News that the Seattle Mariners were converting Dee Gordon into a center fielder created a sense of restlessness among fans and local sports talk radio hosts in Seattle this winter.
Why the uneasy feelings in the Emerald City?
It’s simple. Gordon broke into the majors as a shortstop before becoming an all-star second baseman. He has no outfield experience at any professional level. Now, he’s expected to defend the same territory once patrolled by the likes of Ken Griffey Jr, Mike Cameron, and Franklin Gutierrez.
Having said that, fretting about Gordon changing positions is pointless — at least for me it is. That’s because his defense matters, but not really.
Let me try to explain.
Yes, if Gordon tanks as a center fielder, the Mariners caused an avoidable, self-inflicted wound. But that’s not likely to happen. The 29-year-old’s talent, athleticism, and positive approach should offset his lack of experience.
Besides, how Gordon performs as an outfielder will inevitably take a back seat to what he accomplishes as an offensive weapon. To see what I mean, let’s look back at other established major league infielders, who later transitioned to center field.
Relatively few have made the infield-to-center field jump, but those who’ve done so enjoyed some measure of success with one notable exception.
The most distinguished name is Robin Yount. Prior to his move, Yount was a two-time all-star, a league MVP, and the winner of two Silver Sluggers and a Gold Glove as a shortstop.
Here’s a side-by-side comparison of Yount’s center field and shortstop career slash lines.
Yount moved to left field at the beginning at age-29. By season’s end, he was the Milwaukee Brewers’ regular center fielder and remained there for the final nine years of his career. Along the way, the Hall of Famer picked up another MVP and Silver Slugger.
In 1989, the Philadelphia Phillies converted all-star second baseman Juan Samuel into a full-time center fielder. Samuel wasn’t a good defender at second base, so the club tried him in the outfield. That same season, Philly traded the native Dominican to the New York Mets for their center fielder — Lenny Dykstra — and reliever Roger McDowell.
This experiment didn’t pan out as well as hoped. Samuel continued to struggle defensively and his offense fell off considerably.
After the 1989 season, the Mets shipped Samuel to the Los Angeles Dodgers, who shifted him back to second base by mid-1990. He would make one more all-star appearance as a second baseman in 1991. Ultimately, he became a utility player during the twilight of his career.
Another Hall of Famer — Craig Biggio — became a full-time center fielder for one season at 37-years-old. His path to the outfield was rather unique.
Before enjoying his best years as a second baseman, Biggio won a Silver Slugger and earned an all-star selection as a catcher. Following his center field stint, the Seton Hall product returned to second base to end his illustrious career.
More recently, the Texas Rangers signed free agent shortstop Ian Desmond to play center field in 2016. Defensive metrics suggest Desmond was a below average glove, but he did earn an all-star nod. Last season, the 32-year-old played both left field and first base for the Colorado Rockies. In 2018, he projects as the team’s left fielder.
With the exception of Samuel, the reputations of the other players hinged on their offensive prowess rather than their glove work. Again, a player can’t struggle defensively to the level Samuel did, but they don’t have to draw comparisons to Willie Mays either.
I expect the same will apply to Gordon. As long as he’s a passable defender, fans and media will evaluate him based on his offensive contributions — not his fielding. That said; there’s good reason to expect the son of former major leaguer Tom “Flash” Gordon to contribute in a big way.
Since becoming a regular in 2014, Gordon has consistently reached base and been a disruptive force once there — much like Ichiro Suzuki during his early Seattle days.
Over the last four seasons, Gordon has slashed .304/.336/.382 and stolen 212 bases with a 77-percent success rate. His 60 bunt hits during that period are tops in the majors. The next closest player is Billy Hamilton of the Cincinnati Reds with 42.
In 2015, Gordon he led the majors with 205 hits and won the NL batting title. After a PED-related suspension shortened his 2016 campaign, he bounced back nicely. The two-time all-star leveraged his blazing speed and league-best 57.6-percent ground ball rate to lead baseball in singles (170) and infield hits (45) last year.
If Gordon produces similar numbers to his career averages, the Mariners will have their best leadoff hitter since Ichiro.
The Defense Rests
To be clear, I do believe defense matters. After all, a run saved is the same as a run scored. But the metrics suggest the Mariners routinely have received uneven center field value from good defenders for nearly a decade.
Below-average offense production.
As proof, I submit the following, which illustrates the top-5 Mariner center fielders since 2009 — based on WAR. I’ve included OBP and DRS to provide additional context. Please note players had to spend at least 70-percent of their playing time in center field. In addition, stats only reflect each person’s stint as a Mariner.
|Top Mariner CFers Since 2009|
It’s no surprise Gutierrez tops the list, but who saw Abraham Almonte making the cut? The harsh reality is center field has been a revolving door of inconsistency for Seattle since the decline of Guti.
Having said that, the Mariners did receive excellent defense from several replacements. But only Jarrod Dyson proved to be average-or-better at reaching base and he performed best in a platoon role. Gordon has the potential to change that trend, as long as he’s an average defender.
Sure, league-average center field play won’t make anyone forget Franklin Gutierrez’s glove work. But consider the following question for a moment.
If Gordon is just an okay defender, won’t that be good enough if he delivers a slash line similar to his career norms?
It will be for me.
Then again, I won’t be surprised if Gordon proves to be much better than an average center fielder.
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