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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.

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