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Dee Gordon and the red hot Marlins come to Nats Park

The Miami Marlins come to town to start a three game set with the Nats on Monday. The Fish have been on a bit of a roll lately, winning eight of their past ten games, a stretch which included a three game sweep of the Nats in Marlins Park. Their bats have been carrying them lately, and it hasn't just been the guy(s) you would expect.

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After a strong back half of their ten game road trip, the Washington Nationals will return home to host the Miami Marlins for the next three days.  While the Nats just took two straight series and have won five out of six, their opponents come into the series even hotter.  The Marlins have won four straight series and eight out of their past ten games overall.  Over those ten games, the Fish are outscoring their opponents 51-23, so they're playing well in all facets of the game.

As with all of my series previews, I'm going to point you towards the guys who do the real work and give us comprehensive breakdowns of the Nats' upcoming opponents.  Brendan Sheridan posted his terrific infographic about the Nats-Marlins series earlier today.  Federal Baseball's own dc Roach also took a far better in-depth look at the Marlins entire lineup than I will today.

Today, I'm going to focus on Dee Gordon, the little guy atop their order that has been making their lineup go so far this season.  Many pundits (myself included) had a laugh or two at the Marlins expense this offseason when they traded four players, including top prospect Andrew Heaney, for Gordon and Dan Haren.  Heaney, Austin Barnes, and a couple of big league quality role players seemed like an awfully steep price to pay when the headliner you get back is a one dimensional player who took four tries to stick in the majors coming off of a career year.

A month into the season, Dee Gordon is doing his best to make those of us who laughed at the Marlins eat our words.  He currently leads MLB in batting average, is second in the majors in OBP, and is tops in baseball with 1.8 fWAR.  Is Gordon for real?  Are any of these gains sustainable?  Let's have a look....

General

Before we dive into what, if anything, Gordon has been doing differently, let's have a look at some general numbers... some of the surface stats that we see a little more often.

Season PA AVG OBP SLG ISO BABIP wOBA BB% K% wRC+ BsR Off Def WAR
2015 109 .440 .463 .510 .070 .494 .423 5.5% 11.9% 172 0.6 9.7 3.7 1.8
Total 1428 .285 .325 .357 .072 .340 .303 5.2% 16.1% 93 19.8 8.2 -13.4 4.2

I did include BABIP, which we'll take a slightly more comprehensive look at.  For this section, let's just emphasize that his .494 BABIP is (obviously) unsustainable.  I will note that Gordon has a .340 career BABIP and that his baseline is quite a bit higher than most players around the league.  This often happens with speedsters, who get quite a few more infield hits and bunt hits than the average MLB hitter.  The .510 slugging seems ridiculous, but it's batting average driven.  His ISO so far in 2015 (.070) is actually a couple of points shy of his career ISO.

Apart from the absurd BABIP, there aren't many things here that seem too out of whack with his career line.  He's not suddenly showing a ton of power.  His walk rate is right in line with his career rate of 5.2%.  There are just two things that stand out a bit that aren't inflated by his .494 BABIP.  These are areas where I think we can say that Gordon may actually be better, rather than just off to a hot start and a bit lucky.

Strikeout rate

Gordon is making more contact than he ever has before so far this season.  He's striking out in just 11.9% of his plate appearances, compared to 16.1% career (16.5% in 2014).  Gordon's minor league statistics don't really support the idea that we should have expected too much improvement (maybe a little) from him in this area.  Still, depending upon who you believe, strikeout rate tends to take anywhere from 60-150 plate appearances to normalize for hitters.  Gordon has had 109 PA so far this season, so it's possible that we could be seeing him establish a new baseline.

While his time in the minors doesn't support this, there are still some factors that could lead to improved contact from Gordon other than simply jumping right to a small sample size argument.

