The Seattle Mariners are making a bold move with their run-prevention model. They’re not changing it (at least not very much), but they are making a defensive change that isn’t without risk. A team built around fly-ball pitchers and ball hawks is planning to play an infielder with no professional outfield experience in center field.
Not surprisingly, the decision to do so was built partly on projections that came from Statcast data. The player in question is 29-year-old Dee Gordon, who has performed exclusively at the shortstop and second base positions since being drafted in 2008.
Earlier this spring, I asked Mariners executive vice president and general manager Jerry Dipoto about the move and how it ties in to his club’s overall approach to keeping runs off the board.
Jerry Dipoto on Dee Gordon and the Mariners’ run-prevention model: “I’d like to tell you that [the disappointing 2017 season] was mostly health. We were down 80% of our starting rotation, and a few of our everyday players, before we got to the first week of May. That was certainly a big factor. But dating back to 2016, when we first started to re-create our club, I feel like we nailed it in terms of the science. We built around fly-ball-oriented pitchers with an outfield that can go catch fly balls. What we weren’t planning on, along with the health issues, was the home-run explosion over the last two years. A lot of those fly balls ended up going over the fence.
“How have we answered that? We’ve been a little more aggressive in trying to find more neutral pitchers. In 2016, we were extremely fly-ball oriented. We needed to become a little more balanced. But we still generally believe in that style of pitcher. We still generally believe that our ballpark is going to treat a fly ball a little better than most, and as a result of our initial initiative, we absolutely believe that our defense is able to run down balls better than most. The combination of those elements should promote better run prevention.
“We’re not worried about [Dee Gordon in center field]. We looked at his athletic ability. We looked at the Statcast information we have and did an overlay of what kind of ground Dee would be able to cover. We imagined him playing center field, and with the naked eye it looks awesome. He’s going to make mistakes in games — there’s no question — but we’re going to live through that. He’s such a baseball guy. It looks natural for him right out of the chute.
“[With Statcast], you had the ability to look at the starts and the stops, and understanding what he looks like when he’s at full throttle. The satellite information will deliver that to you. You can have a general idea, and then you have to be creative in how you overlay it.
“We looked mostly at Dee coming out of the box. In the infield, you just don’t get enough… he’s not moving enough. But we do get some of the ground he covers on pop ups, and in our mind, nobody among second basemen covers popups better than Dee Gordon. He tracks the ball very easily.
“We know what he looks like when he’s opened up run running home to third, first to third, first to home. When we take those combinations of events and lay them in place… I can’t tell you what his initial breaks to the ball will be. That will be something he learns over time, but my guess is that it won’t be very long.
“The biggest thing for Dee, by his own admission, has been remembering to crow hop, because that’s not something you do as a second baseman. So the biggest difference for him has been his feet, but not at the crossover stage. It’s ‘I made the play, I fielded the ball — this is both ground balls and fly balls — and now I’m transitioning to get it back to the infield.’ He’s crow hopping to elongate the arm, to make a throw that’s longer than anything he’d make from second base. And while the arm action is different, Dee throws quite well. There’s no concern there, at all.
“I don’t think [being positioned in different spots based on scouting reports] will be an issue, but we’ll find out in time. Everything we learn, we’re going to learn together. He’s an experienced major-league player, a very accomplished major-league player, so he’s going to let us know some of what he needs, as well as us helping him.
“We’re confident in his ability to make this transition. We also know, and we’ve told him this, [the Mariners’ spring-training site] is a high sky and a tough place to play in the spring. There are going to be some balls that aren’t as comfortable as you might see at Safeco in May. We’re also particularly trusting of our corner outfielders — we think Guillermo Heredia is one of the best outfielders in baseball defensively — so it’s not like he’ll be covering for anyone out there. All of our outfielders can go get the ball.
“Dee has played in the middle of the field for his entire career. He’s an incredible athlete. He’s one of the best wide-open runners in major-league baseball. You take his instincts — he grew up around the game — and, again, we’re confident that he’s going to be able to do it. If we weren’t, we wouldn’t be putting him out there. We obviously place a lot of value on outfield defense.“
David Laurila grew up in Michigan's Upper Peninsula and now writes about baseball from his home in Cambridge, Mass. He authored the Prospectus Q&A series at Baseball Prospectus from December 2006-May 2011 before being claimed off waivers by FanGraphs. He can be followed on Twitter @DavidLaurilaQA.