Dee Gordon’s Biggest Improvement

I’m not going to lie to you — I didn’t think much of Dee Gordon. Two years ago, I thought he was barely a big-leaguer. Even last year, when the Dodgers sent Gordon to the Marlins, I thought the Marlins were buying high on a utility sort. I was critical of the move when I wrote up the trade, and I felt pretty strongly, and now it’s been another year, and the Marlins have signed Gordon to a five-year deal worth $50 million. And now it’s not a case of the Marlins overpaying. It’s a case of Gordon having proven me wrong. The Dee Gordon that exists now is considerably better than the versions that have come before.

Overall, it’s not like the player profile has changed that much. Gordon puts the bat on the ball, and he puts the ball on the ground, and his legs take him toward first faster than some cars take people to work. Gordon will forever be built like someone who could fit in a suitcase, so you can’t expect any kind of power, but the selling point is his mobility. He can move as a hitter and he can move as a defender, so his game is almost about pure athleticism. Gordon has all the same general skills — he’s just added some polish, and in order for that process to occur, he had to leave Los Angeles for Miami. Only there did he meet the man who could get the most out of his tools.

While it’s the most visible part of his game, I don’t want to talk much about Gordon’s offense. I know he just had a career-best season, with a 113 wRC+, but because there’s so little power, and because Gordon so infrequently walks, the ceiling here sure is low. He’s a fast, contact-hitting lefty. He’s obviously helped by his legs, but would you agree that there’s been no one better at this the last few decades than Ichiro Suzuki? They’d call Ichiro a wizard for a reason, and his first 10 years here, before the decline, Ichiro ran a 115 wRC+. Ichiro had a little more power than Gordon does, and I don’t think you could convince me that Gordon has Ichiro’s bat-control skills. The point being, we probably just saw Gordon around his offensive best. It’s hard to see where he’d have room to grow.

It’s not like he’s a bad hitter. He is much improved from the lower points of his career, but that’s not where he’s made his greatest improvement, I don’t think. What’s made Gordon a true everyday player in my mind is the progress he’s made defensively. He hasn’t changed his body and you can’t change your instincts, but Gordon has improved his preparation, with the help of coach Perry Hill. At least by reputation, Hill is to infield defense as Ray Searage is to pitching, and it’s with Hill’s assistance that Gordon reached a new level.

If you were paying attention, Gordon recently won a Gold Glove. Don’t worry if you didn’t notice — I didn’t, either. If you were paying attention previously, Gordon was something of a defensive liability, but he just finished second at his position in Defensive Runs Saved, and he finished first in UZR. As you probably know, he used to be a shortstop, and this table captures just what has taken place. I’ve taken the liberty to calculate both DRS and UZR per 1,000 innings, and the last column just averages the two.

Dee Gordon’s Defense
Season Team Position Innings DRS/1000 UZR/1000 Combined
2011 Dodgers SS 446 -7 -14 -10
2012 Dodgers SS 651 -21 -21 -21
2013 Dodgers SS 210 -14 -13 -14
2014 Dodgers 2B 1240 -4 -3 -3
2015 Marlins 2B 1270 10 5 8

Gordon was some kind of bad defensive shortstop, by the numbers. Also, by the eyes. Then he moved over and became a mediocre defensive second baseman, but then with Miami Gordon became something well above average. The improvement shows up here, it shows up in the Fan Scouting Report, and it shows up in the media coverage. You can get a little bit of a UZR breakdown — between the last two years, as a second baseman, Gordon got better with his range, and with his double plays, and with his error avoidance. He cut his errors in half, but he also just made several more plays, and the Gold Glove was well deserved. For the sake of having some video support, watch Dee Gordon fly around:

You can’t capture defensive improvements in just a few highlights. That’s not how they show up, especially when the physical tools have remained the same. You might be able to glean something from the quantity of highlights, but it’s better to just look at numbers and then find supporting quotes. Gordon probably could’ve made those same plays in 2014. The ability was within him. But as a Dodger, Gordon was a raw defender, given little in the way of effective instruction. Hill, on the other hand, made Gordon a project, and he made him a project from the start.

Gordon, referring to himself as a second baseman in Los Angeles:

“Honestly, I was winging it out there,” Gordon said. “It was just me playing, not getting much teaching on it.”

The Marlins, for their part, saw something the Dodgers couldn’t find a way to take advantage of:

Michael Hill said they recognized Gordon’s fielding potential when they made the trade: “There was some footwork cleanup that needed to happen, but his range was the entire right side of the field. He was just that quick, had that much lateral movement. He got with Perry [Hill] and it was maybe a day that unlocked that athleticism and ability.”

Gordon fell in love with the coaching he was getting:

“He’s the best infield coach I’ve ever had,” Gordon said. “I know what I’m doing on that side of the ball now. He explains it to where it’s this, this and this.”

And now here are some more specifics:

“I think the major thing for him is he’s learning how to move with the count and move with the game situation. Putting him in a better position to make plays, and I think he’d tell you the same thing.”
“If he went back knowing what he knows now about footwork and things like that, I think he could be a pretty good shortstop,” Hill said. “He didn’t really understand how much his feet control his upper body, his arm. I think he understands that now.”

The long and short of it, simplified: with the Dodgers, for the most part, Gordon was playing defense based on raw talent. That’s half of it, but if you want to make the most of your skills, you need to do a good job of preparing and anticipating. Perry Hill got Gordon better about his positioning, introducing instruction Gordon hadn’t really been exposed to before. He had a better idea of where plays were going to be before they got there, so Gordon could increase his effective range, and also have to hurry fewer plays, presumably cutting down the errors. Some better positioning, and some better footwork. These seem like fundamental things, but Hill and Gordon connected, and the improvement is obvious. There’s enough of an explanation to come away convinced it’s for real.

Also working as support: shortstop Adeiny Hechavarria improved even more. This is something I wrote about as early as May, but it kept up all season, a rare bright spot on a bad ballclub. Many things went wrong for the Marlins, but the middle-infield defense was significantly better than people expected it to be, and those same defenders are coming back. Hechavarria finally has numbers to go with his skills. You can say the same of Gordon.

I wouldn’t say this improvement has saved Gordon’s career — he’s hit well enough anyone would be willing to give him a chance. But just as the limited offense establishes for Gordon a fairly low ceiling, the improved defense at second base raises the floor. He’s an everyday player now, even when the bat isn’t quite there, and he’s the building block the Dodgers used to think he’d eventually blossom into. A year ago, there was a good statistical argument for trading away Dee Gordon. Turns out there was also a good scouting argument for trading for Dee Gordon. For the Marlins, this couldn’t have gone any better.

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.

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Malcolm-Jamal Hegyes
Malcolm-Jamal Hegyes

Title should be “The One Where The Marlins Were Smarter Than The Dodgers”