Perhaps Dee Gordon Was Out of Position Until Now

PEORIA, Ariz. — Dee Gordon is in demand.

On a Tuesday morning, the slight 29-year-old enters the Mariners’ spring clubhouse wearing a black T-shirt, sweats, and — after exchanging words with teammates en route to his locker — a grin, as well. Before even having an opportunity to shed his street clothes, though, he’s pulled away by a Mariners public-relations staffer. Given a cell phone, he’s ushered out of the clubhouse. The reason: a radio request he has agreed to fulfill. He returns some 20 minutes later and, almost immediately, another reporter — this very FanGraphs dot com employee — intercepts him.

After spending the last three years in Miami, Gordon is not accustomed to regular media attention. But he’s a man of interest this spring because the Mariners are asking him to change positions. He was not caught off guard by the move: Marlins executive Michael Hill had alerted Gordon to the possibility of the trade and position change several weeks before the deal was finalized. And when he returned from a trip to the Dominican Republic in early December, Gordon was awoken by a call informing him he was traded. Mariners GM Jerry Dipoto then called to talk about the position change.

“I wanted to stay in the infield. Anytime you are a Gold Glover somewhere… you wouldn’t want to move,” Gordon says. “But it’s about winning. I just want to help these guys win.”

Gordon has said the right things. One reason this has perhaps been easier to accept is the presence of Robinson Cano. While speaking with FanGraphs, Gordon nods towards Cano across the quiet clubhouse, as if to acknowledge that he cannot expect to supplant such a talent at the position

But there is another motivation behind the Mariners’ acquisition of Gordon and subsequent position change — namely, that Gordon might actually just be a better fit in center. That might seem like a strange assertion to make about a player who has established himself as an above-average defender at second by most measures. But consider the company he’s kept: Gordon was the fourth fastest player in the majors last year, according to Statcast. The three players ranked above him were all elite or above-average center fielders.

Fastest MLB Players, 2017
Rank Player Sprint Speed (ft/sec)
1 Byron Buxton 30.2
2 Billy Hamilton 30.1
3 Bradley Zimmer 29.9
4 Dee Gordon 29.7
5 Amed Rosario 29.6
6t Raimel Tapia 29.5
6t Keon Broxton 29.5
6t Franchy Cordero 29.5
SOURCE: Statcast

Maybe Gordon has been playing out of positions for years.

When this reporter notes the speed-related data, Gordon scoffs. “I don’t believe that,” he says. “I don’t believe that Statcast. Someone, for real, made that up. Someone who cannot run made up that stat.”

What? Doesn’t Gordon believe a measure that verifies his speed?

Actually, that’s not his point at all. Gordon clarifies: “I’m faster than everybody.”

Whether he’s definitely the fastest or not, Gordon is certainly among the fastest players in the game. In an era defined, in part, by the defensive shift — a strategy that hypothetically renders infields even more efficient — range is likely even less important for players on the right side of the infield. It’s harder to mask athletic deficiencies in the outfield — and speed is important in center field at Safeco Field, backing a pitching staff that ranked 29th in ground-ball rate (40.3%) last season. Gordon was a three-win player last season and nearly a five-win player in 2016. He could be even more valuable in center — if he can make the transition.

***

The work begins early, just after sunrise, on the backfields of the Mariners’ complex in northwest Phoenix. The field is surrounded by chainlink fence, the outlying rings of strip malls, and the Phoenix Mountains.

There, Mariners outfield coach Chris Prieto tests Gordon every way imaginable. He lobs balls over his head to force him straight back, and back to his left and right.

In this quiet, private environment, he sends line drives directly at Gordon, then over him. Then there are fungoes to test his range to his right and left. While Gordon can run in a straight line, he needs precise routes, correct first steps. Then they go through throwing drills — to second, to third, to home. The pair work on one-hop throws, accuracy.

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“Nothing has been easy about this at all.” Gordon says. “Nothing. But I’m getting better at it every day.”

Jerry Dipoto has relayed to our own David Laurila that the team was encouraged by Statcast data. But Gordon still has to prove it.

