Posted by: Mike Cornelius | May 31, 2015

The Glory And The Limits Of A Career Year

Memorial Day is behind us, and May yields to June. The unofficial start of summer has been observed with the first backyard cookouts, and the solstice is just three weeks off. It’s been nearly two months since Opening Day. Many teams have played fifty games, and those that haven’t will hit that mark this week. While that leaves more than a hundred still to play it’s safe to say that it’s no longer early, and individual statistics are starting to have real meaning. So let us consider how a couple of players are faring this year.

In Miami Dee Gordon is having a career year. He’s been as solid as ever in the field and otherworldly at the plate. At the start of play on Sunday Gordon led the majors with a .374 batting average. Once on base he’s used his speed to steal 20 bases, enough to tie him with Cincinnati’s Billy Hamilton for the major league lead. The stolen bases are not a surprise. Gordon was the steals champion last season with 69 while playing for the Los Angeles Dodgers. But he did so while hitting .289. Not bad, but nothing to suggest the breakout year he’s enjoying at the plate with his new team; especially considering that the previous two years in L.A. he hit a combined .229.

Odds are his average will come down as the longest season winds into its dog days. One has to go back the better part of three decades to find a batting champ in either league who finished the season with an average as high as Gordon’s is at the end of May. It’s been five years since Chipper Jones in 2010 managed to even break .350 for a full year. Whatever his final numbers, if he manages to remain at the top of the stats listing for both average and steals the 27-year old will join elite company. Gordon is a second generation major leaguer. His father Tom was a three-time All-Star pitcher for eight different teams, and set a record (later broken by Eric Gagne) with 54 consecutive saves in 1998-99. The feat his son is chasing is especially rare. The same player has led his league in the two categories of batting average and stolen bases just 13 times, and on only 6 of those occasions were his twin totals tops in both the AL and NL.

Those six seasons were compiled by just three players, Honus Wagner, Ty Cobb and George Sisler. The first two were part of the Hall of Fame’s inaugural class in 1936, and Sisler joined them in Cooperstown three years later. That’s pretty heady company for Gordon, who despite his fine numbers in 2014 was deemed expendable by the Dodgers and shipped to the Marlins in December as part of a 7-player trade. The Dodgers needed to make room at second base for Howie Kendrick, acquired from the Angels on the same day. Kendrick has performed capably in Dodger blue, hitting right about at his career average of .292.

Still it’s likely that when Dodger fans look east and see what Gordon is doing with the Marlins they may feel a bit of regret. That feeling is surely enhanced by the knowledge that last December’s trade package included cash from Los Angeles to cover Gordon’s 2015 salary of $2.5 million. Dee Gordon is a long ways from having a Hall of Fame career, but it’s fair to say that he’s a third of the way through a Hall of Fame-type year. At a cost to his team of exactly zero, this has to go down as not just a stellar season, but also as one of the best bargains in the history of the Great Game.

Up the east coast there is another player who is in the midst of a breakout season at the plate. Bartolo Colon is 42 years old and the New York Mets are the ninth stop in his itinerant career as a starting pitcher. Seven of Colon’s nine teams have been AL franchises, so when he came to Queens last season he had just 29 at-bats since he played part of the 2002 season in Montreal. His last hit was in 2005, a single for the Angels in an inter-league game.

Colon is listed at 285 pounds, and he appears to be all of that. Between his girth and his lack of plate experience, a Colon at-bat quickly became must-see television last season. His batting helmet would regularly go flying off his head as he flailed at pitches and twisted himself like a corkscrew. Somehow over the course of the 2014 season and 62 at-bats, Colon managed to twice make contact; once for a bloop single and a second time for an improbable double down the left field line. He finished the year with an average of .032, somewhat short of his career mark of .076.

The Mets, who are stocked with young pitchers, reportedly tried hard to trade Colon during the offseason; but the combination of his age and his $11 million salary meant there were no takers. So during Spring Training Kevin Long, the new Mets hitting coach, challenged the rotund pitcher to double his offensive output to 4 hits during the current season. Colon countered with a goal of a fifty percent increase, to three. An at-bat in early May was vintage Colon. He struck out swinging and as he turned completely around on the final strike his helmet fell off his head and was struck by the bat as it came around for the second time. He may have missed the ball but the batting helmet went for a bunt single.

The MLB website quickly put up a Bartolo Colon hit tracker page, complete with videos. In early April, he swung at a pitch well outside in a tie game against Atlanta with a runner at third. The contact shattered his bat and his helmet went flying, but somehow the ball floated over the drawn in infield and into right for an RBI single. Then in his last start prior to Sunday Colon stuck his bat out at a hanging curve ball and poked a solid single to left.

That brought him to this historic day, when he came to the plate to face Miami’s David Phelps in the 2nd inning. With Anthony Recker at second Colon twice attempted bunts to advance the runner, missing badly both times. Finally eschewing the bunt, Colon swung at the next pitch and laced a line drive into left center field. The Marlins’ Ichiro Suzuki was playing so shallow in center that he couldn’t cut the ball off and it rolled all the way to the wall. It’s likely Colon could have made it to third; but perhaps not wanting to tempt fate he jogged into second with an RBI double, his helmet remarkably still on his head.

With his season-long hits goal already met, having tied his career best for RBIs with three, and in the midst of a two-game hitting streak, fans can only hope that Bartolo Colon will now aim higher; perhaps for the career best five hits he recorded in that partial season with the Expos more than a decade ago. He’s now batting .143 this season, nearly double his career average and better than the .128 mark he posted in Montreal; so he would seem to have a good chance of making it.

In Miami Gordon is chasing the record books while in New York Colon’s at-bats are amusing diversions. Yet the Marlins are a disappointment who have already sacked their manager; while the Mets remain very much in the playoff conversation. Twin reminders that career years are important; but the Great Game remains a team sport.

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