Dee Gordon is a difficult man to pin down -- as pitchers and catchers around the majors will attest each time he slides into a base ahead of a tag. But comparisons are inevitable in baseball, and Gordon's speed, skill and personal growth are prompting people in the Los Angeles Dodgers organization to reflect on where he's been, marvel at some of the things he's doing and wonder aloud what he might become.
Davey Lopes, Los Angeles' first-base coach and resident baserunning guru, compares Gordon favorably to Juan Pierre, a born worker who parlayed modest skills and plus speed into 2,217 career hits and 614 stolen bases. Dodgers manager Don Mattingly also opts for a left-handed-hitting outfielder, but he prefers a guy who outran a reputation as a suspect hitter to make two All-Star teams and sign a $48 million contract with the Cleveland Indians.
"I look at him like a Michael Bourn," Mattingly said. "When I first saw Michael, you could almost knock the bat out of his hands. But he got better and better, and all of a sudden this guy was a pain in the butt to get out. To me, that's where Dee is going."
Gordon, 26, is a dynamic combination of old-age sensibilities and new-age flair. In his quest to become a leadoff catalyst, he's embraced instruction on hitting from Mark McGwire, polished his bunting with the help of Dodgers great Maury Wills and done his best to learn the nuances of base-stealing from Lopes. He says "sir" a lot and listens attentively to utility man Chone Figgins, a 12-year veteran who has become his good buddy and veteran mentor on the roster.
Modesty is an heirloom from his father, Tom "Flash" Gordon, an undersized right-handed pitcher who made three All-Star teams, won 138 games and saved 158 more over 21 seasons. Flash has a warehouse full of homilies that he shares with Dee (whom he refers to by his given name of Devaris) and his younger brother Nick, a Florida high school shortstop who is expected to be a first-round pick in the upcoming MLB first-year player draft.
"I always tell them, 'You can't make the club in the tub,'" Flash Gordon said, laughing. Translation: If you want to make an impression with the manager and the front office, spend as little time in the trainer's room as possible.
Another prominent Flash-ism resonates more profoundly with Dee, who needed some words of advice to cling to when the majors threatened to overwhelm him and his prospect aura was beginning to fade.
"Struggles are good because they help you learn," Gordon said. "I remember my dad telling me how to be professional and saying, 'Tough times don't last, but tough people do.' I'm more tough-minded than I used to be. I used to let it get to me if I struggled. Now it's just part of the game."
Gordon enters Tuesday night's game against Cincinnati with 30 stolen bases -- more than 16 major league teams. Although Cincinnati's Billy Hamilton came into the season as MLB's must-see aspiring leadoff attraction, he's a distant second to Gordon among big leaguers with 18 steals. Even more impressive, Gordon has been caught only three times, for a success rate of 90.9 percent. He's ahead of the early pace set by Wills, the man he affectionately refers to as "Uncle Maury," during his franchise-record 104-steal season with the Dodgers in 1962.
On a Dodgers team that's defensively challenged and showing signs of age, Yasiel Puig and Gordon help set a tone as young energy players who can send a buzz through a crowd. Puig does it with long homers and sterling defensive plays in right field; Gordon makes his mark with his range at second base and ability to make opponents antsy every time he takes a lead off first.
"He's a base stealer and there are guys who steal bases, and there's a big difference," Lopes said. "You'll see the value of a base stealer when he's taking attention away from the hitter and everybody is looking at that guy at first base. Teams will pitch out more or quicken their deliveries. Everybody knows you're going, and they still can't stop you."
Of course, the menace factor is irrelevant if an aspiring base stealer can't reach base. Although Gordon's batting average has plunged from .344 to .287 during a May slump, he continues to approach hitting in a way best tailored to take advantage of his speed. That means letting the ball travel as deep in the zone as possible, maintaining a level swing and trying to keep the ball out of the air as much as possible.
Gordon has cut his strikeout rate from 20 to 14 percent this season, and his 12 percent swing-and-miss rate is the fourth-lowest in the National League, according to ESPN Stats & Information. His ground-ball percentage has increased from 56 to 62 percent, and he's hitting .294 on grounders and bunts compared to .258 a year ago. Kansas City's Alcides Escobar leads the majors with seven bunt hits, and Gordon and Washington's Danny Espinosa are tied for second with six each.
"He needs to be that guy who bunts into an out and says, 'That's not going to stop me. I'm gonna keep doing it,'" Mattingly said. "He won't bunt for five games and I'll tell him, 'Dee, keep it in your game. Keep the weapon there, because you're good at it.' He opens up the whole field for himself."
Gordon's progress has helped validate the scouting judgments that led the Dodgers to select him in the fourth round of the 2008 draft while confirming the hype that he received when Baseball America rated him the organization's No. 1 prospect in 2010.
The transition looked easy when Gordon hit .304 in 56 games with the Dodgers in 2011. Then he batted .234 and .228 in back-to-back seasons, and questions began to mount. Was he strong enough to fight off inside fastballs and take advantage of his speed? Gordon weighed 135 pounds upon entering professional ball, and it's taken him a lot of carbs and time in the weight room to top 170. He was also erratic and prone to rush at shortstop before finding a home at second base.
"It's tough when you come up and have instant success after everybody has been pumping you up and telling you how great you're going to be," Dodgers catcher A.J. Ellis said. "People anointed Dee as the Dodger shortstop for the next 15 years and then he stumbled, and it's hard to pull yourself out of that. What's impressed me is his humility and drive and knowing how this could all be taken away in a moment's notice. He's not going to let that happen again."
A long-term fit
Gordon played some outfield in the Dominican winter league with an eye on a super utility role in Los Angeles, but that idea died when he arrived at spring training and asserted himself at second. Although he doesn't grade out especially well in the new defensive metrics (he's exactly league-average in Baseball Info Solutions' defensive runs saved listings), Gordon maintains his poise on the double-play pivot and knows he can take his time and recover on a routine grounder if he bobbles a ball or everything doesn't play out just so.
The Dodgers have some interesting choices ahead of them. Hanley Ramirez will be a free agent this winter, but his lack of range in the field and mediocre offensive production haven't helped his chances of signing a long-term deal with Los Angeles. Alex Guerrero, who signed a four-year, $28 million contract in October, was tearing it up offensively before losing his ear in a dugout confrontation with catcher Miguel Olivo, but he's a questionable defender at second. And fellow Cuban defector Erisbel Arruebarrena, who just arrived from Double-A Chattanooga, is a glove whiz at shortstop and a work in progress as a hitter.
Regardless of the road the Dodgers take, no potential scenarios call for Gordon to return to shortstop. He has a comfort level at second base and the attributes to be a plus defender for a long time, and the organization has no desire to trifle with what's working.
Gordon's commitment to self-improvement is a given. Tom Gordon recently visited his son in New York, and he had to laugh when Dee walked into the hotel room holding his bat and began tinkering with different stances in front of the mirror. It reminded him of his former Chicago Cubs teammate Fred McGriff.
"Devaris has matured a lot," Tom Gordon said. "He always asked questions, but at times it seems like he always had the answer."
No more. If an experienced voice in the Dodgers' clubhouse has a tip to dispense or a suggestion to share, Dee Gordon will gladly incorporate it into his repertoire. For a kid who plays the game in a hurry, he's found that patience and the willingness to listen can go a long way.