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History suggests that Michael Bourn is likely to be a bust

Nov 5, 2012, 11:26 PM EDT

Michael Bourn AP

Center field is the one strong position in free agency this winter, and many teams appear to see view Michael Bourn as the head of a class that also includes B.J. Upton, Angel Pagan and Shane Victorino.

I do no share that view.

Bourn turns 30 next month. He was one of the NL’s better players last season, but a large part of that was his defense. He hit .274/.348/.391 for the year. It’s the fourth straight year in which he’s finished with with an OBP close to .350. He’s slugged right around .390 in three of those years, though he came in at .346 in 2010.

The big problem with Bourn is that he strikes out a great deal for the hitter he is. In fact, he’s struck out in 20.2 percent of his plate appearances through his seven seasons, all while hitting just 22 homers.

Bourn is one of 12 hitters in big-league history to hit fewer than 50 homers and strike out at least 18 percent of the time in their first seven seasons. Three of those 12 active (Dexter Fowler, Ronny Cedeno and Carlos Gomez) and younger than Bourn, so they can’t count here. Here is how the other eight fared after age 30:

Leroy Stanton: .227/.300/.377 in 987 at-bats (111 OPS+ in 1,588 AB through 29)
Gary Pettis: .229/.332/.300 in 1,766 at-bats (80 OPS+ in 1,863 AB through 29)
Felix Jose: .229/.319/.375 in 96 at-bats (104 OPS+ in 2,431 AB through 29)
Greg Gagne: .258/.310/.373 in 2,726 at-bats (85 OPS+ in 2,947 AB through 29)
Darren Bragg: .239/.311/.352 in 685 at-bats (91 OPS+ in 1,1776 AB through 29)
Rich Becker: Out of baseball
Andujar Cedeno: Out of baseball
Jose Castillo: Out of baseball

Now, of course, you’re saying none of those guys is as good as Bourn. And maybe they’re not. But Bourn hasn’t been very good offensively, either. While OPS+ isn’t the most suitable method for measuring his value, it says something that he comes in at 90. He’s not in the same class as guys like Kenny Lofton, Willie Wilson and some of the other speedy center fielders in the past. Exactly 100 major leaguers since 1901 have stolen 200 bases through age 29. Bourn’s OPS+ ranks 85th of the group. Here are some notables:

Rickey Henderson: 134
Tim Raines: 133
Cesar Cedeno: 130
Roberto Alomar: 119
Lenny Dykstra: 118
Kenny Lofton: 115
Chuck Knoblauch: 112
Lou Brock: 112
Mickey Rivers: 109
B.J. Upton: 105
Carl Crawford: 105
Willie McGee: 103
Willie Wilson: 102
Marquis Grissom: 100
Chone Figgins: 99
Delino DeShields: 99
Brett Butler: 99
Luis Castillo: 94
Bourn: 90
Roger Cedeno: 90
Juan Pierre: 85
Vince Coleman: 85
Tom Goodwin: 76

There are plenty of guys on the list who had as little power as Bourn, but most of them struck out less and hit for higher averages.

Of the 00 players, only eight struck out in at least 18 percent of their plate appearances (remember, Bourn is at 20.2). The other seven (Darryl Strawberry, Eric Davis, Bobby Bonds, Sammy Sosa, Brock, Upton and Juan Samuel) had all hit at least 90 homers and slugged .422 or better through age 29. Bourn has 22 homers and has slugged .365.

Finally, one more list. Here are the 10 players most similar to Bourn through age 29, according to Baseball Reference.

1. Max Flack
2. Brett Butler
3. Dave Collins
4. Roger Cedeno
5. Brian Hunter
6. Albie Peterson
7. Solly Hofman
8. Johnny Bates
9. Bob Beschler
10. Rudy Law

Only one of those players proved very valuable after age 30, and that’s Butler, who actually had all of his best seasons after turning 30 (he received MVP votes six times, all from ages 31-37). Collins had one good season at 31 and was done as a useful regular afterwards. Flack, who played from 1914-25, faded gradually after 30 and had his last year as a regular at 33.

Of course, Bourn could always defy the odds. It’s not as though he’s likely to suddenly collapse at age 30, and even if he ceases being much of a hitter, he’ll still have value with his defense. However, he’s a pretty awful bet at what figures to be a four- or five-year deal worth $14 million-$16 million per year.

  1. missthedayswhenwedidnthavetologin - Nov 5, 2012 at 11:57 PM

    Man just let the man make his money Matthew.

    • samu0034 - Nov 6, 2012 at 4:00 AM

      I’ve got to agree. All of what Matthew said might be true, and it’s absolutely the sort of thing that GMs ought to consider when writing out contracts for players like Bourn. That said, however, it just seems kind of mean spirited to go on at length about how mediocre he’s been, and how much he’s destined to suck from here on out. It’s a fair thing to write about, it’s what sports writers are supposed to write about, but there’s something to be said for tactfulness also.

