Can Dee Gordon Play Center Field?

Yesterday, The Marlins traded Dee Gordon to the Mariners for three minor league prospects. The trade came out of nowhere since the Mariners already rostered a top second baseman, Robinson Cano. Then it became known that Mariners plan on playing Gordon in centerfield. Having both middle infield and outfield qualifications a couple weeks into the season could move up his average draft position. The question remains though, will Gordon be able to cut in centerfield? Probably.

Gordon’s offensive talent is easy to access. The 29-year-old makes a ton of groundball contact and gets on first base using his speed. Once on base, he uses those legs to steal as many bases as possible. That’s it.

Now, some context questions do come up with the move to the Mariners.

  • Will he still bat at the top of the lineup and get the extra plate appearances and chances to be driven in? Most likely unless he struggles to hit and needs to move down the lineup.
  • Will the Mariners continue to allow him to steal at every opportunity? I think so. He had a 79% success rate last season.
  • Will he score 100+ runs like last season? I’m going with no. The Marlins had an elite top of the lineup and I will go with 90 Runs scored for now. Who knows what the Mariners lineup will look like next week.

His offensive talent is not in question but can he play centerfield for the Mariners? While defense is usually not a fantasy stat, it does determine his playing time and position eligibility.

The short answer is probably but it’s about impossible to tell. The problem is that one hitter has made the transition from being a full-time second baseman to full-time centerfield (since 1955 and a minimum 140 games at each position). Craig Biggio did from 2002 to 2003. The metric showed he struggled with the transition. His second base UZR was -0.2 but dropped to -11.1 in centerfield. Not good but it’s just a sample of one.

Moving the game limit down a bit (min 100 games at each position), Juan Samuel made the transition from 1988 to 1989 but “good” defensive metrics didn’t exist. If I move down the requirement for half the games at second and half in center the next year, no one else shows up in the last 62 years of baseball. It’s uncharted territory.

Sticking with the second base to center transition, some players are forced to play sparingly at both positions. In a study I performed a few years back, I found the that a defender saw his overall UZR drop by -2.1 per 162 games when moving from second to center in the same season.

Most are utility players and are used to playing new positions. Gordon’s been above league average at second the past three seasons (~+5 UZR/season). Using the study’s expected drop, he’s likely to be an average center fielder.

Besides the individual adjustment, an overall adjustment was found which melds the various positions. Center field and second base came out even. It seems like in theory, he should be able to make the transition.

Now, I can expand the search from just centerfielders to all outfielders to get a few more comparables. Here are the outfielders and defensive stats who played at least half their games at second in year 1 and over half in the outfield in year two.

Second Basemen Turned Outfielders
Name Season G (2B) UZR (2B) UZR/150 (2B) Season G (OF) UZR (OF) UZR/150 (OF)
Craig Biggio 2002 142 -0.2 -0.2 2003 150 -11.1 -12.0
Alfonso Soriano 2005 153 -13.2 -11.4 2006 158 1.7 1.5
Martin Prado 2010 98 -2.0 -3.1 2011 100 1.0 1.7
Howie Kendrick 2015 113 -3.1 -4.0 2016 94 3.8 7.1
Ben Zobrist 2009 91 11.4 23.8 2010 118 5.3 8.7

The additional four players all played above average defense in the outfield. Just a bit more data pointing to Gordon making the transition.

Besides the stats, Gordon needs the skills to play center field, specifically range and an arm. Range is not going to be an issue with him. His legs will allow him to cover up some possible mistakes.

Now for his arm. Here are the scouting reports from the Baseball America handbooks on his arm:

2011
Grade: 65
“… has an above average arm.”

2010
“… good athlete and a solid arm. His tools also would make him a plus defender in center field.”

As long as he hasn’t lost any zip on the arm, it seems like it won’t be a liability.

Putting it all together, I’m going to go with the assumption he can make the transition to center field and not be a liability. This move will give him middle infield and outfield flexibility which will give him a couple dollar boost in auctions or up couple spots in drafts. This assessment can change once spring training rolls around and there are eyes on him in the outfield. Until then, buy away.



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Jeff writes for RotoGraphs, The Hardball Times, Rotowire, Baseball America, and BaseballHQ. He has been nominated for two SABR Analytics Research Award for Contemporary Analysis and won it in 2013 in tandem with Bill Petti. He has won three FSWA Awards including on for his MASH series. In his first two seasons in Tout Wars, he's won the H2H league and mixed auction league. Follow him on Twitter @jeffwzimmerman.

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Lucas Maloney
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Lucas Maloney

This isn’t totally related because they’re completely different players, but Jason Kipnis at least passed the eye test during the playoffs in center field. I understand small sample size and everything, but that should be encouraging, especially since Dee Gordon has a skill set more specific to center field, right?