Long before his teammates straggle in to begin another day of spring training, just after sunrise, Dee Gordon can be found on a practice diamond working on his bunting with Marlins third-base coach Brett Butler.
Butler was an exceptional bunter in his day — one of the greatest ever — and Gordon is no slouch. He led the majors in bunt hits last season with the Dodgers.
But in their quest to improve on Gordon’s anemic on-base percentage, especially for a leadoff hitter the Marlins are banking on to set the table for the big bats to follow, the two are hoping to squeeze a few more bunts out of him.
“It’s another hit,” is how Gordon looks at it.
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Gordon is going to need a lot more of them if he intends to improve on a potential worry spot for the Marlins. His .321 on-base percentage last season with Los Angeles ranked 21st among the 26 players with at least 350 plate appearances from the leadoff spot.
To put that .321 OBP into context, consider this:
The Marlins’ single-season record for lowest on-base percentage by a leadoff man was Chuck Carr’s .328 in 1993, the team’s inaugural season. Luis Castillo reached base at a .419 clip in 2000 to establish the team record.
“For a leadoff guy, the key is being able to get on base,” Butler said.
“I guess you could set a standard of of .350 and higher, which is what you’d like to have. So that would be the goal.”
Gordon’s task is complicated in that he very seldom walks, deflating his on-base percentage. Since he lacks home-run power, pitchers aren’t afraid to feed him strikes.
“If you were pitching, would you walk me? Honestly?” Gordon asked. “Nobody’s going to walk me in the major leagues. These dudes have pinpoint accuracy. They may go around a pitch or two. But they’re not going to walk me. They’re going to make me earn my way on.”
So just as they were for Juan Pierre, a former Marlins leadoff hitter who seldom walked, base hits are a one-course meal for Gordon, who is feast or famine without them.
Gordon’s 164 hits ranked sixth among all leadoff hitters last season. But his 29 walks put him well behind the Cardinals’ Matt Carpenter, the big-league leader with 95 free passes.
Gordon said he tried to become more patient at the plate and nurse more walks toward the end of last season. It didn’t work.
“Last year at the end of the season, I was trying to force walks,” he said. “That didn’t go too well, though. I’ve got to stick to my game plan, keep trusting the process, playing hard and playing the way I know.”
But Gordon said his speed — he led the majors in stolen bases — helps to counter his on-base deficiency. When he is able to reach base, he’s more likely to score, he said.
Case in point: Wednesday’s third inning, when he reached on a double, advanced to third on a Christian Yelich fly ball to left, and scored on a Giancarlo Stanton single.
“It’s cool if you get on,” Gordon said. “But if you clog the bases, you do no good. I’m not clogging the bases.”
Butler believes Gordon will reach base more often this season for the Marlins, who acquired the second baseman from the Dodgers in a December trade that also netted starting pitcher Dan Haren and infielder Miguel Rojas.
“He will do that this year,” Butler predicted, adding that Gordon — who didn’t take up baseball until he was a junior in high school — is still learning.
Top single-season on-base percentages for a Marlins leadoff hitter (minimum 325 plate appearances). Dee Gordon will attempt to break into this list this season:
1. Luis Castillo
2. Hanley Ramirez
3. Hanley Ramirez
4. Chris Coghlan
5. Quilvio Veras