Bourn Identity: What’s going on with the Indians center fielder?

michael bournA massive debate broke out on Twitter at the end of Friday’s disheartening 3-2 Indians defeat. This time around, it wasn’t actually about attendance.

No, it was about Michael Bourn and his eventually failed bunt attempt. After red-hot Lonnie Chisenhall started the bottom of the ninth against the Blue Jays with a double, Bourn attempted to bunt twice and failed each time. On the 0-2 pitch, he struck out with a weak swing.

Was it the right decision to bunt when the Tribe needed just one run to bring the game into extra innings? Should Bourn be bunting at all? And what does this all have to do with WAR and the changing evaluations of baseball?

It’s all wrapped together in the way we think, talk and write about Michael Bourn, a 31-year-old center fielder being paid $13.5 million this season and a guaranteed $27.5 million more through 2016. He’s back in the lineup after starting the year on the DL. What should we expect? What’s next?

The bunt

Generally speaking, new-wave sabermetric thinkers hate bunting. In this day and age, most advanced minds will preach constantly about the waste of an out in the act of a sacrifice bunt. There are relatively few situations in which they make sense at all. This might have been one of them. Maybe.

Consulting a handful of run expectancy charts1, we see that the Indians would have been expected to score about 1.05 runs in the ninth after Chisenhall’s leadoff double. That’s important to know; all things considered, they were expected to essentially tie from that one hit alone.

What is the run expectancy with a runner on third and one out? Notably lower, right around 0.90 runs. And with a failed sac bunt, leaving a runner on second and one out, the odds drop significantly to 0.65.

So from the perspective of scoring the most runs possible, yes, there’s a clear drop and no real incentive in even trying to bunt. There’s no advantage. But in the end, the Indians weren’t necessarily just looking to scoring the most runs possible – they were hoping to simply tie and continue the game, at least. That’s a slightly different equation. Ninth innings change the mind frame a wee bit.

Consulting the numbers, there’s actually a minute increase in the probability of scoring at least one run in the instance of a successful sacrifice bunt. Runner on third and one out, there is a 0.67 probability of scoring. Runner on second and no out, that’s 0.63. Runner on second and one out, 0.42.

That means if you have at least an 85% faith2 in your sacrifice bunter to do a successful job, then yes, per the math, it somewhat does indeed make sense to bunt in playing not to lose. This is a rare instance of bunting practically. But the numbers do show some perhaps slant to maybe actually bunting, if you have an elite bunter.

In this instance, Michael Bourn walked to the plate a combined 4-for-32 in the majors and minors so far in 2014. He was going to be followed by Jason Kipnis and Nick Swisher, two of Cleveland’s usual best hitters. Bourn had laid down 33 sacrifice hits in his MLB career, so he wasn’t not an exact stranger to the bunt historically.

That’s what the numbers say. A bunt might have been an OK call in some instances. It’s not that obscene or egregious. For an elite bunter, this was a possibly solid value proposition.

The player

After Bourn struck out and the inning eventually ended in heartbreak, the conversation on Twitter took a slightly different approach. Some argued: Why should you be bunting your leadoff hitter, your $13.5 million man? This requires a bit more study.

Let’s review what I wrote back in February 2013, shortly after the team signed Bourn. I shared four myths and attempted to debunk them. The first myth I discussed: “Michael Bourn’s not that valuable of a player since he’s not a great hitter.” That was certainly a myth.

One key quote that I referenced from ESPN Insider’s Keith Law: “In fact, as good as Bourn is, [Michael] Brantley3 actually had the better triple-slash line last year while playing in the better league, although he can’t touch Bourn on defense or on the bases.”

That was written about the 2012 season when Brantley was 25 years old and Bourn was 29. That season, despite hitting just .274/.348/.391, Bourn produced a career-high 6.4 WAR good for sixth-place among National League position players. So yes, very, very valuable.

For his career, Bourn carries a 91 OPS+. He actually had a slightly better than career norm year at the plate in 2013, despite his oft-noted struggles, with a 92 OPS+. He’s a below average hitter. That’s what he is. But as we’ve learned in today’s day and age, there’s much more to evaluate than just hitting.

From 2008-12, his first five full seasons, he ranked first in runs produced4 from baserunning and eighth in runs produced from fielding, per Baseball-Reference. Again, this was a slightly below average hitter. But he managed to average 3.8 WAR during these seasons. That’s fringe All-Star material – and very valuable on the open market5. Almost exclusively from non-hitting attributes.

