Can Marlins' Dee Gordon turn his hot start into a true breakout?
Dee Gordon's shoes are beginning to tear along the toes, and the cleats are chipped and scraped, like deranged teeth. It’s about time for a new pair of kicks—last year, after all, he burned through a dozen pairs during the season. His knees and legs are starting to open up with gashes that belong in a horror movie. His fingertips and thumbs, scraped and banged on the dirt, will get so badly bruised they’ll look like they’ve been dipped in tar.
There’s an elegance to Gordon’s game, with the way he glides across the bases with his blinding speed. But there’s also a physical cost to how he plays: the running, the all-out sprints between bases, the starts and turns and reverses and stops. They take a heavy toll over the course of a 162-game marathon. After every game, Gordon disappears into a room in the clubhouse and submerges his body into frigid water to rejuvenate the legs that power him, then puts on his headphones and loses himself. “It’s supposed to be just for like two minutes,” Gordon says, “but sometimes I’ll sit there for a lot longer.
“It’s a long season. I got to pace myself,” adds baseball’s fastest man this side of Billy Hamilton. “But sometimes it’s hard to slow down.”
It is noon on Thursday, and later this day in San Francisco, Gordon will notch his major league-leading 50th, 51st, and 52nd hits of the season—an RBI double and two singles—and help lead the Marlins to a 7–2 win over the Giants. He’ll continue his hot hitting in what has been a breathtaking start to the 2015 season: those 52 hits are the most for a player through his first 28 games since Hall of Famer Rod Carew picked up 53 in 1983. Gordon enters the weekend riding a 13-game hitting streak and had collected hits in all but three games this season. He’s second in the majors with 15 multi-hit games. He was, entering Thursday’s game, just the 12th player since 1914 to have as many as 49 hits through his first 27 games—and is only the third player to do so since 1978.
Of all the surprises in baseball so far this season, perhaps the biggest is this: Gordon leads all players in Fangraphs' Wins Above Replacement at 2.2, ahead of Mike Trout (second) and Joc Pederson (third). By Baseball-Reference.com's measure, he is the top hitter by WAR and trails only Astros starter Dallas Keuchel overall, 2.6 to 2.4. Of course, it’s still early. The Marlins' second baseman knows that—he’s still only on his first pair of cleats of the season, after all.
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So the question arises: Who is Dee Gordon? Is he, at 27, one of the best second basemen in all of baseball? Or is he a sure-fire regression candidate, the ultimate sell-high candidate in your fantasy league? Is this the beginning of a true star-making season, or simply an early hot start with a big cool-off looming like a South Florida rainstorm?
Some would say we’ve been here before. Last year, when Gordon was the Dodgers' starting second baseman, he was a revelation in the season’s first half, hitting .292/.344/.398 with 43 steals on his way to a trip to Minneapolis for the All-Star Game. His production dropped off immediately thereafter, as he hit .284 but with a dismal .300 on-base percentage, a .348 slugging percentage and only 21 steals (in 31 attempts) in the second half.
Gordon is soft-spoken and mixes answers with “Yes, sir,” but he bristles at the notion that he struggled down the stretch last season. “I don’t get why people say I struggled, because I hit .285, and for people to go there, I just don’t get it,” he says. “There isn’t a player out there who hit .285 and they say he struggled.”
Gordon has been aware of the haters since the day he arrived in the majors in 2011 as a 144-pound human toothpick who didn’t hit for power and didn’t walk. He added 10 pounds of muscle before the '14 season, and it paid off, as the weight training made him more explosive. “I think I actually got faster last year,” he says. But after his impressive season, the Dodgers traded him away to Miami in a package that netted them Andrew Heaney, who was dealt to the Angels for second baseman Howie Kendrick. In addition to Gordon, the Marlins received Dan Haren in a deal that seemed to come out of nowhere.
Gordon wasn’t angry, but he wasn’t surprised, either. “I could see the writing on the wall [in Los Angeles],” he says. “But it motivated me to work harder than I’ve ever worked.” This winter, Gordon worked out near his home in the Orlando area. He lifted four days a week, devoted one day a week to agility drills and trained with Barry Larkin, Nick Franklin and Jemile Weeks. This spring, he worked on bunting every day with Marlins third base coach Brett Butler.
He also thought about his approach at the plate. “One thing that started to click last year, and something I think about even more, is that I’m a guy that’s 170 pounds—it would be really dumb for me to hit it in the air all the time,” Gordon says. “In the past, I used to think I could do everything. But my approach has kind of changed.”
So far this season, Gordon has been hitting more line drives—his line-drive rate sits at 27.7%, up six percentage points from last year—and he’s keeping the ball on the ground (his ground-ball-to-fly-ball ratio is 3.87, up from 2014's 3.13). For speedsters like him, it’s key to keep the ball on the ground, and so far this year, Gordon has dropped his fly-ball rate to a career-low 14.9%—the lowest mark among all hitters in baseball so far. It has been the kind of start that has analysts invoking future Hall of Famer and current teammate Ichiro Suzuki (who, coincidentally, has this year's second-lowest fly-ball rate, at 15.6%).
Gordon is evolving as a hitter, but he will always have his speed: He is an 80-grade runner who can get to first base in under four seconds. That speed can change a game in hidden ways. After a game against the Phillies on May 2 in which Gordon reached base five times, stole two bases and scored three runs, starter Cole Hamels told reporters, “You don’t want to, I guess, put down anybody, but I think he’s a little bit better than what Jose Reyes was in his prime just because he’s incredibly fast. ... With [Gordon] on the bases, you have to pay attention to two individuals instead of one.”
Gordon is now hitting .437, and his batting average on balls in play is a ridiculous .491, so of course there is regression coming. He is not a young player; at 27, he's likely too old to take a big step forward. But keep this in mind: Gordon—a basketball star at Avon Park High School in Florida—didn’t start playing organized baseball until his senior year in 2006, when he finally listened to his dad Tom, the former major league pitcher, and gave the sport a try. Just two years later, he was the Dodgers' fourth-round draft pick.
“Being totally honest, it wasn’t probably until 2013 [his third year in the majors] that I thought I was really good at baseball,” Gordon says. “I was still thinking about basketball. But I love the game now. I learned to love it. The little things, I’m still learning, but now I can see the game within the game.”
In other words, Gordon could be a late bloomer who’s just beginning to figure out his vast talent. His Ichiro impersonation so far this season might actually be the start of one of the biggest breakouts in baseball.