Dee Gordon will be heading to Rwanda this offseason for humanitarian work as part of his foundation, Striking Out Poverty. He’s also moving into a new house in Orlando in his home state of Florida.
Maybe he’ll also sneak onto a baseball field past midnight like he did at Safeco Field earlier this year, just to have some alone time and hit baseballs off a tee into the sprinklers.
But if there’s one thing that will get Gordon to slow down this offseason it’s the fractured toe he suffered in May. It needs to heal and Gordon knows if he wants to bounce back from a down 2018, he’s going to have to get off his feet.
“I’m putting this thing back in the boot and I’m going to chill,” Gordon said with a laugh.
Gordon’s game is built on speed. And nothing is more important than being fully able to take advantage of those fleet feet when next season starts.
“I got to get healthy,” Gordon said recently. “The biggest part of my game is that speed, especially offensively. I’m not going to hit the ball over the fence – like at all. I need those infield hits and beating out the choppers and I just haven’t been able to do it.
In 2018, Gordon had fewer than half the bunt base hits he had in 2017 with the Miami Marlins, when he batted .308 with 60 stolen bases. With the Mariners this year he hit .268 — the lowest since he was a part-time player in 2013 with the Dodgers — and 30 stolen bases.
And he was caught stealing 12 times. Compare that to when he was caught stealing 16 times with twice as many bags swiped in 2017.
That and just about everything else with this first season with the Mariners doesn’t fit with the rest of Gordon’s career. It looks like it belongs on some other player’s baseball card – not this two-time All-Star and former National League batting champ.
“The tough part for me being a competitor that I am — I hold myself to a higher standard. I look at this as it’s my fault,” Gordon said. “Like I wasn’t playing well because I sucked.”
Except it wasn’t all his fault.
“Dee didn’t have a Dee Gordon year, there’s no question about that,” Mariners manager Scott Servais said. “And Dee – we asked a lot out of Dee this year, probably more than any other player in that clubhouse.”
The most complicated was asking Gordon to learn a new position, center field.
It got more complicated when he had to adjust back to second base once Robinson Cano was suspended. By the end of the season, Gordon was hopping between second base, shortstop and outfield on any given day.
Servais believes deciding on one position for Gordon is a priority this offseason.
“I do think ultimately we need to make a decision on where he’s going to play – and let him play,” Servais said.
The Mariners wanted that to be in center field. That’s why they acquired Gordon and told him there was next to zero chance he’d be back on the middle-infield dirt, not with Cano and Jean Segura there.
Plans changed after Cano’s suspension, Gordon slid back to second and he looked far more comfortable there, where he won a Gold Glove in 2015. Servais said Gordon’s range at second is second to none.
Except Cano, after the Mariners final game on Sept. 30, said he’s expecting to return to full-time duties at second base after playing some first and third when he returned from his suspension.
So it comes down to whether the Mariners want to continue with Gordon at second or give it back to Cano. Mariners general manager Jerry Dipoto said that is still being sorted out, and much will depend on the moves they make this offseason and whether they still view Gordon as a center fielder.
“We asked him to move to center field and I thought he did yeoman’s work without really having a whole lot of experience – which is to say he had none,” Dipoto said. “He did what we asked him to do because that’s what good teammates do.
“When we asked him to move in and play second, he did that, too, because that’s also what good teammates do. At the end of the day we’re going to have to assess what fits with this roster, and in talking about where Robbie plays or whether we bring back (DH Nelson Cruz), a lot of it is going to be judged by what the roster looks like as we go through the offseason.”
Gordon sounded almost relieved upon his manager and GM want him to play one position next season.
“That would be good,” he said. “It was tough this year. That’s where they needed me to go, and you know how I am – I’m going to do whatever the team needs.”
And where he plays could impact every other facet of his game.
“I was in one spot the whole time (before Cano’s suspension) and I could focus on that and focus on my offense,” Gordon said. “The good thing, and I talked to (hitting coach Edgar Martinez) about this the other day, the good thing is this spring I think I could go back to the outfield and I’ll be more prepared, and that means I can work on the offensive stuff I should have worked on more this spring.”
