Angels Add Bour, Complicate First Base Situation

As reported by Yahoo! Sports’ Jeff Passan, the Angels have agreed to a one-year contract with free agent first baseman Justin Bour, pending the usual physical. Financial terms have not yet been disclosed.

The particulars of the deal are likely the least important part of the signing. While certain teams would no doubt accept the dare, it’s very difficult to fumble too badly on any one-year contract that doesn’t have enough absurdity to fill…uh…some kind of scientific vial or flask that can hold abstract ideas? Back to the drawing board with that one. In most situations, the money isn’t enough to matter in the big picture, and if it doesn’t work out, you don’t have to cancel it before next year like it’s some health magazine you subscribed to as part of a New Year’s resolution because you thought you were actually going to go to the gym.

Bour has seen his value plummet at a rate usually associated with a position player nearing 40 or a pitcher who has surgery for a mystery shoulder ailment. A year ago, he was coming off of a .289/.366/.536, 25 home run, 143 OPS+ season. Now that wasn’t over a full season’s play (an oblique injury cost him about a month of the season), but it was still enough for 2.4 WAR over 108 games for the Marlins. An average player has real value and Bour came with the feature most prized by baseball executives: he was cost-controlled.

After receiving $3.4 million (instead of the Marlins’ preferred $3.0 million) in arbitration, Bour looked to have at least some trade value, given that he could not become a free agent until after the 2020 season. First baseman, especially middling ones, are at a historical low point in terms of their value, but the Marlins would have likely received something for Bour had they traded him along with the entire outfield after the 2017 season.

2018 ended up being a more-or-less healthy season for Bour, but also one of many steps backwards. While he was more selective at the plate – swinging at fewer pitches, which resulted in a career-high 73 walks – he saw worse results when actually hitting the ball. Walks are nice and all, but one of the key benefits of plate discipline is to that on average you’re hitting more advantageous balls and, at least theoretically, doing more with those pitches. Bour’s exit velocity was the worst of his career; Statcast’s xSLG measure thought his profile should have only resulted in a .419 SLG, rather than his anemic .404. Nor does ZiPS provide any solace, seeing his hit profile as only deserving of a .281 BABIP versus his .270 actual (down from a .310 zBABIP in 2017 vs. his .322 actual).

Further complicating Bour’s value is the fact he has fairly steep platoon splits and only has a .220/.303/.335 slash in the majors against left-handed pitching. Philosophically, one would prefer an average player to have exploitable platoon splits in this matter, but in practice, it’s generally difficult to pull off a true first baseman platoon in an age of 13-man pitching staffs and in this case, the first baseman not having any positional flexibility otherwise.

But strangely enough, the Angels may be the best fit for Bour, assuming they could not land a better option. Albert Pujols is now a year past 600 homers (and unlikely to reach 700) and collected his 3000th hit. Now, the celebratory reasons for continuing to play him full-time are as weak as the performance-based ones. After number 3000, the Angels showed no real inclination to begin reducing Pujols’ playing time; he played in 117 of the team’s 133 games (all starts) by the time bone spurs ended his season.

With a new manager in Brad Ausmus, this could finally change. Even though I think the team should be at the point of simply releasing the future Hall of Famer, I’m not sure the team is actually there yet, and a time share in which Bour is the primary first baseman and Pujols plays against occasional tough lefties — even with me being far from convinced that this version of Pujols is any more valuable against southpaws — is better than simply letting Pujols have the job for yet another year. There’s a non-zero chance that Bour is just there to be a pinch-hitter for Pujols or Ohtani, but I can’t imagine he would sign this early in the offseason – at a time in his career where he still has a good shot at re-establishing some value – if he believed he would just be used as a pinch-hitter.

This Bouring little move won’t get the Angels to the playoffs, but it can cheaply shore up one of their weak spots in the lineup, and hopefully also demonstrate a real change in an organization that hasn’t always been as merciless at dealing with their weaknesses as they should have been. The Angels still have the cash after this move to get a difference-maker.

2019 ZiPS Projection – Justin Bour
2019 .236 .327 .444 381 45 90 14 1 21 69 52 113 1 111 -2 1.1

Dan Szymborski is a senior writer for FanGraphs and the developer of the ZiPS projection system. He was a writer for from 2010-2018, a regular guest on a number of radio shows and podcasts, and a voting BBWAA member. He also maintains a terrible Twitter account at @DSzymborski.

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I can’t help but wonder how things would look if the Angels had sided with Dipoto instead of Scioscia years back… Would we be in a better place? A worse place?