In the first month or two of a season, one player always seems to emerge as a weird, unforeseen breakout. Sometimes, like Chris Davis in 2013, he'll keep up that pace throughout the year; other times, like Charlie Blackmon in 2014, he'll come crashing down to earth. Because we sabermetric types dislike fun, we tend to believe the latter with these sort of cases.
After joining the Marlins in the offseason — in what looked at the time like a typically one-sided trade — Dee Gordon exploded in the beginning of 2015. Across 99 April plate appearances, he slashed .409/.418/.484, good enough for a 149 wRC+. Most sane people didn't think that would last, and it didn't: Gordon's wRC+ deflated to 122 in May, then to 90 in June, before bottoming out at 43 in July. At the time that a thumb injury sidelined him in July, his wRC+ for the season stood at 108, which gave the impression that the competence he had displayed would not return.
A funny thing happened when August came around, though. Gordon began the month hot, with a six-game hitting streak, and sustained that through the rest of the month en route to a 115 wRC+. He topped that in September, in which he produced to a degree 25% above average. Overall, he posted a .338/.367/.433 line from August 1st forward, translating to a 120 wRC+. While that obviously falls short of the standard he set in April, it's nevertheless a very solid level of play — and it's one that had more solid peripherals backing it up.
Let's look at Gordon's offensive statistics for the two sections of 2015, which we'll roughly deem the first half (April-July) and the second half (August-October). Two key things stand out about it:
Gordon's BABIP, which had remained at unfathomable heights throughout the first few months, met its inevitable regression, while his ISO stayed sub-.100. But his free passes shot up, and he went down on strikes far less often. The resulting player seems like a much more reliable one, who has built his success on the ability to make contact without too much impatience — a potential recipe for long-term prosperity.
With regards to walks, Gordon hadn't done terribly before coming to Miami, compiling a solid unintentional walk rate of 5.0 percent. Pitchers didn't fear his bat — as evidenced by his 52.0 percent zone rate in that span — so he responded by offering at only 35.3 percent of pitches outside the strike zone. Because he had horrendous pitch judgment, though, he took far too many pitches within the strike zone, to the tune of a 55.6 percent zone swing rate. This allowed pitchers to fan him more often than he would have liked (as we'll see later).
As a Marlin, Gordon became much more combative. The first half of 2015 saw him swing at 39.3 percent of pitches outside the strike zone, as well as 63.5 percent of pitches inside it. The latter alteration undoubtedly helped him gain so many hits on balls in play, but the former meant he would scarcely earn a base on balls. That sort of strategy works well when balls fall in; once defenses begin to turn them into outs, however, it'll sour quickly.
Thus, Gordon fell back a bit into his old standards. From August on, he put up an O-Swing rate of 37.4 percent and a Z-Swing rate of 60.7 percent. The preserved aggression on hittable pitches meant he could still post a high BABIP, and his capacity to not chase pitches helped his walk rate rebound to respectability.
Nor did that change happen in a vacuum. Recall that, before 2015, 52.0 percent of the pitches Gordon saw landed in the strike zone. In the first half of 2015, pitchers maintained that trend, targeting the plate with 51.0 percent of their throws. By the time the second half came around, though, they'd shifted their approach, such that Gordon's zone rate declined to 47.6 percent. Fewer pitches in the zone, combined with fewer swings on pitches outside it, adds up to a healthy dose of free passes.
Whereas his walks simply recovered to his career norm, Gordon's strikeout rate improvement at the end of 2015 had no precedent. Look at his 56-game (the relevant time span) rolling average for his career:
Only in 2011, with an MLB-wide strikeout rate of 18.6 percent, did Gordon go down on strikes this infrequently. This sort of drop merits a deeper dive.
In his pre-Miami days, Gordon didn't swing at many pitches in the strike zone, as we've discussed. That paired with a large zone rate to give him an expected looking strike rate of 23.1 percent. His modest swinging-strike rate of 6.0 percent helped a bit, but it couldn't negate so many called strikes; as the result, he struck out in 16.5 percent of his plate appearances.
The strikeouts would remain around that level in the first several months of 2015, as Gordon's uptick in swings made him whiff in at 7.1 percent of the pitches he saw. The roles had flipped from before: Gordon's low expected looking strike rate (18.6 percent) failed to compensate for the spike in swings and misses. A greater BABIP made him a star, but he still put the ball in play as infrequently as ever.
Then, in the second half, it all came together. At the same time that Gordon's expected looking strike rate stabilized at 18.7 percent, his swinging strike rate fell to 4.8% — a mixture that invariably leads to fewer strikeouts. Somehow, he tapped into the best of both worlds; sustaining this in the future would tremendously boost Gordon's hitting ability.
Gordon, before this year, had always whiffed the most on low pitches:
Overall, 9.5 percent of pitches in the bottom fifth had resulted in a swinging strike, compared to 5.8% of pitches above that. During the first half of 2015, Gordon's whiff rate for the higher areas didn't move much, at 6.1%, but he flailed at pitches underneath, with a 14.7 percent swing-and-miss rate.
Maybe Gordon calmed down later in the year, because his second-half output improved in both areas. His swinging-strike rate for the lowest fifth fell to 8.8 percent — around his pre-2015 level — and he bettered his upper swinging-strike rate to 4.2 percent, a new best. Making contact when he offered to any area, Gordon found himself striking out far less often, which meant more opportunities to notch a base hit.
On that note, it's also important to mention that Gordon's batted-ball profile stayed the same in the second half — for the better. Jeff Sullivan observed in May that Gordon had consistently put the ball on the ground and distributed it to all fields, a combination that generally leads to good things for speedy hitters. That hardly changed at all as the season progressed:
This has a lot to do with the fact that Gordon put up a .368 BABIP in the second half — not as insane as his first-half mark, but still a level that will inspire skepticism. If he keeps spraying grounders everywhere, he'll likely continue to rack up hits on balls in play, at least to some extent.
For 2016 and the years past it, Gordon remains a wild card. Steamer certainly takes the pessimistic route, projecting a .282/.322/.364 triple-slash and a 88 wRC+ in the coming campaign. There's a lot here, though, to suggest that Gordon could hit at an above-average level. A low strikeout rate and a high BABIP, even without walks or power, can go a long way.
When players like Gordon excel beyond anyone's predictions, especially in the early parts of a season, many pundits (like myself, admittedly) simply don't pay attention. We often can't imagine that the player has legitimately taken a step forward; regression, we like to think, will soon eliminate him. As we've seen with Gordon, however, the change will often refuse to disappear. In these cases, an underlying change in skill may be at work, and those have a tendency to stick around.
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