The Bourn Mystery

When I was younger, I spent the better part of a couple summers working for my dad in commercial real estate appraisal, taking calls from banks and helping assemble reports. I never knew at the time, of course, how much of that process and those instincts would stir about in my subconscious years later (e.g. appraisers are, essentially, reporters). I thought about that again recently because, in many ways, part of evaluating real estate is frighteningly similar to evaluating baseball players, if we are viewing them as assets on the free agent market.

An abbreviated version highlighting some key steps: You categorize the type of property (player’s position), you consider the time in which a property was built (player’s age), you review the occupancy and transaction history (player’s past teams and the cause for him changing/not changing hands), you study any renovations or modifications (player’s skills and possible changes in them), you examine purchase price per square foot over an extended period of time (player’s raw on-field value over time), you adjust for market conditions (salary inflation, as we’re seeing this winter), you inspect all relevant “comps” (player’s peers at his position/skill set and how he compares to them), you get a feel for property management (i.e. who’s running the place and are they reliable – that’s vague, I admit, but for a player, that could be defined as “makeup”), and you finally estimate current value and try to somewhat project market/asset changes that could be coming (player’s value now vs. player’s value in coming seasons).

There’s more to the process then that, of course, but those are staples of a process that usually leads to a definitive answer. So what happens when an asset doesn’t fit the process that cleanly and more judgment is required in the final evaluation?

You have Michael Bourn.

I don’t have a great answer for why Bourn entered this offseason as one of the (seemingly) most coveted position players on the market only to watch that market crumble around him like Greek ruins. The natural response is, “Dude, you’re asking for too much,” but I’m not convinced that’s true, and that shouldn’t be an acceptable answer anyway. Here is something interesting:

In the last three seasons, Bourn ranks third among all center fielders in wins above replacement with 15.2, behind Josh Hamilton at 16.8 and Andrew McCutchen at 17.0. FanGraphs estimates that, based on his WAR, Bourn has been “worth” $66.3 million over those three seasons. A 22.1 AAV for Bourn may seem a little nuts – especially considering he’s been asking for an 18 AAV (if those five-year, $90M reports are true) this winter, and the Braves, Nationals and Phillies all scurried away like he’s contagious – but that equates to $4.36 million per win of value, which would be a bit of a bargain on the open market where one “win” goes for about $5 million (and that’ll likely be higher after this offseason is over). Here is another interesting thing (Bourn’s ranking among center fielders in last three seasons):

On-base percentage: 8th

Slugging percentage: 27th

Walk rate: 10th

Strikeout rate: 19th

Stolen bases: 1st

Total base running (i.e. “runs” above average): 1st

Weighted runs created (adjusted, 100 is average): 20th (99)

If you knew nothing else, or didn’t care to look at anything else, your conclusion may be this: “So he’s a little guy who can get on base and run when he gets there, but he hits for hardly any power, strikes out too much for a guy without power and overall contributes less at the plate than Andres Torres (true fact: Torres’ wRC+ was 102)? Meh.”

And I think that sums up a large portion of how Bourn is being perceived this offseason – a lot of “meh” responses given the asking price.

Of course, a ton of Bourn’s value is tied to his defense – in that same three-year period, he ranks first among center fielders in total fielding “runs” (35.3), which would be higher if playing center field in Houston wasn’t only slightly less difficult than covering the whole state of Texas. Last year in Atlanta, he led baseball with 24 defensive runs saved.

Teams certainly understand and appreciate this, but paying a premium price for defensive value – and value created with his legs, which will decline as Bourn’s speed does — isn’t sexy and doesn’t fit the perception of an “impact” player. And that’s what is making this winter difficult for Bourn – it’s not as easy to answer, “What is he?” as it is for, say, Matt Kemp.

Let’s put Bourn’s defense and base running aside for a second and view him as a hitter only. Bourn is interesting in that he isn’t terribly complex to figure out – and he offers you opportunities to get him out – but he will rarely beat himself. He’s pretty similar against righties and lefties, with a couple minor differences.