And one of those is his bunting game.
“It wasn’t as crisp as it usually is coming out of spring,” Gordon said. “I never really got that going at all. It’s the little stuff I got to work on.”
When Servais said they asked Gordon to do more than any other player in their clubhouse, though, he wasn’t just talking about all those positions changes.
Gordon was also the team’s energizer, which was so easy for him when things were going well and the Mariners rolled to 24 games above .500 by July 4.
Gordon was the leader of the high-five conga line along the Mariners’ dugout after a big play, and he was leaping into the on-deck circle after home runs or hopping over the rail to celebrate victories. He was in many ways the face of those Mariners.
Then things spiraled downward for the Mariners, and Gordon, too.
He was batting .353 when he suffered an evulsion fracture on a toe on his right foot on May 9 against the Blue Jays. Gordon fouled a pitch off of it, and 10 days later he headed to the disabled list. It was just never the same at the plate, even with special padding in his shoe.
He had four bunt base hits those first 35 games of the Mariners’ season. That’s also how many he had in his next 106 games, despite more than twice as many attempts.
Fangraphs rates player speed and baserunning ability. Before the toe fracture Gordon’s rating was 7.7, which would have been tied for the second-best in the majors if he kept that up for the whole year, just behind the Reds’ Billy Hamilton.
After the fracture? Gordon’s rating fell to 6.6. His 7.1 overall rating for the year was the lowest of his major league career.
MLB’s Statcast also rates sprint speed, and Gordon’s 29.0 rating was the lowest in four years. His rating was among the top 20 in baseball each of the previous two seasons. This year it was tied for 48th.
“It’s like a power hitter with half of his arm,” Gordon said. “But still going up there trying to hit a homer.”
Ichiro, who also played with Gordon with the Marlins, said he never saw it affect Gordon in the clubhouse.
“I think this day and age of baseball has really been more geared to what you see is what you get,” Ichiro said through interpreter Allen Turner. “Meaning that the small things that happen in baseball get overlooked a lot, I think. Dee is one of those guys where those things that maybe you can’t see out there on the field is what he still brings to the team, and those things should still be recognized. It’s tough to overlook that.
“He’s an old-school type of player. The real and fun basic baseball that you don’t really see today, he has produced and brought that excitement. I think we’ll continue to see that.”
But being that energizer when it’s not going well at the plate? Not easy, even for someone like Gordon.
“It’s not,” Gordon said. “It just is what it is, though. It’s so easy to do that when you’re playing well, but I think I showed the people here in the locker room and the coaches my character because it wasn’t going well for me and I feel like I stayed the same. That was the hardest part – that I stayed true to who I am and doing that for these guys.”
And just when Gordon said he’d start to feel good at the plate, he’d foul another pitch off that toe. He said he did that about nine times after he fractured it.
So maybe that’s just poor luck. After all, his batting average on balls in play (BaBIP) went from .397 before the injury to .272 after it. BaBIP is a stat often used to measure how lucky or unlucky a player is, and Servais references it often.
Gordon was still hitting the ball as hard this year as he ever has – it was just going right at defenders more often, or he wasn’t beating out the infield and bunt singles he had for much of his career.
But the Mariners had one more thing to ask of Gordon, on top of the laundry list.
Gordon swung at more pitches out of the strike zone than he has in his career, and only six other players this season had less discipline than him this year. His walk rate almost made MLB history … and not in a good way.
He drew just nine walks in 588 plate appearances. His ability to get on base has to improve, whether his swing-away approach has been part of his game for much of his professional career or not.
“When Dee is out there leading the charge, it’s contagious positive energy,” Servais said. “And we saw it for a long time and rode the wave with him for a long time. And I know it’s still in there.
“He had a rough year. No way around it. It often happens to players. When you play in this league for 10 years there are going to be those one or two years that are bad, one or two that are off the chart and the ones in the middle are kind of who you are. I think Dee had one of those years that wasn’t really good. He will bounce back. I believe pretty firmly in that. He will bounce back.”