The requisite Jacoby Ellsbury and Michael Bourn contract comparison

bourn ellsbury

The Internet was buzzing yesterday with news of the latest baseball mega-deal: Centerfielder Jacoby Ellsbury agreed to a seven-year $153 million deal with the New York Yankees.

The numbers are staggering. The contract is among the largest of all time. Ellsbury, who just completed his age-30 season, bears some resemblance to a speedy outfielder that the Indians signed last offseason: Michael Bourn. Yet the two contracts couldn’t be any more different.

Cleveland was a somewhat surprise entrant to the Bourn sweepstakes, winning the then-30-year-old’s services with a contract worth up to five years and $60 million1. What makes the two players so much different?

In actuality, they had fairly similar career value leading up to their free agent contracts. They accumulated said value in different ways, of course. But it’s fascinating to see how this could lead to two more years and over $90 million.

bourn ellsbury career value

The above chart shares the value for Bourn and Ellsbury at the time of their contracts. Both were entering their age-31 seasons with their new deals. Although Bourn had played nearly a season’s worth of more games, they actually had a shockingly similar total of plate appearances. That makes analysis pretty easy in an apples-to-apples way.

Ellsbury had about 22.5 jWAR2, Bourn had about 20. The major difference is how they got to those values. The basic WAR calculation is a sum of runs above average for batting, baserunning and fielding, then adding in positional scarcity and replacement level bonuses. Thus, Wins Above Replacement, not just average.

We’ll note the biggest difference immediately: Bourn is a below-average with the bat as Ellsbury is above-average. That’s crazy. A general rule of thumb is that 10 runs is equal to 1 win. So Ellsbury had about a 7 win advance on Bourn with just his bat. He’s actually a really good hitter, unlike Bourn.

But in baserunning and fielding, Bourn is one of the best … of all-time. He far exceeded the value from Ellsbury, generally regarded as one of baseball’s speediest players and best fielders. That’s how amazing Michael Bourn was in his prime.

[Also See … The Diff: Debunking myths about Michael Bourn]

Now that we have the career values in place for their pre-free agency years, let’s take a look at their basic career statistics, per 150 games, to see where they differed.

bourn ellsbury career stats

Again, the basic box score statistics tell the story of how Ellsbury is far superior hitter than Bourn. That can again be seen in OPS+. Perhaps that irrefutable fact is why Ellsbury is valued much more on the open market, where doubles and home runs catch the eye a bit more than beating out a double play or cutting off a single? Certainly that’s logical. But in 2013, it’s hard to imagine teams aren’t paying attention to these advanced numbers.

One will note that Ellsbury actually had more steals and a better stolen-base rate than Bourn. And then in 2013, Bourn fell off his career pace entirely, stealing successfully on only 23/35 attempts. So it must be that Bourn’s lead in the advanced baserunning category is more from beating out double plays, extending hits and advancing extra bases than steals alone.

Ellsbury is far more adept as a leadoff hitter … mostly because he’s a far superior batter overall. He strikes out less frequently, and although he actually walks a bit less, he has a far better average.

Looking at the circumstances for their signings, many teams likely shied away from Bourn because of the draft pick compensation. Atlanta gave Bourn a qualifying offer, which he denied like every ever has. One team in particular, the New York Mets, would have lost their No. 11 overall pick because a team failed to sign a 2012 pick, bumping them down from the top-10 restricted zone. Any team that signs a qualifying-offer free agent loses their highest unrestricted draft pick.

[Also See … WFNY Stats & Info: Comparing Josh Hamilton and Michael Bourn]

Cleveland owned the No. 5 pick, which was restricted from being lost by a free agency acquisition. They also had already signed Nick Swisher, losing their second round pick. Thus, signing Bourn only cost them their competitive balance selection – between the second and third rounds – a much lower cost than what the Mets would have faced.

For the Ellsbury deal, the economics favor a team on the precipice of the playoffs. A marginal win is far more valuable to an 86-win team contending for the postseason than a 76-win team. Who cares if you only win 77 and still miss the playoffs? No one knew what the Indians could have been entering 2013. But the Yankees certainly are gearing up for another playoff run next year, per usual, thus meaning that Ellsbury’s added value could bring them over the hump. The draft pick discussion doesn’t matter as much to them.

Bourn’s team-friendly deal made him an immediate possible trade candidate. With the Indians recently signing another outfielder in David Murphy and tendering a deal to Drew Stubbs, that possibility becomes even more likely.

[Also See … How crazy would it be for Indians to consider trading Michael Bourn?]

In the end, the debate boils down to how well speedy outfielders age historically in baseball. Initially, as I wrote in The Diff and the Josh Hamilton stats post last February, I was quite optimistic. Over time, I soured about that idea, learning more about examples like Chone Figgins and Carl Crawford. Michael Bourn’s disappointing 2013 season certainly didn’t make me feel any better.

