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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.