Whether it’s been Dee Gordon or Justin Sellers, shortstop has been an absolute disaster for the Dodgers this year. It’s been so bad that they’re the two worst hitters at the position in baseball who haven’t been cut loose, now that the Mariners have moved to sever ties with Andino.
That was never the plan, of course, but it’s interesting to look at the decision process that’s gone into using either at various times and the perception fans have of them.
Headed into the season, the Dodgers had a pretty clear-cut plan on the left side of the infield. Hanley Ramirez would play shortstop, Luis Cruz would play third, and Gordon would return to the minors after a 2012 split between being awful and being injured. There were a whole lot of reasons to think that neither Ramirez or Cruz were likely to succeed at those spots, but there was little reason to think that Gordon belonged anywhere but in Albuquerque.
When Ramirez injured himself on March 19 in the final game of the World Baseball Classic, the Dodgers didn’t deviate from that plan. Despite some initial thought that Cruz might move to shortstop and allow third to be manned by a combination of Jerry Hairston, Nick Punto, & Juan Uribe, they quickly decided to keep Cruz at third and hand shortstop to the defensively capable Sellers, rather than give Gordon another chance.
We expected little offense from Sellers and that’s exactly what we received, as you can see in the line above. He had one really awful inning in the field, though he was generally adequate otherwise. That said, the lousy offensive production on a team full of the same meant that I was constantly having to explain why replacing him with Gordon was a silly idea. “Sellers is atrocious, so it couldn’t be worse!” went the argument. Well, sure it could; Gordon was no guarantee to be any better on offense and was very likely to be worse on defense. We’ll get back to that in a second.
Ramirez returned ahead of schedule on April 29, and Sellers was immediately nailed to the bench. That gave us time to argue about the wisdom of an untrue report that Gordon might be moving to second base, but it all ended up being for nothing as Ramirez injured himself again on May 3, after playing just four games.
But this time, the team went in a different direction. Instead of simply moving Sellers back to the starting role, the team instead recalled Gordon, apparently intrigued by a solid .314/.397/.431 line in Triple-A. (Sellers was optioned back to the minors days later.) It was a more defensible move at the time, since Gordon had at least had a full month of decent play behind him in the minors this time around, and with the team struggling on all fronts, more of Sellers was an option few found appealing.
At first, it seemed like a great idea. Gordon got on base five times in his first two games while stealing three bases, though the Dodgers lost both games and in fact dropped each of his first six starts. But while many liked to point to a batting average of .429 after two games as an indication Gordon should have been up all along, it quickly became clear that little had changed. And now, as Gordon has had just about as many plate appearances as Sellers had, the question of “could it be worse?” is… well, yes.
Think about it this way: on offense, the contributions have been nearly equally poor, as the close-to-identical wOBA marks show. Yes, Gordon’s speed on the bases is obviously superior, but he’s given some of that value back with poor decisions, and his net stolen base total is merely three.
But on defense, even though Sellers hasn’t really been wonderful (0 Defensive Runs Saved, -5.1 UZR/150), Gordon has been worse (-2 DRS, -9.3 UZR/150). I’m aware of the risks of using defensive stats over a month of play, and so that’s why these are not to be taken as gospel, but as a data point that backs up what we’ve seen with our own eyes. Yes, Gordon’s gotten to some balls that Sellers never would have; he’s also botched more than a few that haven’t been marked down as errors. Neither has added much on offense, especially as Gordon just went more than a week without a hit, and Gordon has given back more on defense.
There are some arguments to be made in Gordon’s favor, of course. Obviously, his upside is far higher than that of Sellers’, which makes you want to invest more into his future, and he does have a poor .219 BABIP, which indicates some amount of bad luck. But in this case, his batted ball profile makes his BABIP seem like less of a quirk and more of a choice:
Gordon’s groundball rate has plummeted as he’s hit more balls in the air and as line drives. Liners are good, but a player like Gordon simply shouldn’t be hitting the ball in the air like this; he’s not strong enough to muscle the ball out of the park, and he’s not hitting the ball on the ground enough to take advantage of his breathtaking speed.
That’s shown again in his declining rates of infield hits and bunt hits, as shown at right. Again, small samples are at play here, but if Gordon is going to be successful it’s going to have to come with his legs, and so far he’s not doing that.
Gordon has now played 162 major league games with 636 plate appearances, or essentially one full season. In that time he’s hit .250/.296/.312, enough for a .270 wOBA and -1.1 WAR, and he’s provided poor defense to go with it. Despite how exciting he can be at times, he’s not ready, he wasn’t ready before, and while I’m not close to being ready to “give up on him,” in my opinion he’s further away than ever from being a reliable major league shortstop.
So what’s to be done? Don Mattingly has already begun to play Gordon less, sitting him in favor of Punto three times in the last seven games, but Punto isn’t really the solution there either. There’s a small possibility that Gordon gets optioned when Hairston is activated later today, but it seems far more likely that a move is made with Cruz, whether that’s a DFA or a disabled list trip.
Assuming that’s the case, then Gordon remains, and we may be a week to ten days away from seeing Ramirez return. (Or more than that. His return date remains unclear.) There’s a case to be made to give Sellers that time, if only for the defense, but I honestly can’t say I feel all that strongly about doing so. If anything, the recent trend of giving Punto time at short might be the best solution — especially as he’s needed less at second and third with Mark Ellis & Hairston back — until Ramirez is ready.
I can’t believe I’m even saying that, because Nick Punto. But while the season isn’t quite hopeless yet, I’ll admit it’s getting close to getting there, and the less time they can give to shortstops who aren’t major-league caliber right now, the better.
Come back soon, Hanley. We miss you, even with all your warts.