Blinking Bourjos (with Erik Manning)

This past March, consummate Midwesterner (and contributor to like seven different websites) Erik Manning celebrated prospect Peter Bourjos via both the written and spoken word.

By his own admission, Manning’s enthusiasm for Bourjos is/was slightly irrational — which is to say that, even though Bourjos was definitely a prospect before the season began, there appeared to be no reason for the extent of Manning’s zeal.

But what if we took Manning’s excitement seriously? What if Manning’s seemingly inflated opinion of Bourjos — an opinion based on a combination of quantitative analysis, visual evidence, and je ne sais quoi — was actually grounded in something more significant than a hunch?

In his book Blink: The Power of Thinking Without Thinking, Malcolm Gladwelll explores rapid cognition — i.e. the human capacity to draw eerily accurate and/or nuanced conclusions from limited information and narrow windows of experience.

The extent of Manning’s experience “with” Bourjos is limited, for sure: some advanced metrics and a couple of Cedar Rapids Kernels games. But his feelings about Bourjos are somehow stronger than other people with similar experience. What is Manning seeing that others aren’t?

Now that Bourjos has been promoted to the majors, I asked Manning to reassess his feeling on the young Angel. Here’s what happened:

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Cistulli: Mr. Manning, I’ve invited you to this electronic space to revisit some comments you made in re a certain Angels’ prospect.

The prospect? Peter Bourjos. The comments? Something to the effect of, “Me likey.”

Anyway, Bourjos — or, as you would almost definitely say, Bourjjjjjjjos — made his debut Tuesday night. And, as our own Dave Cameron noted yesterday, he made it in center field, moving Gold Glover Torii Hunter over to right.

I’m curious about your initial thoughts on Bourjos’s promotion, moving Hunter over, etc.

Manning: I liked the promotion. The Angels needed to probably shake things up, and this is one of way of doing that. Their outfield defense of Rivera/Hunter/Abreu is pretty dismal and Bourjos is a superb defender in center field. The scouts rave about his defense, and the numbers back it up. According to his Total Zone numbers on Minor League Splits, Bourjjjjjjos (as I like to call him) has been worth +76 runs in 360 games started in center field from ‘06-’09. Dude can go get the ball.

Cistulli: I’m no stranger to being drawn irrationally to a player with little in the way of an MLB resume (see: Lewis, Colby), so I understand how it feels. When we talked in March or whenever, you were all about the Bourjos. Obviously, the scouting reports were strong. Baseball America had him second within the organization. Resident Prospect Maven Marc Hulet had him fourth.

But that doesn’t entirely explain your enthusiasm. I mean, why not Hank Conger? Why not, I don’t know, Ben Revere? What about Bourjos specifically elicits that enthusiasm?

Manning: I live in Cedar Rapids, IA — home of corn, boredom and the Cedar Rapids Kernels, the low-A affiliate of the Angels. I went to see a game or two in 2007 when the Cardinals’ low-A team was playing them (the Cardinals are my favorite team, in case the readers didn’t know that already) and I came away really impressed with the speed and athleticism of Bourjos; he just sort of stuck out. I’m not a scout by any stretch of the imagination, but he just seemed to have a lot of raw, natural ability. There’s the local rooting interest and first hand experience of seeing him play early in his career, and then it’s just his totally off the wall defensive numbers. Stat-heads and some teams have started to come around more on the value of fielding a good defense, but I think it’s still a skill that is sort of undersold.

Lastly, I think I just like saying Peter Bourjjjjjjos.

Cistulli: You say that you’re not a scout by any stretch. And I understand what you’re saying: I think it’s best to err on the side of humility in every matter, baseballing analysis notwithstanding.

That said, I just read Malcolm Gladwell’s Blink. His central thesis — which is pretty well substantiated by capital-S Science — is that humans can come to eerily accurate and nuanced conclusions about an object/situation/etc. in mere seconds.

You may not be the scoutiest of the scouts, no, but you’re not a novice at watching baseball, either. Here’s what that suggests to me: that your impressions — however irrational seeming — are probably worth a damn.

I wonder, have there been other prospects about whom you had a similar feeling? Who? Did they pan out?

Manning: They might not be worth much of a damn, because I also came away impressed with Nick Stavinoha, who is on the Memphis-St. Louis shuttle right now. He can’t play defense well, he doesn’t draw walks or hit for power, but he hits for a decent batting average, and he looks the part, but when I saw him he was spraying liners all over the park. The truth is he was old for the league and was basically Billy Madison throwing dodge balls at hapless grade schoolers.

But on the positive, Jon Jay has become the Cardinals starting RF for better or worse, and while it seemed most scouts were down on him for his quirky hitting mechanics, he’s turned out to be better than expected. I could seeing him have a David DeJesus-like career, or at least I can hope for one.

Cistulli: Pop quiz: What does Nick Stavinoha look like?

Manning: Nick Stavinoha looks like Aaron Miles, after he ate the Super Mushroom. Now he’s going to kick some Koopa Troopa butt!!! Both are terrible major league players whom the Cardinals have given too much playing time.

Cistulli: Correct. All of it.

Now, last thing. Bourjos has shown — superficially, at least — a power surge this season, hitting 13 homers in 454 Triple-A plate appearances after hitting only 6 homers in 504 Double-A appearances last year. I also understand that the PCL has some homer-friendly park, so I pose the question to you and your trick knee or whatever: Is the power surge for real?

Bonus question: What sort of line would Bourjos put up in a complete MLB season?

Manning: I think his power spike is pretty artificial, but not completely crazy. Just glancing at StatCorner’s park factors, Salt Lake has a 109 HR factor for right-handed batters, whereas Arkansas, where he played last year in Double-A, has a 78 HR park factor. So he’s gone through two very different hitting environments over the past two seasons. From what I gather, he’ll never be a big HR threat, but he’s not Juan Pierre, either. He should be able to hit 10, maybe 15 homers in a good year.

I think with his speed and defense, he doesn’t have to hit a lot of homers to be valuable. He should be able to leg out triples and hit enough doubles to have a respectable enough slugging percentage. He does have some strikeout issues, so it’s unclear how high of a batting average he’ll hit for. I might be optimistic, but I would guess an average line for Bourjos during his cost-controlled years would be something like a .275/.325/.435, which doesn’t sound great, but for a center fielder who will be +10, +15 defense, that’s a 3 – 3.5 WAR player. At the league minimum, I think teams would take that.

Carson Cistulli has published a book of aphorisms called Spirited Ejaculations of a New Enthusiast.

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12 years ago

I happened to be in Salt Lake City on business last Thrusday and watched Bourjos. I was aware he was a prospect before settling into my seat 5 rows behind the 3rd base dugout. The season ticket holder next to me, when I asked him who the best players were, said watch Bourjos. This season ticket holder was not what I call a fangraphs baseball fan, but he has seen all the games. This guy really couldn’t shut up about Bourjos and his great defense.

Sure enough, sometime after the 4th inning, Bourjos had the opportunity to make a great play. He turned a sure double into an out and held a baserunner at 2nd.

He ranged DEEP into the gap the haul in a ball that was about to land on the warning track. It was serious ground and as someone that has watched 500 MLB games and ~75 MiLB games, it was a flash that was enough to tell me that greatness on D is “in-him”.

Watching his at-bats, I wasn’t sold he was a MLB hitter. I felt he was a 4th OF. If indeed his defense is great, not merely good, he can become an everyday OF.

He had “the look” to him that he was going to be a top professional. This is a very focused look. If this is Bourjos everyday, then I’m sold.

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