Almost immediately after the Miami Marlins acquired Dee Gordon from the Los Angeles Dodgers (and in one place, even before the trade), he started to draw comparisons to a notable former Marlin. Due to the speed and gaudy stolen base numbers and lack of power, many have began to compare Gordon to Marlins standout and fan favorite Juan Pierre. Surely, there are some similarities on the surface that would make a comparison look like a no-brainer. They’re both left-handed hitting stolen base threats that utilize bunting for hits. But is Gordon really similar to Pierre? Can Gordon be expected to put out the same level of production?
First, the easy part. The one indisputable fact regarding Gordon is his great speed translates to games. He is a very good baserunner and base stealer and so far in his career, he has averaged 8.6 baserunning runs (BsR) per 162 games played. In his first full season last year, he posted 9.4 BsR. Gordon provides tremendous value from being on the bases. Baserunning was obviously a major part of Juan Pierre’s game, yet he averaged “just” 6.7 BsR per 162 games in his career.
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Now, 6.7 BsR can be considered very good, which shows just how good Gordon has been on the base paths so far. Even when Gordon struggles with his hitting, he’s still a major threat when he’s on base. That’s a part of his game that’s going to be a constant. Gordon is guaranteed to see full time this season, so we’ll get a chance to see how big of a factor his baserunning will be. Based on his career averages, he’s an even better baserunner so far.
The concern with Gordon, of course, has always been his hitting. While Gordon’s career slash line of .272/.314/.345 and wRC+ of 87 would be very much acceptable, it’s hard to set that as his true talent level. In 2011, he had a 94 wRC+ that was propped up by a .345 BABIP. In 2012, his BABIP cratered to .281 and he put up an atrocious 58 wRC+, making him almost half as good as the league-average hitter. In 2013, he rebounded a bit in limited action to put up a 73 wRC+ with a closer-to-average .292 BABIP.
Last season, Gordon broke out and became a league-average hitter with a 101 wRC+. Of course, this was also propped up by a .346 BABIP. The good news is Gordon had a .348 BABIP in the second half of last season, so it’s not entirely a mirage.
Clearly, Gordon has been all over the place, so it’s nearly impossible to pin down a baseline for him. Let’s start to look at Gordon piece by piece and compare him to Pierre. Neither hitter is known for taking walks and they have almost identical career walk rates. Over his career, Gordon has walked in 5.2% of his plate appearances compared to 5.6% for Pierre.
The big difference is in strikeouts. Juan Pierre was incredibly well known for his ability to avoid strikeouts and he posted an incredible 5.8% strikeout rate in his career. While Gordon’s career 16.5% strikeout rate is better than average (remember, strikeouts have increased a great deal since Pierre came into the league), it’s still more than 10 points higher compared to Pierre’s rate.
There are a few factors in play here. Gordon chases pitches more often than Pierre did (34.5% and 24.8% O-Swing rates, respectively). Gordon makes contact less often on these pitches too, putting up a 79.7% O-Contact rate compared to Pierre’s 85.5% career O-Contact rate. So, Gordon is swinging at pitches out of the zone more often while making less contact. Pitches out of the zone are harder to hit well than pitches in the zone, but for hitters just looking to slap the ball this shouldn’t be as much of a concern.
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It seems Pierre was more selective with the pitches he chased and probably only went after pitches he could slap on the ground. The conclusion that can be drawn here is Pierre is much better at identifying which pitches out of the zone he could handle, and that shows in his high O-Contact rate.
Most importantly, however, Gordon just isn’t as good at making contact. While Gordon features an above average contact rate of 87.2%, this is much lower than Pierre’s incredible 93.7%. Gordon doesn’t have the bat control/contact abilities that Pierre did. Those are the skills necessary for Gordon to utilize his speed to support his BABIP and while he’s been above average in those departments, he hasn’t been close to the same level as Pierre.
Another important area is to look is batted ball profile. Gordon and Pierre have nearly identical career line drive rates (21.4% vs 21.9%). Gordon has actually put the ball on the ground more often (58% groundball rate, 55.5% rate for Pierre) while Pierre hit more fly balls (22.7% flyball rate, 20.6% rate for Gordon). The expectation is a higher groundball rate is better for this type of hitter, but without batted ball data it’s hard to determine the quality of contact for both of these players.
Pierre appears to have produced higher quality flyballs, evidenced by his 9.2% infield fly ball rate, a full two points better than Gordon’s 11.6% rate. 2014 was the first time Gordon had an infield flyball rate below 13%. If he can keep it closer to last year’s 8%, then it’ll be much easier for him to maintain an above average BABIP. Both players have used the bunt hit as a weapon in their careers, which is another key way to utilize speed to help keep up BABIP. Again, both players have nearly identical career rates (Gordon with 34.6% of his bunt attempts being hits, Pierre with 34%).
So the batted ball profiles are very similar. The difference is Gordon hits more groundballs but Pierre’s flyballs were of higher quality. If Gordon maintains his improved infield flyball rate he should be able to maintain some of his BABIP from last year. Quality of contact is just as important as actually making contact when it comes to evaluating someone’s hit tool. Gordon’s contact ability just isn’t as good and that’s not going to change. But if Gordon can improve his quality of contact while continuing to use bunt hits as a weapon, he’ll be just fine.
The biggest difference between the two players is defense. Pierre spent much of his career in center field before being pushed to left late in his career. Pierre had a notoriously awful arm but he more than compensated for that with great range in center field. Over 10,174.1 innings in center, Pierre was worth 31.9 UZR. Pierre was a good fielder at one of the premium positions for a number of years.
Gordon, on the other hand, has not fared so well in the field. He came up as a shortstop and has had very, very little success at the position. In just 1304.1 innings (about a full season), his UZR at short is -22.9. Even if you don’t like UZR or advanced field metrics, the fact that Gordon is no longer a shortstop says he just wasn’t competent at the position.
In Gordon’s first full season at second base, he had a -3.4 UZR. With a positional adjustment, Gordon is about average defensively as a second baseman. This, of course, limits his value, especially compared to Pierre. So while Pierre moved to left at the end of his career because he’s human and he aged, Gordon just didn’t have the ability to play short.
Maybe Gordon would benefit from a move to center field. Billy Hamilton was a shortstop that ended up moving to center and he posted incredible fielding numbers last season. Since Gordon was a shortstop, his arm is definitely much better than Pierre’s was, so Gordon wouldn’t suffer that same defensive penalty. His speed obviously means he has the physical ability to play center, but being able to read flyballs and take good routes is a different story.
Regardless, Gordon would probably be best utilized in center field.
So there are a number of similarities, but Gordon is more of a Pierre-lite if anything. He doesn’t have the same contact ability that Pierre had and doesn’t offer the same defensive contributions (at least for now). Gordon appears to have a slight edge in the baserunning department, but Pierre features a more complete package. Maybe the Marlins make a move that ends up bumping Gordon to the outfield, where he’ll have more value.
For now, expecting Dee Gordon to be Juan Pierre just isn’t a reasonable expectation.
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