Dee Gordon is a polarizing player. His all-speed, no-power approach on offense has both fans and projection systems divided on what to make of his bat. Is he an elite offensive second baseman? Is he a one-hit wonder that won’t be able to repeat his numbers from 2015? Reasonable people can really disagree on Gordon’s bat.
Reasonable people can also really disagree on Dee Gordon’s defense, and that’s where I intend to focus my analysis today. Dee Gordon led all second basemen with a 6.4 Ultimate Zone Rating (UZR), which means he was worth roughly six runs on defense compared to an average second baseman. That doesn’t sound too unreasonable, right? Here’s where things get interesting. Gordon, despite his obvious athleticism, had previously been considered a below-average defender, coming in with a -3.4 UZR last year at second base. He had been a massively below-average defender at shortstop (where he played a few years ago before moving to second base full-time in 2014), so there are years of data painting him as a minus defender relative to other middle infielders.
In 2015, Gordon’s advanced defensive metrics took a massive jump forward. Dee Gordon improved by exactly 10 runs according to UZR, which is roughly an entire win difference thanks to his defense. Which defender is the real Dee — the one that flailed around in 2014, or the elite defender from 2015?
Let’s find some historical comparisons, and see what they can teach us about the repeatability of Dee Gordon’s defensive statistics.
We know Dee Gordon improved 10 runs defensively at second base to become one of the best defenders in the league at the position. Let’s take a look at the past 10 years, and find all second basemen that improved by at least 10 runs in UZR from year to year and had a UZR of at least 5 in the improved year. There are 16 player seasons that fit this criteria. Excluding those that didn’t play enough innings to qualify at second, 11 player seasons were left fitting the criteria. The numbers are presented below, along with the UZR that the player recorded the season following his improved year.
Among the second basemen in the last 10 years that made a big jump into the elite of the defensive statistics, on average those players lost almost nine runs of UZR the following season after the leap. The group lost about 60% of the improvements they had made the following season, indicating that a big jump in UZR for a second baseman is unlikely to signal a new level of performance. Among the qualifying group, not a single second baseman improved their UZR the following year again and only one member of the group, Placido Polanco in 2009, regressed by less than four runs.
However, there is a slight bright side. Only one member of the group had a UZR that was lower the year after “the leap” than before the improvement, indicating that taking a leap of over 10 runs of UZR means you almost certainly have improved as a defender. It’s just not by nearly as much as you would think from the leap-year UZR, but the players kept about 40% of the improvement they made in their improved year.
What does this mean for the Marlins’ speedy second baseman? While Dee Gordon’s huge jump in UZR this year means he’s almost certainly a better defender than he was two years ago, the improvement to his talent is likely only modest and not nearly what you would hope for after his great 2015 defensively. To those who pointed to Dee Gordon’s greatly improved UZR this season as a reason to believe he’s made big strides as a defender, I’ll sadly have to point out that we can expect Dee Gordon to return much closer to the mediocre defender he was in 2014 than the star he was in 2015.