There are conflicting research projects on how speed/defense/athleticism age as opposed to traditional power and contact skills. I also wrote about comparing Bourn’s deal to Josh Hamilton’s and these different skill characteristics. From the initial article, another myth I busted was “Michael Bourn’s 30 years old, so he’s going to start regressing soon anyway.” But our area of concern: Is that necessarily true?

As I shared, Bourn had a better than normal year at the plate in 2013. But the issue was his baserunning and defense, which usually were elite. He stole only 23 of 35 bases, a negative value and well off his usual averages. He was inconsistent in center field, often taking poor routes. He finished with only 6 runs produced above average6 from fielding/baserunning; he averaged 20, second-best in baseball, in the previous five seasons.

That stat, combined with his very poor start at the plate, should make Indians fans wonder: Is he declining rapidly? Is this the end of Bourn’s prime? Will this previously fair deal turn into a Travis Hafner-esque albatross contract? The Indians can hardly afford these type of mistakes, which is why they likely won’t sign Justin Masterson to a free agent deal.

If every team is baseball is seeing these same Bourn stats and worrying about the same things, his previous open-market trade value would be squashed too, obviously. The Indians have to hope they’ve found some way to correct his flaws, not just at the plate with his slow start, but specifically in his token areas of baserunning and defense. Without them, he’s merely just your ordinary center fielder, not a $13 million one.

The Indians are off to a 6-8 start and although Bourn’s only had a small role in that from his three games played, his future play should be a key area of concern going forward. It’s OK if he remains a slightly below average hitter, that’s what he is. But he needs to return to his elite production elsewhere for the Indians to reach their full potential.

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  1. see here, here and here. these tools are incredibly useful for future purposes. []
  2. average sacrifice bunt success rate is about 75%, so this is a little over-eager. []
  3. indians fans LOVE michael brantley. I ranted about that in reference to carlos santana’s underappreciated value last year. but today, the focus is on bourn. []
  4. as you might know, the formula for WAR is the addition of several base components of “runs produced above average.” for position players, these categories include hitting, baserunning and fielding, at least. more on this later. []
  5. usual free agent $/Win models estimate that 4 WAR annually is worth about $20-28 million. so if bourn kept producing that, his contract would be a steal. []
  6. note: above average, not replacement value. WAR formula includes a replacement level constant that is added later. in essence, approximately 10 runs – in any instance – is equivalent to a win. []

  • Excellent stuff, Jacob. Even beyond the bunting issue (#smallballsucks), Bourn’s defense is a real area of concern going forward, particularly with a below-average LF in Brantley. An effective Bourn on defense would be HUGE.

  • John Smith

    A below-average left fielder in Michael Brantley? The same guy who set the club record for consecutive errorless games by an outfielder? Third in the American League in LF assists. Accurate arm, very adept with playing the wall in left. Brantley is not the problem.

  • CB Everett

    This is a perfect example of stats nerds needing to take a seat. Common sense and any tad bit of baseball knowledge tells you that if any situation ever called for a sac bunt it’s man on second with no outs in the 9th down a run. Jesus H is that even a question? If your leadoff man can’t lay one down there something is seriously wrong.

  • Errors don’t tell you much of anything about a player’s fielding ability, nor do I put a lot of stock into assists. He’s below-average in LF, awful in center.

  • Common sense doesnt mean it’s correct. And bunting isn’t exactly a fundamental baseball concept, hence why so few people are good at it.

  • tribe

    Good stuff indeed.

    In theory, WAR is a great stat, but I can’t just can’t agree with it, especially after watching Bourn play last year. If you consider 2013 an above average offensive season in his book, I’m terrified for the future.

    Bourn’s defense is SOOOO overrated. He is quick and he does get good jumps and usually takes good routes to balls, but his arm is horrendous. It amazes me how often people neglect an outfielder’s arm when evaluating his defense.
    Brantley takes great routes and has a much better arm than Bourn. I’d say they have comparable defense, although I didn’t watch Bourn’s 3.0 dWAR 2012.

    This contract will be worse than the Hafner deal when it’s all said and done, and that’s assuming he stays healthy.

  • CB Everett

    The result (Bourn’s failure) doesn’t mean it was the wrong call. I say Tito was 100% right, but we can disagree. On another note, I agree but think it should be fundamental for a leadoff hitter and someone w Bourn’s skill set. Lofton as a LHH leadoff could drag one down the 1B line in his sleep. Looks like Bourn is more of the Alex Cole caliber unfortunately.

