When the Seattle Mariners acquired Dee Gordon to be their center fielder this offseason, many were curious as to how he would perform.
It was clear that Gordon had the speed to play a good center field, but transitioning a 30-year-old who had strictly played second base and shortstop into an above-average player at the position seemed like — at a minimum — a tough task. Clearly, Gordon was up for the challenge, and he began the season as the Mariners’ everyday center fielder.
The first eight weeks of Gordon’s tenure in center went rather swimmingly, as he carried a .302/.327/.392 slash line (.718 OPS) through the end of May. This was not entirely uncharacteristic, as he finished last season with a .716 mark and seemed to be playing to his potential in Seattle. Things were working out, at least for the most part.
But, almost as soon as Robinson Cano was suspended 80 games for performance enhancers, things took a turn for the worse for Gordon, even as he slid in at second base, his natural position.
Since Cano’s suspension on May 15th, Gordon has slashed .247/.266/.303 in 358 plate appearances. Among hitters with at least 300 plate appearances in that span, Gordon ranks 166th of 167 hitters with a .568 OPS. Only Alcides Escobar’s .537 OPS ranks worse.
Gordon’s .272/.293/.337 slash line this season would give him the worst OPS he has had since he became a full-time player with the Dodgers in 2014.
The reasoning behind Gordon’s awful offensive season is not too hard to explain. His 80.4 MPH average exit velocity ranks in the bottom one percentile of major league hitters, per Statcast, as does his 13.1 percent hard-hit rate. Incredibly, however, both of these numbers represent improvements over his 2017 figures, and he still managed to put up a 94 wRC+ that year.
The luck that Gordon received in 2017 did not return in 2018. Gordon carried a .354 BABIP last year, a clear indication that he was — at least in some regards — having a lucky season. Still, though, Gordon is one of the league’s fastest players, and fast players are the ones who tend to post high BABIPs. That is, they can turn more softly ground balls into hits, for example. Gordon’s BABIP this season, however, has fallen to .313, again the lowest since he became a full-time starter.
In 2017, Gordon had 34 hits that FanGraphs qualified as soft contact, leading the majors; this season, he has 23, which still leads baseball. This is not what is bringing down his batting average; Gordon is still “stealing” hits using his speed.
The reason why Gordon’s batting average sits nearly 40 points lower than it was last season is due to one main factor: line drives. Gordon is still hitting them at a nearly identical rate — 22.8 percent in 2017 versus 22.7 percent in 2018 — but he has struggled to convert them into the base knocks. Gordon’s .581 batting average on line drives is 130 points below his .711 average in 2017. It’s the first time since 2014 that Gordon has hit below .700 on line drives. It’s not like Gordon is being shifted, either. Per Statcast, Gordon has yet to see a shift against him this season.
Here’s a comparison between Gordon’s 2018 line drive spray chart...
...and his 2017 line drive spray chart:
Purple dots represent singles, and it’s not hard to see that Gordon had more of those in 2017 than he does this year in 2018. The distribution of the batted balls, however, is quite similar, as shown here in 2018...
...and in 2017:
From the charts, Gordon might be hitting fewer line drives to center field, but FanGraphs information doesn’t back that up. Gordon has just 38 line drives hit into center field this season, good for 7.1 percent of his plate appearances resulting in a liner hit to center. Last year, Gordon had 45 such events, or 6.5 percent of plate appearances resulting in a liner to center. The big difference, though, is again the batting average on these events, falling from .756 to .684 year-over-year.
What’s really interesting, though, isn’t information on his line drives hit to center; rather it’s the line drives hit to left field that are not really turning into hits at the same rate. The heat maps above tell us that Gordon is still hitting most of his line drives to left, but what they don’t tell us is how the fielders are playing those. Gordon’s year-over-year batting average on line drives to left? It’s fallen, and fallen hard, dropping from .714 to .488! The MLB-average hitter has a .689 average in such events — over 200 (!!!!) points above Gordon’s average for this year.
As mentioned above, Statcast says that Gordon has not faced any defensive shifts yet this year. But what’s important to remember is how they define a shift, particularly an outfield shift. Gordon might be facing something that isn’t really qualified as a shift, rather it might just be good positioning. Statcast does tell us that they do consider what they say are “strategic shifts” in shifting data, but there is not a lot of clarity as to what exactly that may be. It’s just some other outfield positioning that does not fall into one of their three main categories — three outfielders on one side of second base, or four outfielders altogether. An outfielder playing two or three steps in against Gordon might just not qualify.
This is proof of where defense, and defensive positioning, really does have an impact on a player and the game. Clearly, teams have recognized Gordon’s tendency to accumulate many of his hits — nearly 20 percent of his hits last year — and they have exploited that.
There’s not an easy fix for Gordon. Batted ball information aside, he could walk more, which would automatically help all of his numbers across the board. Gordon’s 1.5 percent walk rate ranks last of all qualified hitters. Just for kicks, I calculated Gordon’s numbers if he had just a league-average walk rate of 8.4 percent.
.293/.363/.364, .727 OPS, .323 wOBA, 109 wRC+.
So while defenses are most likely playing Dee Gordon better, the biggest reason why he isn’t hitting this season is his own problem.
Dee Gordon needs to learn how to walk.
Devan Fink is a Featured Writer for Beyond The Box Score. You can follow him on Twitter, @DevanFink.