But lo and behold, evidence shows that speedy players like Ellsbury and Bourn do age quite well. FanGraphs’ David Cameron dove into the numbers again on Tuesday night. Here were his results:

Those decent amounts of data suggest that players like Ellsbury age well, even if Carl Crawford did not. That data does not support the idea that speed-and-defense players fall apart after they turn 30. If anything, the data suggests just the opposite, and says that big boned first baseman are the ones you should be really afraid of.

I know the Carl Crawford comparison is the easy one, especially because Boston is tied to both players. That doesn’t make the conclusion about Ellsbury’s future value based on Crawford’s failure any more true, however.

Runs are runs, and wins are wins, regardless of whether created by speed and defense or power and contact. Undoubtedly, both Jacoby Ellsbury and Michael Bourn are valuable players. The reason for the two starkly different contracts is perhaps solely tied to the nature of the signing team’s budget than anything. Cleveland loves Michael Bourn at $12 million a year, while New York can stand Jacoby Ellsbury at $22 million a year.

I wouldn’t put too much weight just yet in Ellsbury’s contract changing the entire free agent landscape for remaining available players like Robinson Cano or Shin-Soo Choo. It certainly won’t hurt their case, but there aren’t too many other teams like the Yankees still fetching for major talent. It’s a fascinating comparison to see how 10 months changed so much for two very similar players, but perhaps nothing really changed at all.

Photos: Tony Dejak/Associated Press and Ronald Martinez/Getty Images

  1. Bourn has a vesting option for 2017 at $12 million based on accumulating 550 plate appearances the previous season. He’s averaged 657 plate appearances the last five years, so the option seems inevitable. []
  2. again, for the unfamiliar, jWAR is a simple average of FanGraphs and Baseball-Reference. For more information, read Jon’s post from last winter. []

  • mgbode

    I guess the interesting points between these 2 particular 2 players is such:

    (1) Do we trust the defensive metrics enough to truly put Bourn near the same plane of WAR as Ellsbury? It seems that the batting metrics are fairly advanced, but the defensive ones get debated quite often.

    (2) What ages better? Speedy guys who can hit or speedy guys who can defend? Just doing a cursory search on guys like Devon White (more similar to Bourn) made me scared (his dWAR dropped off after 30), but then Vince Coleman (more similar to Ellsbury) had his bat numbers drop off.

    Cameron’s article does a slightly deeper dive, but it’s still a very small sample size. His overall conclusion is in the middle of the article:

    Offensively, they hardly declined at all. Their defense got worse, but
    it didn’t become useless. They got slower, but were still better
    baserunners than most. They played fewer games, but most of them played
    enough to still be productive.

    that suggests why Ellsbury got such a richer contract compared to Bourn as well.

  • The_Real_Shamrock

    Just thankful the Red Sox let the Yankees revert back to their overspending ways of the past and decided not to engage in a nuclear spending match. They utilized the Dodger’s overspending to rid themselves of some ridiculous contracts which resulted in a championship so hopefully the trend continues. They’ve been to quiet for my likes but who knows maybe now with Ellsbury gone they move Victorino to CF and go after Stanton like was rumored this fall.

  • nj0

    Defensive metrics suggest that there is quite a bit of variance year-to-year in player performance. So I think in some ways betting on a bat first fielder is safer because you know what you’re getting.

    Personally, I think Ellsbury is, was, and will be a better, more consistent player than Bourn and should be getting paid significantly more. Hope Bourn has a bounce back year this year.

  • Steve

    The Red Sox, spenders of only $150M, 4th highest in the league, last year, showing everyone the way Real Scotsmen assemble their team.

  • Steve

    Bourn is getting like what he almost was last year, a below average offensive player, but who makes it up with his defense and baserunning, but is not otherworldly in those areas.

    I know we all hoped for Lofton in the field and on the bases, but he was still good enough there to end up being a bit above average overall. I’m actually more concerned that we may not see any improvement at the plate, and we need to do find OBP at the top of the order somewhere else.

  • The_Real_Shamrock

    Don’t be jealous yes the Sox spent but they did it in a much smarter fashion. They unloaded all those contracts on LA then redid the roster adding what would prove to be some key veteran free agents. Maybe Cleveland can do the same one day just at a Walmart price.

  • The_Real_Shamrock

    If healthy I expect Bourn to be much more aggressive this coming season. After all it was his first year in the AL.

  • Steve

    Ah, of course, those pointing out that the Red Sox are lavish spenders are just “jealous”. Go have sour grapes with that ridiculous homer Abraham over the Ellsbury signing. That guy makes a three year old who got his toy taken away look mature.

  • WFNYJacob

    People often forget how good Lofton was and for how long.

    From 1998-2007, his age-31 to age-40 seasons, he averaged 128 games, 550 PA, a 102 OPS+, 27 steals and a 3.1 jWAR. That’s really darn impressive.

  • Steve

    I’m looking for him to become smarter, not necessarily more aggressive. 66% SB rate is a net negative. He made up for it with taking extra bases, but he’s already making enough outs at the plate, he shouldn’t be making more on the bases.

  • Steve

    Very impressive, deserved not only to stay on the HoF ballot, but be in consideration for a spot in a few years.

