As you know, we’ve got some new data on the site. It isn’t data that’s going to completely change the way we think about baseball, but new stuff is new stuff, and new stuff always takes a while before it becomes old stuff. It’s fun to play around with new stuff, and as I was doing that Tuesday, I found something I tweeted out. I’ll blockquote my own words, I guess:
Chase Utley: .082
Dee Gordon: .489
All it is, really, is a fun fact. Maybe two fun facts, or maybe four fun facts. A fun fact is its own thing, and it certainly isn’t an argument. Fun facts don’t try to prove anything; they just are, as curious statistical moments in time. But while we’re here, I’ll throw you another fun fact: as I write this, Dee Gordon leads the National League in Wins Above Replacement. Through the season’s first month, Gordon’s been one of the best players in baseball, and this after he was picked up by the Marlins in a trade that we criticized.
It’s pretty obvious that Gordon’s value has been given a tremendous boost by the laughable hit rate. Counting errors, Gordon has reached on more than half the balls he’s put in play. You don’t need me to tell you that’s going to stop. The question, really, is what Gordon will do when the silliness ends. To this point, he’s resembled a prime Ichiro Suzuki.
I don’t make that comparison lightly, and it’ll take years before I believe that Gordon could match prime Ichiro’s bat control. Ichiro, for a time, was uniquely elite, and Gordon has a ways to go. This is simply about what’s already happened. I watched a lot of prime Ichiro. Gordon’s game has looked familiar.
Here’s one tip-off: at the moment, Gordon has been credited with a dozen infield hits. No other player in baseball has more than eight. Only five other players have more than six. That doesn’t explain Gordon’s entire lofty batting average, but it explains some of it. Throw in the fact that Gordon knows how to bunt, and you have the recipe for an infield that has to rush everything. Take even a split-second too long, and you won’t make the play:
A few more examples of successful base hits:
The bunt, you see, was dropped down even with the third baseman already playing in. You also see an infield single where the shortstop didn’t even think about attempting a throw, and you see another single up the middle that would’ve been an out for, I don’t know, 95% of all players? Maybe 98%? Depending on his swing, Gordon can get down to first base in 3.8 – 4.0 seconds. He has 80-grade speed. Granted, he’s had 80-grade speed for years, but all the while he’s been developing as a hitter.
Glance at his bat control. With Ichiro, we’d marvel over his ability to put the bat on the ball almost all the time, no matter where it was thrown. At his best, Ichiro struck out less than 10% of the time, and he ran contact rates close to 90%. Gordon has dropped his strikeout rate this year to 12%, in an era with more strikeouts than the one in which Ichiro debuted. And Gordon’s own contact rate is pushing 90%. This year, he’s been more aggressive with his swings, and he hasn’t sacrificed anything in terms of contact. Gordon’s putting a third of strikes in play. That’s not quite prime Ichiro level, but it’s in the neighborhood.
And Gordon has kept the ball on the ground or on a line. He knows he doesn’t get anything out of fly balls. Doesn’t hit the ball hard enough. This is one of the problems with Billy Hamilton — for a weak hitter, he puts too many balls in the air. Tony Blengino just wrote a little about this, in general terms. Gordon, like many speedsters, is a groundball machine, and this year he’s dropped his fly-ball rate to a career low. He has a favorable batted-ball profile.
Real quick, go all the way back to the start. I noted Gordon’s hard-hit rate. It’s low — it’s the fifth-lowest hard-hit rate in baseball, among qualified players. You’d think of that as a problem, and the numbers are supported by what StatCast data we have. Out of the 144 players for whom we have at least 40 recorded hit balls, Gordon ranks sixth from the bottom in average exit velocity. Out of all the players for whom there exists data for at least 10 hits, Gordon ranks fifth from the bottom in average exit velocity. Gordon doesn’t sting very many baseballs. It’s like Ichiro, without Ichiro’s occasional power swing.
What allows this to function is that Gordon sprays the ball around. Between 2002 – 2004, Ichiro ranked in the bottom 15% in hard-hit rate, and he ranked in the bottom 3% in pull rate. So far this year, Gordon ranks in the bottom 2% in hard-hit rate, and he ranks in the bottom 2% in pull rate. In his earlier years with the Dodgers, Gordon pulled a third of his balls in play. This year he’s down below a quarter. Gordon’s only prayer for ever having power is driving the ball to right, but by focusing on the left side of the field, he makes himself more difficult to defend, he ends up with fewer easy air outs, and he gives himself more time to beat out grounders. You can think of Dee Gordon as one of the unshiftables. You can play him shallow, but you can’t stagger your defenders, and if you bring them in, then you run the risk of a ball getting by.
Gordon’s been swinging like prime Ichiro. He’s been running like prime Ichiro, and he’s been putting the ball on the ground and spraying it like prime Ichiro. He hasn’t slugged the occasional dinger like prime Ichiro, and he has overall hit the ball a little softer, but the results are alike, right down to the base hits on routine grounders. It’s a frustrating skillset to play against. Singles can appear out of nowhere.
It’s also an extraordinarily difficult skillset to master. With Gordon, we’re talking about what he’s done for a month. With Ichiro, we’re talking about what he did year after year. Stephen Vogt is suddenly hitting like prime Mike Piazza, but you always have to be patient. The reason Ichiro had so many skeptics was because his game didn’t give him much margin of error. He had to handle himself perfectly in order to make the most of his skills. It doesn’t take much of a slide to go from Ichiro to Ben Revere, who also makes a lot of contact, and who also runs well, and who also puts the ball on the ground. Ichiro routinely ran wRC+ figures in the triple digits. Revere has a career mark of 84. You don’t want to fall too in love with speed, because most of the time, in the past, these runners haven’t been good hitters.
Gordon still doesn’t project as a very good hitter. He’s just been a very good hitter, to this point, based on his results. He does appear to be a hitter who’s improving. He’s also a hitter who’s going to be all about his BABIP. I can promise you his BABIP isn’t going to finish at .489. I can also promise you there’s a hell of a gulf between .310 and .350. Not that you can ever see it, except at the end.
Jeff made Lookout Landing a thing, but he does not still write there about the Mariners. He does write here, sometimes about the Mariners, but usually not.