The Marlins Are Doing Just Fine Without Dee Gordon

Last week, there was a little event you may have heard about called the “summer solstice.” Both calendars and my elementary-school science classes tell me that means summer just officially began. There are a few basic truths about summer’s infancy: children in your community may currently be in a state of euphoria; it’s time to plan July 4th barbeques; and, most relevant to our shared interests here at FanGraphs, there is still a lot of major-league baseball left to be played this year. As a result, the standings are largely inconsequential at the moment and still subject to massive changes before the postseason rolls around. And, yet, I’m struck by this meaningless triviality: if the season were to end today, the Miami Marlins would be a Wild Card team.

It’s not the most shocking scenario imaginable. The Marlins weren’t among the handful of rebuilding National League teams whose playoff aspirations were written off before the season even began. After all, the team boasted popular preseason picks for MVP and Cy Young in Giancarlo Stanton and Jose Fernandez, respectively. But this is also a team which last finished above .500 when Bryce Harper was a high-school sophomore… It wasn’t hard to have doubts that the Marlins would finally capitalize on their talent and actually field a winning team this summer, but the club is currently doing its part to help people forget those doubts. This past weekend, the Marlins took three out of four from the suddenly mortal Cubs to bring their record up to 41-35 and put them into a second place tie in the National League East with the scuffling Mets.

Due to the unpredictable nature of injuries and on-field performance, no team is able to perfectly execute a preseason plan — players get hurt, stars underperform and role players have breakout years — and the Marlins are no exception. One of those unexpected developments for the Marlins is that they’ve fielded one of the best outfields in the league due much less to the contributions of Stanton (currently in the midst of a career-worst season) and much more to Marcell Ozuna and Christian Yelich. It’s been a wellcovered storyline for the Marlins.

There’s another key way in which the Marlins have had to deviate from their preseason plan, too — namely, who they’ve played at second base.

When Dee Gordon was popped for performance-enhancing drugs and slapped with an 80-game suspension at the end of April, the Marlins were left with a glaring hole at second base. As someone whose familiarity with the Marlins falls somewhat short of intimate knowledge with each and every bench player, one of my first questions after the Gordon suspension news broke was: “Do the Marlins still have Derek Dietrich?” It turns out they did and, what’s more, it turns out he’s been exactly what they needed.

Through 232 plate appearances this season, Dietrich has posted a .302/.388/.447 slashline that any major-league team — with the possible exception of the Mariners — would be thrilled to get out of the second-base position. His 127 wRC+ ranks fifth in the majors among the 27 second basemen with 200-plus plate appearances and is higher than the wRC+ of an outfielder in his same division named Bryce Harper (126 wRC+). The Marlins’ Plan B at second base has been hitting, and hitting well. Can it last?

Offense has always been Dietrich’s calling card. Prior to the season, we projected him to post a higher wOBA (.320) than Dee Gordon (.306). However, Dietrich’s style of offensive production has changed a bit this year from his prior success at the plate with the Marlins. In the past, he’s paired a slightly above-average strikeout rate with a surprising amount of pop for a utility infielder. This year, however, his strikeout rate has begun to plummet.

Dietrich Rolling K%

After entering the season with a 22.6% career strikeout rate, Dietrich has struck out in just 17.2% of his trips to the plate this season. Perhaps unsurprisingly, the key factor in his improved strikeout rate has been an increased ability to create contact. The heat maps below depict his contact rate, with his 2015 map on the left and this season on the right.

Dietrich Contact%

As a whole, his contact rate has jumped from 79.4% last year to 84.6% this year, and he’s seen a corresponding jump in his batting average from .256 to .294. We frequently talk about guys who appear to swap contact for power, but Dietrich has done the opposite. As his contact rates have risen, his ISO has fallen:

Dietrich Rolling ISO

Dietrich was expected to be productive at the plate, but he’s defied expectations both in how he’s been productive and how productive he’s been. Naturally, there are warning signs that regression could be in the cards for Dietrich and perhaps the biggest red flag is his .358 BABIP. That’s the very upper bound of true-talent BABIPs, and his career mark was .295 entering the season, so it’s absolutely reasonable to be skeptical that he’ll be able to maintain his high batting average.

Still, even with a bit of regression, he’s hitting better than Dee Gordon would likely be hitting. Which leads to a natural question: is his success building to a controversy over who should play second base when Gordon’s suspension ends at the end of the month? Eh, probably not. We’ve talked about how well Dietrich is hitting, but his slow base-running leads him to provide negative value on the base paths and is a contributing factor to the poor defensive metrics he’s put up throughout his career. If Dietrich had a solid position at which he could provide defensive value, then he might have a case to be a regular, but that’s just not his reality. Gordon’s speed is such a dynamic asset that it will be hard to justify playing Dietrich over him when the time comes, even if completely ignoring the implications Gordon’s lengthy contract extension will have on playing-time decisions. Dietrich has already demonstrated an ability to provide value with the bat off the bench and it’s incredibly likely he’ll be asked to do so again when Gordon returns.

Right now, the Marlins have nine players who’ve recorded 150 plate appearances or more. Of those nine, all but one — defense-first shortstop Adeiny Hechavarriahave produced a wRC+ of 100 or better. It’s an impressive achievement for a team largely lacking in star-power outside of their outfield, but they’ve managed to piece together a balanced, if not-so-sexy, offense. Derek Dietrich’s capacity to fill the hole left by Gordon has been one of those key developments and, at least for the moment, it has the Marlins right where they need to be in order to make a second-half run at their first postseason berth since 2003.

Corinne Landrey writes for FanGraphs and's Cut4 site. Follow her on Twitter @crashlandrey.

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6 years ago

And if there’s one thing the Marlins have demonstrated, it’s that they know how to make the most out of a Wild Card opportunity.

6 years ago
Reply to  Joser

NL East Championships – 0

World Series – 2

Because that makes sense.