  • It could be due to a change in approach.  Gordon is actually swinging at more pitches than he ever has in the past, and the margin over the past three years isn't particularly close.  He's swinging at 51.9% of pitches compared to his 46.5% career rate.
  • This extends to pitches in the zone (65% this year, 58.9% career).....
  • And outside the zone (39.3% this year, 34.8% career).
  • Gordon is also making contact a bit more regularly when he does swing.  His 89.7% contact rate is 2.3% higher than his career rate and a full point better than it has ever been in his career

It's possible that Gordon has accepted the fact that he just doesn't walk very often and probably never will.  He's swinging a bit earlier in the count (3.51 P/PA is down .27 pitches from last season) and thus running fewer deep counts.  When pitchers rarely get to two strikes (they have 38 times this year against Gordon), they don't strike hitters out.  It's also possible that with a two full seasons worth of plate appearances under his belt in the majors, he's making adjustments and figuring out how to make better contact.  For a hitter like Gordon, who is heavily reliant upon his speed, simply putting the ball in play more regularly creates a lot more havoc.

Defense

It's hard to really rely on Gordon's defensive statistics from the past.  Gordon was a shortstop coming up through the minors, and initially played there in Los Angeles.  When he busted out last season for the Dodgers, he'd made the move to second base.  Nats fans have seen their own shortstop that moved across the bag, so we know what a move down the defensive spectrum can do for a player's defensive performance.  Gordon didn't really have a great defensive year in 2015, but he's off to a good start in his second year at the keystone.

That said, I'm less confident about Gordon's gains being legitimate defensively.  Unlike strikeout rate, defensive metrics generally take a lot longer to normalize.  As opposed to ~100 plate appearances, we're looking at 1,500-2,000 innings to really believe what the numbers are telling us.  Gordon has played just 211 innings in the field so far this season.

Are any of the BABIP gains real?

For this, let's take a look at some of his batted ball statistics.....

Season GB/FB LD% GB% FB% IFFB% HR/FB IFH% BUH%
2011 2.630 22.9% 55.9% 21.2% 13.2% 0.0% 14.0% 35.0%
2012 2.870 20.5% 58.9% 20.5% 13.3% 2.2% 10.1% 23.1%
2013 1.630 20.6% 49.2% 30.2% 21.1% 5.3% 9.7% 27.3%
2014 3.130 21.3% 59.7% 19.1% 8.0% 2.3% 11.3% 42.6%
2015 3.850 25.0% 59.5% 15.5% 0.0% 0.0% 24.0% 50.0%
Total 2.880 21.7% 58.2% 20.2% 10.8% 2.0% 12.5% 35.5%

We're going to focus on the third and fifth columns here, since Gordon seems to be not only making more contact, but better contact.  Among batted balls that stay in the park, fly balls are most likely to be converted into outs.  Then we move to ground balls (where Gordon's speed gives him a bit of an edge).  Finally, we find the batted balls that are most likely to turn into hits... line drives.  Gordon is hitting more line drives than ever before by a pretty significant margin.  He's pretty much poached his 3.7% line drive edge over last season from his fly balls (down 3.6%).  In other words, when Gordon has made contact, he's removed 3.6% from the batted balls most likely to be turned into outs and shifted them to the column where he's most likely to get hits.  This is a recipe for success if he can keep it up.

The only other real outlier is his infield hit rate, which despite his speed seems a bit unsustainable.  Gordon gets more infield hits than most players in baseball, but that already shows in his career 12.5% infield hit rate.  The MLB leader over the past three years is Mike Trout, with 14.5%.  Ichiro Suzuki is second at 12.4%.  12.5% puts Dee Gordon among the very best hitters in the league in this category.  He's nearly doubling that rate so far in 2015.... There's no way that keeps up.

Conclusion

Gordon is off to a ridiculous start and there's no way that he keeps this up.  I'm sure that will surprise absolutely nobody who reads this piece.  However, some of his improvements this season look like they're for real and may be sustainable.  It's not unreasonable to think that Gordon's contact rate and line drive gains are legitimate improvements.  He's still had some good fortune, but if he can maintain those improvements, the Marlins may be laughing at all of us about how the Andrew Heaney trade turned out.