      Further, I think that articles that are written in this manner are a lot of the reason that SABRe guys get a bad rap from old-school guys. Michael Bourn is a human being, he’s not a line in a spreadsheet. Sure, compared to other players similar to him the odds seem pretty good that he’s going to have a hard time living up to whatever his next contract pays him, and that’s a good and fair thing to write about. And as I mentioned before, it’s something that should be accounted for by GMs when considering what to pay him. But there’s no need to write an article that in so many words says “Michael Bourn is going to suck from here on out, the numbers tell me so” and then defend yourself by including a throwaway little paragraph at the end saying that maybe Michael Bourn can buck the trend (but don’t bet on it ;-) ).

      Finally, why not use a headline like “Odds against Bourne living up to next contract” rather than “History suggests that Michael Bourn is likely to be a bust”? That alone would diffuse a lot of the petty tone the article has.

      • forsch31 - Nov 6, 2012 at 8:21 AM

        This is the free agency period, and Matthew’s article is very analytical and balanced, pointing out his strengths in the field while turning a light to his big issues at the plate. Yes, there’s a very strong possibility that Bourn could be a free agent bust. That’s the reality. I’d rather the articles I read state the reality, rather than dance around the mayberry bush.

        There’s nothing mean-spirited about the article, unless you’re Michael Bourn and your skin is made of wet paper.

      • paperlions - Nov 6, 2012 at 8:31 AM

        If you think Saber guys are harsh buy using facts, you should read what “old school” guys (i.e. scouts) write about player abilities when the describe effort, body, aging, and durability. “Old School” guys write about players like they are pieces of meat.

        Look, this is a blog for fans, not for players. If you are a fan of a team that might sign Bourne, don’t you want to have an idea of what to expect from him if that happens and a forum in which to discuss it?

        Setting expectation level is very important. It isn’t (and won’t be) fair of fans to suddenly expect Bourne to be something he’s not just because he’s paid more.

  2. missthemexpos - Nov 6, 2012 at 12:26 AM

    You have raised some good points, now what I would really like to see is the binder of info that Scott Boras is presenting to various General Managers as to why his client (Michael Bourn) deserves a contract in the neighborhood of 100 million.

    • proudlycanadian - Nov 6, 2012 at 8:33 AM

      Coming soon to a team near you, the thriller called THE BOURN BINDER, starring Michael Bourn, produced and directed by Scott Boras.

      • ptfu - Nov 6, 2012 at 9:07 AM

        The three sections in Scott Boras’ Bourn Binder:

        Section 1. The Bourn Identity. Who is this guy?
        Section 2: The Bourn Supremacy. How this guy can win you pennants
        Section 3: The Bourn Ultimatum. What he will cost, take it or leave it, countless “mystery teams” are also bidding

      • proudlycanadian - Nov 6, 2012 at 9:09 AM

        You are correct.

  3. canadabaseball - Nov 6, 2012 at 1:04 AM

    He will go to angles and then they will trade trumbo for pitching and or cash

    • proudlycanadian - Nov 6, 2012 at 8:33 AM

      eh?

      • churchoftheperpetuallyoutraged - Nov 6, 2012 at 10:33 AM

        Whatcha talking aboot?

  4. bhekumuzimguni - Nov 6, 2012 at 4:12 AM

    Reblogged this on Bhekumuzi Mguni.

  5. proudlycanadian - Nov 6, 2012 at 7:28 AM

    Somehow, I doubt that Boras will use any of Matthew’s analysis in his Bourn Binder.

  6. kkolchak - Nov 6, 2012 at 7:55 AM

    This makes me especially happy that Bryce Harper emerged as the centerfield answer for the Nats (at least until Brian Goodwin is ready in a year or so). Rizzo was hot-to-trot on Bourn a couple of years ago, but a $100+ million contract for him at this point would be nuts.

  7. stex52 - Nov 6, 2012 at 8:36 AM

    I’ve said this before. WAR for the last four years suggests he is worth about 16 MM$/yr, the key being for how long? It is, of course, a backward-looking metric. If he kept up at an average nearly 5 WAR for the next four years would you pay it? I think most GM’s still appear to put more of a value on OPS+ when you look at the players they prefer.

    But I think the Carl Crawford deal may affect Michael’s value. I like him, but he may have trouble getting much past 60 MM$.

  8. willclarkgameface - Nov 6, 2012 at 8:37 AM

    I predicted a couple weeks ago that Rizzo would go after Bourn. I still see this happening because Mike Rizzo is an idiot.