“He has the athletic skillset, for sure,” Prieto tells me when I ask about that process. “There’s no doubt in my mind he can make himself a good center fielder. I would say the ball right at him, over his head, coming in… getting the read [is a challenge]. Balls in the gaps, his speed comes into play and [he] reads the ball off the bat really well.

“With our analytics… I can get any type of number I want: jumps, his [quickness]. He has really good feet. He’s quick.”

While Gordon was reluctant to leave the infield — he’s never played anywhere else — he does believe it’s more difficult to stand out at second base defensively. “You don’t get any defensive runs saved [DRS] at second,” Gordon notes. “It’s hard to get a lot of stats at second.”

There is perhaps something to this. Measuring defense is, of course, a messy enterprise. Last season, the top-rated second baseman, according to DRS, was DJ LeMahieu (+8). He ranked 33rd in the game by the metric. Ground balls and liners that are hit into a shifted lineup are not included for individual plays in UZR and DRS calculations.

So as shifted plays have increased over the last decade, there have been fewer chances for a second baseman to separate himself. Moreover, if more batters successfully trade ground balls for air balls, positional adjustments might need to be rethought in this high-strikeout, launch-angle era — and center fielders could perhaps gain in importance.

Last season, Buxton, Jackie Bradley Jr., and Kevin Pillar ranked in the top 27 of DRS.

The following are Gordon’s DRS scores from the last four seasons at second base: -5, 13, 1 and 3. In 4,462.2 innings at second, he has 13 DRS. In 4,337.2 innings in center, meanwhile, Hamilton has 47 DRS. Buxton has accumulated 31 DRS in 2,243.2 innings of center-field play.

If Gordon can play center anywhere near the level of Hamilton — a former shortstop — Gordon could be elite at the position. And in this modern age of baseball, Gordon is going to have some help.

***

As I talk with Gordon, Prieto approaches us and hands Gordon what has become a common piece of information in a major-league clubhouse: a printed sheet of color-coded density charts detailing opponents’ batted-ball tendencies and recommended positioning for each opposing hitter.

“I don’t know where to stand unless he tells me,” Gordon says.

Gordon does not have to memorize positional assignments, though: Prieto says smaller cards will be issued for their outfielders that they can stick in their back pocket for reference during games.

“We’ll have cards. They’ll be able to carry cards in their back pocket and look to see,” Prieto says. “I anticipate that I won’t have to move them a lot.”

Prieto says that, as Gordon becomes more comfortable in center field, the Mariners will likely become more aggressive in their positioning with him.

“I think it’s comfort level for him. As soon as he feels comfortable enough to go back on balls, we’ll move him in,” Prieto said. “As he gets better reading balls at him, then, yeah, we’ll try and move him in and cover more ground balls back. We have some fly-ball pitchers on our staff. He’s going to come into play a lot.”

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A Cleveland native, FanGraphs writer Travis Sawchik is the author of the New York Times bestselling book, Big Data Baseball. He also contributes to The Athletic Cleveland, and has written for the Pittsburgh Tribune-Review, among other outlets. Follow him on Twitter @Travis_Sawchik.

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Craig Tyle
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Craig Tyle

Very interesting. This suggests that outfield defense has perhaps become more important than infield defense. It would be interesting to, say, examine the variance among teams for infield vs. outfield DRS, and maybe compare to earlier seasons.

Kevbot034
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Kevbot034

If this is true, then are we wrong to still be measuring RF and LF defensive stats the way we do? And might we be overrating SS?

RonnieDobbs
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RonnieDobbs

Its all arbitrary. That will never change.

Jim
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Jim

At the SABR analytics conference in Phoenix last weekend, a Sports Info Solutions rep said that beginning this season hitting into a shift will be included in the defensive numbers.

Hughes
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Hughes

It’ll be interesting to see what that change brings.

We’re also in an era where batters are trying to put more balls over the infielders, which should shift some of the total value towards outfield defense.

I know the Jays OF defense looks a lot better this year subbing Bautista and Carerra for Grichuk and Granderson (plus maybe one of our young guys who can all play CF).

RonnieDobbs
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RonnieDobbs

There is not even a remote chance that outfield is more important than infield, I do agree with your take though.