Coming off a 24-steal performance in just 56 games the year prior, it was easy to look past the fact that Gordon only sporadically showed a good discipline profile in the minors. This guy can run. ZIPS wasn’t quite as friendly as public opinion but still saw a .271 average and a .310 on-base percentage that was good enough to afford Gordon 74 stolen base opportunities.
He failed. He stole you 32 bases, sure, but scored just 38 runs, appeared in only 87 games and had a pathetic .228/.280/.281 slash line.
It’s time to forgive him.
As with many post-hype sleeper candidates, it can be tough to shake off a familiar bad beat. If Hamilton struggles this year, it’s a safe bet that those who spent on him this season will do one of two things: swear him off forever, or go on tilt in the future to try and recoup their initial investment in future years.
Neither is a good strategy, so even if Gordon burned you way back when, or you watched and laughed as someone else dressed him for the steals and got literally nothing else, put that out of your mind.
Gordon went undrafted in most leagues this season, though those in deeper formats may have snagged him for the friendly side of his second base platoon with Justin Turner. Well, Gordon has 45 plate appearances at second to just 12 for Turner, and while Alex Guerrero lurks in Triple-A – he went 3-for-4 with a homer in his debut on Sunday – Gordon has the job for the time being. That can be enough in some formats as is, given his multi-position eligibility, but Gordon has legitimate value.
Those 25 percent of leagues in which he’s unowned? Scoop him up. Gordon’s speed will obviously play, but there are changes in his profile that make him a legitimate post-hype sleeper candidate for the remainder of 2014, assuming Guerrero doesn’t force L.A.’s hand.
The issue during previous stints for Gordon has been that you can’t steal first base. Again, we’ll direct attention to Hamilton, who has just two stolen bases through 12 games and 44 plate appearances because he can’t hit or draw a walk. Gordon’s Triple-A performance was far more encouraging than Hamilton’s – .333/.373/.410 in 313 plate appearances in 2011 – but the 5.8 percent walk rate was troubling. You can deal with the low isolated power, but the axiom that “speed never slumps” doesn’t hold if speed runs into an unfortunate stretch of BABIP and can’t take a walk.
And so Gordon posted a .280 on-base mark in 2012, walking just 6.1 percent of the time and seeing his strikeout rate spike to 18.8 percent, far higher than it ever sniffed in the minors. And then, in a tragic coincidence, Gordon dislocated his thumb and tore his UCL sliding, doing the one thing he was still doing well (he was 32-of-42 on the bases).
In 2013, though, Gordon worked on what mattered at Triple-A, improving his walk rate to 11.8 percent, thereby raising his OBP to .385, the highest mark of any of his minor league stops, partial or otherwise. The strikeouts remained high, but that seems like something that can be the result of a player working on plate discipline, intentionally working deeper into counts and seeing more pitches.
To start 2014, Gordon’s plate discipline looks much improved. His O-Swing rate is down to 28.6 percent and his swing rate is down to 40.9 percent overall, both marking his fourth straight year of decline. Meanwhile, his contact rate has spiked to 92.1 percent, and that’s something that tends to stabilize fairly quickly (though not quite yet). All the while, pitchers are giving him more to hit, throwing him fastballs in the zone 40 times already (22.2 percent of all pitches).
The early results – a .400 average and a .457 on-base percentage – aren’t the real deal, of course. Not even a player this fast can dream of a .441 BABIP, but the walk rate may very well signal positive change. Steamer is less convince, with a 7.2 percent walk rate for the rest of the season, and ZIPS even more negative than that, but there are real reasons to believe Gordon has improved his discipline.
Rajai Davis stole 175 bases over the last four years with a .306 OBP; Gordon doesn’t need to be Shin-Soo Choo, he only needs to get on base more than Dee Gordon used to. Is a .325 OBP the rest of the way crazy? I don’t think so. And with Gordon having stolen 75 bases in 272 career stolen base opportunities – and 19 in his past 59 opportunities – he only needs 125-to-145 more stolen base opportunities to rack up another 40 steals, and that might be conservative.
Factor in that he’s spent half his time at the top of the order, where runs should be plentiful on this Dodgers squad, and a .265-1 HR-50 SB-70 R-35 RBI line seems realistic. It’s certainly worth speculating on, anyway, and he’s exactly the type of player other owners may be looking to “sell high” on without properly adjusting their priors.
Blake Murphy is a freelance sportswriter based out of Toronto. Formerly of the Score, he's the managing editor at Raptors Republic and frequently pops up at Sportsnet, Vice, and around here. Follow him on Twitter @BlakeMurphyODC.