Dodgers' issue No. 1: Dee Gordon
Every day, before every game, at about the same time during the Los Angeles Dodgers batting practice, Dee Gordon will walk over to the third-base line, get down onto his knees and wait for bench coach Trey Hillman to hit him a few rounds of ground balls.
It's a simple drill, one designed to work on his hand-eye coordination and keep his hands soft, but there's a message behind it, appreciated by those who have been a part of Gordon's rapid development and rise from raw fourth-round pick in 2008 to starting shortstop and leadoff batter for the team with the best record in the National League.
By design, Gordon can't use his legs in the drill. His greatest asset -- his biggest advantage over every player on the field, the superhuman speed and athleticism that make Gordon one of the most tantalizing players in baseball -- is taken away.
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It's just Gordon, his glove and the ball coming at him. All he has to do is catch it. Catch it and toss it back softly. Nothing more.
It sounds so easy. Yet there is a good reason why this drill has become part of Gordon's pregame routine; the message the organization wants him to have in his head before every game is one of simplicity, not swagger.
Sometimes less is more.
Sometimes it's better not to dive for the ball so you can be in position to cover second base, make the impossible throw to first from deep in the hole even though you can, try to pull a triple down the right-field line or do any one of the hundreds of things a uniquely talented, athletic shortstop that Gordon can.
Sometimes you just need to catch the ball coming at you and make a good throw, get a sacrifice bunt down or inside-out the ball to the left side and let your speed pressure the other team to make a tough play.
"We're constantly trying to get him to understand his limits and know where his boundaries are," said De Jon Watson, the Dodgers assistant general manager for player development. "He can get to so many more balls than a traditional shortstop. If we had Jamey Carroll there and you start them in the same place, you're talking about an additional 10-15 feet.
"But for a while, his biggest problem was that he was always on the ground, diving for balls he couldn't get to. And then he's on the ground when there's a play at second base."
It feels wrong to tell anyone as fast as Gordon to slow down. It goes against everything that makes him great.
He can play up here. He has already been great up here. Last September, Gordon led the National League with 42 hits. But baseball isn't always a game that lends itself to swagger and aggression. Patience, poise, polish -- those are the things it rewards.
On some level, Gordon gets all that. Enough baseball men he respects have tried to teach it to him. It's just hard for something that goes against every instinct in his quickly twitching body to sink in.
"It's not slowing the game down," Gordon said. "It's not the game rushing. It's me. It's me trying to do too much."
There might be no more important issue as the Dodgers head into the second half of the season than whether Dee Gordon can harness everything that makes him Dee Gordon.
When he is rolling, the Dodgers are explosive. His speed at the top of the lineup is a game-changer. But when Gordon struggles, the Dodgers begin to wobble. He has a .325 on-base percentage in Dodgers' wins and a .220 OBP in Dodgers' losses this year. In the 29 games he has started that the Dodgers have lost, he has drawn just three walks and scored four runs. In the 39 games he has started that the Dodgers have won, he has scored 29 runs and drawn 14 walks. He also leads the majors with 13 errors.
For months, the Dodgers have wrestled with the situation. There are no easy answers. Gordon is brilliant and baffling. He can save them and sink them, sometimes in the same game.
He seems to be trending in the right direction. His work ethic is unquestioned. So is his character. And yeah, he wants it badly. But ...
Is he ready to be the starting shortstop and leadoff man for a World Series contender? Can they count on him? Will he continue to grow and learn from his mistakes? Are the big leagues the best place for that to happen?
"You could send him down to Triple-A, but Triple-A doesn't have the same type of pitchers that are in the big leagues," said John Valentin, the Dodgers Triple-A hitting coach who has worked extensively with Gordon. "You only get big league experience in the big leagues.
"I think the club is doing a great job of being patient with him, even though it's kind of hard to be patient when you're in first place and you're trying to stay in first place."
Gordon's problem is familiar to a lot of young hitters.
When pitchers test them, they fire back. They attack at the plate. They swing early in counts. They try to prove they can hit any pitch, instead of hitting the pitches they want to hit.
"His mind set is of an aggressive hitter," Valentin said. "He wants to get hits. He doesn't want to work the counts. But the thing is, If you want to hit like that, you better hit strikes."
It's much the same story in the field. Gordon still dives for balls he can't get too often. He almost always attempts to throw someone out, even if the chances of making an error far outweigh the likelihood of getting the runner. He makes the spectacular plays look routine and turns the routine plays into an adventure.
"He's so athletic that I think he gets away with a lot," Dodgers manager Don Mattingly said. "I think there's times that he's finding out you can't just overpower everything. A little finesse, a little technique is not going to hurt him. All that comes with time."
Over the years, the Dodgers have tried to refine some of these habits without undermining all that talent and drive to be great. Watson has sent half a dozen former major league shortstops to work with him. Last season, general manager Ned Colletti came up with the idea of having Triple-A manager Lorenzo Bundy talk the game with him in one-on-one sessions.
"We just talked about the game," Bundy said. "It would be stuff like, 'How do I handle umpires?' Or cut-off and relay situations, 'Where are you throwing the baseball? If we've got a plus-runner at first base and the ball's hit in the gap, where are you going to be? What if he's a slow runner?'
"Most of the time he'd just come into my office after batting practice. There's an hour and a half in there. He'd grab a sandwich and come in, and we'd just talk the game. He started playing so late."
Gordon was primarily a basketball player until his final two years of high school, and "we just felt like we needed to speed up his development process," Bundy said.
Speed is the one thing Gordon has never needed help with. The nickname of his father, former major league pitcher Tom Gordon, might have been Flash, but it's Dee Gordon who embodies that on the field.
He runs fast. He gets to balls at shortstop fast. He even got to the big leagues fast.
"He didn't even repeat a level in the minors," Watson said.
But speed isn't going to help him get to the next level of his career.
"I need to be patient. A little bit more patient," Gordon said, as if trying to talk himself into the idea. "I have very high expectations. I want to be as good as I can be. ... This is all just part of the process. Everyone in this game has been through ups and downs. I'm just trying to take it in stride and keep working."
But there's more to it than that. The club is patient for the same reason it was patient with Matt Kemp and Clayton Kershaw in their formative years. Or why Valentin catches himself yelling at the television when he's watching a Dodgers game and Gordon has a poor at-bat.
"We all really love Dee and want him to do great," Valentin said. "He has a great work ethic. And he's too talented, he's too smart of a kid, for it not to come. It's just a matter of him trying to be patient and hitting good pitches."
That statement reflects the macro and micro issues Gordon deals with on a daily basis. On one hand, the issue is small; he just needs to hit good pitches. On the other, the issue is wider; he needs to play enough to let his game catch up to his talent.
It's a lot to chew on. It's even harder to digest while playing shortstop and leading off for a World Series contender.
So Gordon begins each day with a reminder to keep things simple. Field the ball, throw the ball. Catch it, toss it.
Let less lead to more.