    We were never going to get that 102 OPS+ out of Bourn in his 30s. But from ages 30-34 (the years Bourn will be under contract with us), Lofton was +15 runs in fielding and baserunning (bb-ref numbers). Bourn can still find that range, but he’s got some work to do.

  • nj0

    Yes, that’s what I meant by a bounce back year – improvement at the plate. Though now that I look at his numbers from last year, they weren’t that far off from his career averages.

    FG’s had him as worth about $10M last year, which was a win last year but would be a loss in any other year of this contract.

  • nj0

    Don’t get me started on how the HoF ballot works. Guys getting kicked off the ballot early bothers me more than guys not making it in.

  • WFNYJacob

    Yeah Bourn’s just never been that good offensively. He only has one year with an above-average OPS+ — that was in 2011 with a 103.

    From 2009-2012, Bourn averaged 24 runs above average from fielding and baserunning, en route to an average of a 5.0 bWAR. In 2013, he posted only 5 runs above average from fielding and baserunning with a 2.4 bWAR.

  • The_Real_Shamrock

    Please refrain from telling me what to do even if just figuratively. There are enough of those “types” around here these days. And just for the record Steve I don’t know what or who you are since the day you started commenting here. The difference between you and me is I don’t really care.

    Have a nice day!

  • Mike P

    Steve has a point.
    Its called a Boston Blog.
    We hear enough about your town on ESPN.

  • The_Real_Shamrock


  • nj0

    Agreed. I’m hoping that he was playing through injury. Same with Swisher.

  • Steve

    And yet you care enough to annoy the crap out of people who want to talk Cleveland sports, something you rarely show interest in.

  • Steve

    I’d go the other way, but get the sentiment. All in all, the writers have shown themselves to be completely incapable of figuring the ballot out.

  • nj0

    While I agree that the BoSox made some smart moves and spent well, I do find it humorous how a good portion of that fan base loves to act like they’re David to the Yankees’ Goliath while never quite admitting how much they dwarf the vast majority of the rest of the field.

  • The_Real_Shamrock

    I know you are all giddy after wetting your pants from another member of MENSA agreeing with you but since the headline includes a now former Boston player I believe Craig doesn’t mind if a Red Sox fan comments. He’s not as narrow minded as the rest of you losers!

  • nj0

    The rules governing the voting process are stupid in themselves, but nowhere near as stupid as the majority of voters.

    What I find funny is how stodgy the writers are in voting yet (historically) when the Hall puts together a special committees they basically just let anyone in.

  • The_Real_Shamrock

    Practically every team who was there near the end spent it’s just the nature of the beast. Nothing will change. At least for a change the spending was equaled by shrewdness and the result was 2013 World Series Championship. As for Yankees fans who cares until they win something their voices aren’t any louder then say Indians fans.

  • mgbode

    until they win something

    apparently, 27 titles just doesn’t go very far these days. anything under 30 is just a pittance.

  • The_Real_Shamrock

    I edited my comment above it should have included the words “more recently” thanks for enlightening me.

  • nj0

    But nobody plays the Little Engine That Could card like BoSox fans. Not all, but a lot I see on the internet.

  • The_Real_Shamrock

    Well Sox fans have the Little Engine That Could people and the Indians have people like Steve. What can you do ya know?

  • Steve

    Nobody minds if a Red Sox, or Yankee, or whoever, fan comments. I’d bet people mind if the that fan decides to change the conversation from Cleveland related to non-Cleveland related. I’m sure, because of your propensity to hurl insults about intellect, can figure that out.

    I guess I just shouldn’t have fed the troll.

  • Steve

    Don’t change Sham, don’t ever change. We’re all out to get you and rain on your parade.

  • The_Real_Shamrock

    I’m simply reacting and commenting alike. I’m not the one telling people where they should comment or better yet how they should comment. I find it funny that your so sensitive I mean from the day you started commenting here you’ve told people how they should think, how they should respond and all of the rest.

    As far as the use of the word “troll” goes I suggest you and the people like you learn what that word means. I believe someone who was posting comments here before you and who has over 7,000 comments is not considered a troll. Now I’m done with you. I’ve told you in the past I don’t like you but just so we are clear Steven, I really don’t like you!

  • The_Real_Shamrock

    Drop dead.

  • mgbode

    Fa la la la la, la la la la

  • mgbode

    Sham, you are a Red Sox fan smacking the Yankees for time spent since their last championship (we all know that Boston would never go so long between ‘ships). This is hilarious stuff man, thanks.

  • The_Real_Shamrock

    NY and Boston ain’t got nothin’ on Cleveland for championships – better bring it back to relevance for those who hate being off the subject of Cleveland for to long.

    Btw glad I could make you sing then laugh. It gave you a reason for comment #12,416! So glad you aren’t an air traffic controller.

  • mgbode

    I would be a GREAT air traffic controller. lots of things going on all at once would steady me. I would be a terrible sniper as focusing on one thing isn’t my style.