  • Alex Cole’s best year was 1.9 WAR, which was Bourn last year. If you’re trying to compare the two, you need to do more research. Not similar players at all.

    Bunting is almost always the incorrect call, but it’s not a fundamental skill no matter what you think a leadoff hitter should do.

  • CB Everett

    Nose out of the stats buddy. Didn’t mean literal comparison between the two. Just saying Bourn is not that good in the scope of past Indians leadoff hitters of recent memory.

  • Lol, well considering who they’ve had (and you’re really stretching it calling Lofton as “recent”) yes, he is that good. Only one close in actual recent memory is Sizemore. Do some research.

  • CB Everett

    Ha. Not sure what “research” you’re looking for. In apparently uncool old school fashion, I watch games and formulate thoughts. Bourn sucked for us last year and isn’t off to a good start. But you want stats. Ok. First game back, Chis had 2 leadoff singles and Bourn failed to move him over twice. Last night, Chis had a leadoff double and Bourn failed once again. So he’s 3.0 in FTMRO this year. Factor that in your silly WAR:)

  • This is clearly going nowhere, so don’t need to continue/comment further, but your assumption that I do not watch/pay attention to games or formulate my own thoughts is incorrect; I certainly do all of that. Statistics help us understand baseball better, and it’s quite amazing (and exciting) to see how much more we still have to learn, particularly on the defensive aspect of the game. It’s one thing if you prefer to simply watch the games, but to completely dismiss the use of statistics, particularly advanced metrics (or sabermetrics/”Moneyball”, if you insist, which I hope you don’t), is downright silly and out of touch with the game, and how orgs can win in the modern game.

    Now, if you dislike statistics, such as Wins Above Replacement, because you don’t quite understand them, I extend a sincere offer to try to help explain some to you. Learning why this stuff is important in the game today could explain why that instance you mentioned will likely have a negligible effect on Bourn’s 2014 WAR.

  • CB Everett

    Sincerely sorry if I offended. Was just trying to keep it light and give you a hard time back. I understand you watch and write and do a great job. I think reliance on composite stats like WAR are overblown. It doesn’t measure/capture what I just said about those at bats. It doesn’t paint the full picture and also misses the important details that you only get when you watch the game. That said, no harm—different philosophies. Anyway keep up the good work on Wahoos and go tribe!

  • BisonDeleSightings

    Didn’t Jacob lay out that a successful bunt, historically, would have increased the Indians’ changes of scoring a run by 4%? The big, scary numbers back you up.

  • Boston Dave

    Hi Jacob,

    You say there’s an 85% chance of a successful bunt, which would lead to a .67 probability of a score. An out that doesn’t advance the runner leads to a .42 probability of scoring. So what is the likelihood of a non-bunt outcome advancing the runner?

  • Mongoose

    Bourn does not appear to be healthy to me, and it seems to be affecting all areas (both mental and physical). His expressions and body language come across like he does not want to be out there playing. I wish they would have kept Niger Morgan for a few more weeks.

  • WFNYJacob

    Hey Dave —

    That’s not exactly what I said. Here’s what we know from the run expectancy charts:

    0.63 probability of scoring with runner on 2nd, 0 outs

    0.67 probability of scoring with runner on 3rd, 1 out
    0.42 probability of scoring with runner on 2nd, 1 out

    In order for a bunt to be worth it, you’d have to have an 85% chance of a successful bunt. That’s a pretty simple math equation.

    Otherwise, the risk of a failed bunt is too high. As I shared in a footnote, the average sacrifice bunt success rate in MLB is about 75%. So yeah, Bourn would have to be an elite sacrifice bunter in order to approve this.

  • John Smith

    Do fangraphs factor in how many times Bourn misses a cutoff man? Has happened twice in his first week back. Brantley is not a below-average LF.

  • Alvin

    Bourn makes $14 million/year? You talk about a ridiculous contract ala Ryan Howard and BJ Upton. But yeah, blacks aren’t playing enough baseball. Bourn is no longer a major league hitter or field. Bring back Morgan now.

  • Steve

    I’m not sure how Bourn’s missing the cutoff man factors into how many balls Brantley catches in LF.

  • John Smith

    Bourn flashing the leather again tonight against KC. Not.

  • mgbode

    almost missed this article since I didn’t check the site on the 19th. glad that I noticed it and read through. great stuff.