  9. jarathen - Nov 6, 2012 at 9:14 AM

    Michael Bourn is an older Peter Bourjos who will make too much money as his most important tools begin their precipitous decline. But if a team is trying to nail down the title in the next year or two, well, flags fly forever.

  10. temporarilyexiled - Nov 6, 2012 at 9:19 AM

    I’ve taken a lot of flack for bashing statheads. My point has always been that old-school scouting and cutting-edge number crunching both have their place. It shouldn’t be an argument about which one makes sense. It’s about how well each discipline is used. Matthew’s post is a great example of how stats should be used. These stats just happen to match the impression I’ve always had of Michael Bourn – you know – the one I get with my own eyes. Professional scouts have forgotten more than I’ll ever know. But even a fan can see quite a bit, if they watch a lot of baseball. This whole idea that the naked eye and sabremetrics conflict – to me – is ridiculous. Now if you want to discuss how the conflict has more to do with the fact that one or both of the disciplines are practiced badly – in public – and how some or all of the data gathered from one or both of these sources is a joke – then you’d be getting somewhere. As in so many things in life, it’s not the field that should be questioned – it’s the abilities of the practitioners in that field that make the difference. It’s not the thing – it’s the execution of the thing – that matters.

    • stex52 - Nov 6, 2012 at 10:14 AM

      I’m not sure who you think is disagreeing with you on this site.

      • temporarilyexiled - Nov 6, 2012 at 11:08 AM

        pmcenroe

        First poster to make me decide between telling them what I think of them and getting banned from this site.

        Enough said.

    • churchoftheperpetuallyoutraged - Nov 6, 2012 at 10:38 AM

      But even a fan can see quite a bit, if they watch a lot of baseball. This whole idea that the naked eye and sabremetrics conflict – to me – is ridiculous

      Well they can conflict when the eye tells you something that doesn’t actually happen. There are two big problems with the eye test. For one, many of us, if not most, aren’t trained scouts so while we see someone catching everything/hitting everything, we may be missing an actual weakness (bad routes hidden by great speed) or lack of plate discipline covered up by an uncanny ability to foul pitches off.

      Also, it’s just not physically possible to watch every single play of every single game. So a person could watch every Braves game, and give an excellent run down of the strengths and weaknesses of the Braves players, but they’d be unable to give an accurate assessment vs other CFs in the game.

      Scouts and stats both have their places in the game, but it’s best when used together, not separate.

      • temporarilyexiled - Nov 6, 2012 at 11:01 AM

        You make a lot of great points, and for the most part, I agree with them. That said, this takes my argument further – to the place I really have been getting at – and didn’t know how to say it – until now. LOOKING AT STATS IS JUST AS FRAUGHT WITH PERIL AS USING THE EYE TEST. Okay, different problems come up, but one is no less of a problem than the other. What they have in common is: WHAT MAKES YOU GOOD AT USING EITHER STATS OR YOUR EYES – OR AS WE BOTH AGREE ON – BOTH OF THEM – IS THE RELEVANCY OF THE INFORMATION YOU CHOOSE TO USE. To me, a stathead is someone who thinks that just because they use sabermetrics, the information is somehow less likely to be off the mark. In life, you learn that the more you know, the more there is to know…and that “experts”…are rarely experts. Predictions tend to be more accurate when not influenced by ego, money, media exposure, trendiness, etc. There’s a radio ad on MLB where some idiot proclaims he likes the hot stove season better than the regular season (perhaps his team perpetually sucks). Even if that’s true – it’s pathetic.

      • stex52 - Nov 6, 2012 at 11:45 AM

        The problem with stats is the problem with any empirical data. The analysis is looking backward for results. Prediction is always difficult. Bourn is still worth quite a bit of money if he maintains his performance going forward. But the article suggests he won’t.

        Then again, maybe he is the two standard deviation exception. Only one way I know of to find out for sure. And it’s expensive for some owner.

  11. temporarilyexiled - Nov 6, 2012 at 11:35 AM

    One other thing occurs to me. In looking at the list that makes centerfield supposedly a strong position available in free agency, I look at every single name…and they all make me say…meh. Is is only me, or does it seem like this year’s free agents are mostly going to be asking for WAY more than they’re worth? I know – there’s lots of money floating around – that said – how many of these guys seem like a good deal? I see Brian Sabean’s way of doing business working yet again. Sign a few under-the-radar guys. Make astute trades. Try to develop what little there is from within.

  12. vanmorrissey - Nov 6, 2012 at 11:52 AM

    Bourn fell into that one of the best years of his life comes in a contract year Category. Let’s see the Yankees fall for that and move Granderson to right and cough up the money for Bourn. Another aging player with a bloated contract seems to fit the Yankee mold.

  13. thereisaparty - Nov 6, 2012 at 1:34 PM

    These player comps are practically worthless. They add nothing of substance, especially those from BRef

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