2 English.

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  5. Doug Gray says:

    When I first saw Dee Gordon early last season in Dayton, I simply couldn’t believe that he was considered such a touted prospect because of how small his frame was. Like you, I am no (paid) scout, but I try to play one on tv (or something like that). Since that day I have been pretty down on Gordon compared to the majority, but I just can’t see a guy that small, turning into a good major leaguer. He is never going to hit even 5 HR’s in a season and it is incredibly difficult to be a productive player with such a low offensive output in HR’s. The guy is really fast and his bat speed is fine, but his size is severely going to limit the hitter he can be. Pitchers are likely going to figure out quickly that he can’t hurt them with the long ball and will throw him strikes. At that point, his walks are likely to dry up. Then he is going to have to rely on being a high average guy.

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    • wobatus says:

      Yeah, i recall you posting this line of thought on minorleagueball. Brett Butler walked 108 times one season when he only hit 2 homers, so it isn’t impossible to work walks even when you have no power. Maybe that’s cherry picking, but he was one of the skinny dudes mentioned in the article.

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  6. MSTI says:

    According to Twitter, Bryan, Dee himself is actually reading this article. First of all, congrats; second, if he shows up for camp next year completely weighed down with muscle to the point where his agility is gone, we’ll all know where to turn.

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    • Bryan Smith says:

      Cheers to the power of Twitter.

      And as I just tweeted to Dee: one commonality of all the players mentioned in this article is they were all incredibly fun to watch play. That, at the very least, is the floor of his projection.

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  7. TK says:

    I guess I’ll ask the question: even if he’s not a very good pro, does he have a chance to be an asset in fantasy? If he sticks at SS and produces 50-60 SB, even if it’s alongside 0 HR, that’s pretty big in my format (I’m in a points league, so a low BA wouldn’t be anchor).

    FWIW, Juan Pierre’s season this year (270/335/315, 1 HR, 63 SB) would be the 4th highest total at SS. If that’s Gordon’s ceiling, I’m on board with two feet.

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    • Bryan Smith says:

      He should stick at shortstop, and that Pierre season is easily within range. I do think Gordon will be an asset to fantasy players, as Womack once was.

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      • TK says:

        Thanks. I had to check just how many SB Tony Womack used to generate, and it was well beyond my expectations.

        Anyway, appreciate the response.

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  8. gnomez says:

    Have you seen Mike MacDougal lately? The man looks like a bearded Nicole Ritchie.

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  9. hairball says:

    This reminds me of the Lincecum debate, and despite Tim’s troubles for a portion of this year, he’s pretty much brought shame upon the house of “size matters”.

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  10. Rally says:

    Those listed weights are very suspect. No way was Tim Raines 160 pounds. Maybe he was when he signed a pro contract, but certainly never in his MLB career. You don’t get called “Rock” when you are skinny. “Stick” maybe, but not “Rock”.

    Encarnacion is another one where the listed weight was probably as of his signing day.

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    • Bryan Smith says:

      Right. And I point this out in the piece. Sammy Sosa was listed at 165 for a lot of those seasons with the Cubs, for God’s sake.

      And this only serves to further limit the number of players that make sense to compare to Gordon.

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    • skippyballer486 says:

      Wasn’t he (Raines) called “Rock” because of all the crack rock he smoked? I’d heard that somewhere . . . possibly firejoemorgan.com.

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  11. Wilsonian Democracy says:

    Excellent analysis, Bryan. Dude seems skilled, and I’ll be damned if he ain’t fast, but there seems to be only so much there in terms of potential outcome.

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  12. Andrew says:

    What is with baseball-reference and their weights for players? THEY HAVE SAMMY SOSA LISTED AT 165 lbs

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  13. Michael says:

    A conversation about skinny ballplayers with no mention of Otis Nixon? That guy was seriously skinny, but he could fly.

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  14. Mike Green says:

    Rally,

    When Rock Raines was young, he was wiry and 5’9″. He wouldn’t have been much more than 160. But, he was in the Show by the time he was 21 and with an IsoP over .130 at that stage.

    If you Google image search him, you’ll find a picture or two of him at that stage of his career.

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  15. Kristian says:

    I think Dee Gordon is the best baseball player ever. He is my mentor and friend.

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