Against righties, Bourn will see mostly fastballs away on the first pitch because he takes about four out of every five, and pitchers aren’t afraid of his power. If you can locate a quality pitch, he’ll give you strike 1. From there, it’s up to the pitcher to dictate the at-bat. While many hitters are uncomfortable behind in the count – and thus “expand” their strike zone even unnecessarily – Bourn exhibits poise and is confident in his bat speed, pitch recognition and ability to make contact. At 0-1, righties could go fastball in, throw a change away (he chases only 14 percent of them) or backdoor a curveball (Bourn takes about three of every four here). No, it’s not easy to locate a great changeup or backdoor a breaking ball, but you don’t need to be too fine either – Bourn will allow you to make your pitch. If you do, it’s 0-2.

If you don’t take advantage of strike 1 or you don’t follow up the first strike with another one, then the pitcher gave away a gift and Bourn changes. If he gets ahead in the count or works it to even, he goes on the attack, swinging more (and chasing more), hunting for a meaty fastball or sloppy breaking ball. Bourn will give you one – he won’t give you two. If a pitcher gets to this situation, his best weapon is a changeup off his fastball to prey on Bourn’s sudden aggressiveness. Of course, you need to have good feel and command of that pitch, and that skill is rarer. If you can get it back to 1-2, then Bourn sheds his aggressive layer and becomes the old guy again, waiting, lurking, trusting himself more than fearing his vulnerability in that particular count. If a righty has a good slider, that would be the strikeout pitch here.

Against lefties, Bourn’s personality at the plate is largely the same, but whereas righties can dot fastballs away the entire at-bat if they wanted, lefties have more options and should be a little more coy. You could dump an average breaking ball over for strike 1 – it’d be an upset if Bourn swung at it. At 1-0 and coming from a more difficult angle (if a lefty is really nasty and/or throws across his body, the ball may look like it’s actually coming from behind Bourn), you could move the fastball inside to set up a sweeping slider away on the third pitch. But if you go 1-0, then Bourn is coming at you – he sees 60 percent fastballs here and hacks at almost half of them. Best case scenario (for a pitcher) is then a 1-1 count, in which Bourn applies more gas, getting aggressive on fastballs and breaking balls that meander across too much of the plate.

In the right counts, you can beat Bourn inside with fastballs, but they have to be in sequence, as velocity alone doesn’t get him — in the last four seasons, Bourn has a .401 OBP against fastballs on the inner half at 93 mph or harder. It’s an odd, passive-aggressive game, the one Bourn plays, as if he gives you the first punch at him knowing he’s never had a jaw made of glass. It probably would be beneficial to Bourn if he took his aggressive side and applied it earlier in the count, not conceding that first strike. He’s likely giving away some opportunities to drive a first-pitch fastball or hanging breaking ball, something a guy with limited power to begin with probably can’t afford to do, and he’s putting himself in counts that beg for more off-speed pitches, an ugly habit for any hitter. His understanding and ability to manipulate an at-bat is much too good to be just an average (and sometimes below) hitter.

Bourn’s stolen bases are obvious – 155 in the last three years. His ability to take extra bases is obvious, illustrated by his “total base running” figure. His range and ability to make plays in his zone (and sometimes outside of it) on defense is obvious. One pleasant surprise of Bourn’s defense that I don’t think is properly represented: Last season, he ranked second among all center fielders in “hold” percentage on defense – meaning, opposing base runners didn’t run on him. Ironically, the defensive metrics that estimate an outfielder’s “production” from his arm rate Bourn as about average, which would be correct given that he’s not a big arm strength guy and doesn’t throw a lot of runners out. So why would runners challenge somebody like Kemp 10 percent more than Bourn?

It’s difficult to know without parsing the video or questioning scouts who follow Bourn very closely, but my theory: It’s not that runners don’t want to challenge Bourn, they can’t. Bourn plays an aggressive outfield, charging hard on balls in front of him, and uses his speed to close ground on balls much faster than other outfielders. Because of this, he gets the ball into the cut more quickly, and runners are forced to stay put. He knows he doesn’t have the arm strength to gun guys down, so he tries to avoid situations where he’d be tested. (We should also note that outfielders with good arms like to throw guys out and will occasionally bait a runner into challenging them. Is this smart? Eh, most likely not. But it’s one of those “smoke ‘em if you got ‘em” things.) So for a player with limited arm strength, Bourn is finding a creative way to provide additional value on defense.

None of this answers the question of whether Bourn is worth $90 million or not, and I don’t think it’s supposed to. But if we can understand how he’s applying his skill set, it does seem to make him a little less of a mystery.

Email: Twitter: @TMitrosilis

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