If you google “Peter Bourjos” “can’t hit”, you’ll get 3,040 results. There aren’t actually that many articles about the inadequacies of Bourjos’ offensive abilities, but there are a lot of them. After the Angels called up Bourjos last year and installed him in center field, he did little to dispel the notion that he was a defensive wizard who wouldn’t be able to hit his weight – his 2010 UZR was off the charts (+34.7 UZR/150 in about half of a season), but his .273 wOBA was awful, just as had been expected based on the scouting reports. There just aren’t that many blazing fast leadoff types who can make the skillset work without patience or contact ability, and Bourjos hasn’t shown either as a professional.
However, I’m wondering if we’ve underestimated Bourjos’ offensive abilities to date. Yes, he’s an impatient hack who relies heavily on his speed, but when you look at the types of hits he actually does get, the Juan Pierre comparisons fall apart.
Thus far in his Major League career, Bourjos has 60 base hits, and 25 of those have gone for extra bases. That kind of XBH/H ratio is something you expect from a slugging first baseman, especially once you factor in that 10 of his hits have come on bunts. When Bourjos makes contact, he actually hits the ball with some authority.
Now, his speed is almost certainly inflating his career .182 ISO to some degree. He gets doubles on balls where slower batters would hold at first, and he’s already accumulated six triples, taking extra bases on balls in the gap on the strength of this wheels. The fact that Bourjos is right behind Ryan Howard on the 2011 ISO charts is hilarious, but it’s not exactly indicative of their relative strength.
That said, there isn’t much of a value difference between a ringing double off the wall and a speed double where Bourjos just outruns the opposing outfielder. The former might be more effective at scoring a runner from first with two outs, but the difference is going to be minor throughout the year. If Bourjos’ wheels let him get himself in scoring position on balls that would ordinarily be singles, well, that still counts.
Yes, he only has 278 plate appearances in the Majors, but Bourjos showed similar extra base hit ability in the minors as well. In Triple-A last season, 39 of his 130 hits went for extra bases, and his lowest ISO in any full-season league was .142. Bourjos has consistently hit the ball into the outfield often enough to collect doubles and triples, and he even muscles up from time to time – he hit 49 home runs in his minor league career.
In reality, Bourjos’ lousy offensive line last year was the result of a .228 BABIP, the kind of number that is unsustainably low for even a plodding catcher, much less a speed-burner who can bunt his way on board and beat out infield singles with regularity. This year, he’s posting another unsustainable BABIP, but the other direction, as he’s at .412 so far in 2011. He won’t keep that up either, but based on his speed, his expected true talent BABIP is almost certainly north of .300.
However, even with a .278 BABIP for his career now, his wOBA is an acceptable .297, which puts him about 10 runs below an average hitter over the course of a full season. Considering his defensive prowess, that makes Bourjos a pretty useful player, and it certainly doesn’t qualify him as someone who “can’t hit”.
He’s never going to be a high on base guy, but Bourjos’ ability to get multiple bases when he does get on base make him better than other defensive specialists. He has some glaring flaws, but he does enough else well to justify his spot in the line-up, and is showing enough that there shouldn’t be too many more articles penned about how he “can’t hit”. He can’t walk, but that’s just not the same thing.
Dave is the Managing Editor of FanGraphs.