Small Things Adding Up: Michael Bourn’s Speedy Decline

After 2013’s surprise run to the playoffs, in 2014 Cleveland is making a good show of it. However, at this point their playoff contention is mostly nominal.

Cleveland had a number of good things happen for them this year. They have both a serious Cy Young contender in Corey Kluber and (in a Trout-less world) a legitimate MVP candidate in Michael Brantley. The team has also made some free agent signings over the past couple of years, acquisitions that were supposed to be part of the team’s return to relevance. Despite the overall success, though, players like Nick Swisher and Michael Bourn have mostly been disappointing. In the case of Bourn, it is not any one thing, but a number of factors that have contributed to his disappointing performance the last two years.

When looked at from one perspective, Bourn’s career as a whole has been the opposite of disappointing. It started out in inauspicious fashion. Bourn’s first real chance in the majors with Philadelphia in 2007, and was less than thrilling (remember when an 86 wRC+ from a center fielder was considered bad?). After the season he was sent to Houston in a trade that sent Brad Lidge to Philadelphia. The Astros installed Bourn in center field (in between Carlos Lee and Hunter Pence). Bourn played in 138 games, and managed to hit even worse than the year before: .229/.288/.300 (58 wRC+), miserable even by today’s deflated offensive environment.

It is to the Astros’ credit (or lack of better options) that they stuck with Bourn, and in 2009 he rewarded them. He did not blow anyone away at the plate, behind exactly league average (100 wRC+) with a .285/.354/.384 line. But Bourn’s speed not only allowed him to keep playing good defense, but to exploit his increased chances on the basepaths. Bourn led all of baseball with 12 base running runs above average that season. After 2008’s replacement-level performance, in 2009 Bourn put up over four wins according to WAR.

Over the next few seasons, Bourn did his best to show that 2009 was no fluke. He did not hit for much power, and his strikeout rate was worse than average even if he did cut it a bit. His walk rate also improved a bit during his years in Houston. Probably the main factor of his success between 2009 and 2012 was his BABIP, which rose considerably from his first twoo full seasons in baseball. During those four seasons, Bourn’s BABIP was .356. This may scream “luck” to some, but keep in mind it was over four seasons. Moreover, Bourn kept the ball on the ground and out of the air, which is a pretty good formula for a fast guy without much power. And Bourn’s speed must have been a factor in his high BABIP. Obviously, it was a weapon on the bases, but also in legging out grounders. As an indication of Bourn’s speed note that from 2009 through 2012 he stole 216 bases, 45 more than the next highest.

If one believes that players can magically “turn it on” during a walk year to get a big contract, Bourn’s 2012 provides some anecdotal evidence,. Bourn had been traded to Atlanta during 2011 and was unimpressive during his partial first season there. In 2012 he had probably the best season of his career. He had the same 104 wRC+ as he did in 2011, but is included nine home runs, easily a career high, his walk rate went up to 10 percent, and the fielding metrics loved him as much or more than ever. Even if one does not buy that Bourn was a six-win player in 2012, it was an eye-catching performance.

Cleveland, at least, was impressed. signing Bourn, who turned 30 prior to the 2013 season, to a four-year, $48 million contract. To all appearances, Bourn’s game has dropped off in just about every respect. Perhaps that is not completely fair. It is not as if Bourn has been bad in all facets of his game, but it is pretty clear that he has not been what Cleveland hoped he would be for them, not even at the start. Let’s leave behind the quasi-narrative nature of this post so far and just look at his performance.

The one big drop that probably catches the eye is that fielding metrics, after loving Bourn for years, see him as getting worse the last two years. Now, it is fair to point out that given all the problems with fielding metrics, they could simply be wrong about the last couple of years. Or maybe they were wrong in rating him so highly earlier. Or maybe it was always wrong. The Fans Scouting Report also sees his defense as in decline, though, and it is not hard to believe that a player in his thirties, when speed in other aspects of the game decline, would be losing some range.

But let’s not get caught up in arguments about fielding metrics. Bourn does seem to have lost a step in general, as evidenced by his recent performance on the basepaths.After averaging more than 50 stolen bases a season from 2009 to 2012, in 2013 season he only stole 23, albeit in fewer games than in 2012. Bourn did manage to get thrown out as much in 2013 (12 times) as he did in 2012 (13 times, although he was successful 42 times in 2012). UBR also sees him as getting worse, at least this year. This loss of a step (likely due to leg issues) probably plays into problems in the field, although again, that is not the focus of this post.

Earlier, speed was mentioned as a likely factor in Bourn’s high BABIPs from his more successful seasons. However, in this case Bourn has mostly maintained his performance. His BABIP may not be as high as the .369 he managed in 2011, but his .338 last year was still high compared to most players, and his .349 so far this season is the same as his big 2012 for Atlanta.

The problem is that Bourn does not do much positive at the plate other than get singles on balls in play. The problem is not really power. It is down, , but not much — a .110 this year is not significantly lower than his .117 in 2012. His home runs on contact have gone down two years in a row, but this year are still higher than any season in 2009-2011. His extra-base hits in play (doubles and triples) this season are actually at a career-best rate.

Bourn’s walk rate is way down from 2012, but that was his career-best season. In any case, Bourn had success in 2011 with a similar walk rate to this season. But one would also rightly point out that in 2012, he had a career-best BABIP.

The single biggest problem for Bourn at the plate this year and last, at least on the surface, has been strikeouts. He may have suceeded with a similar walk rate and (lack of) power in the past, but in those seasons he had an even higher BABIP than usual. While Bourn still seems to be able to maintain a high BABIP, if he does not put the ball into play, then, well, it is hard to get hits, gets on base, and put his (declining) speed into action. Bourn’s strikeouts have always been an issue given his lack of diversified offensive game, but without his 2012 walk rate, it is even more of a problem. It is not immediately obvious what the problem is. The main driver of strikeout rate is contact rate, and his overall contact rate has been roughly the same the past few seasons. His swing rate has gone up a bit, particularly on balls outside of the zone, so that probably has hurt both his walk and strikeout rates.

Still, to lay things all at the door of his strikeout or swing rates is overly simplistic. And there an additional factor: health. After being quite durable the previous few years, Bourn played in only 130 games in 2013, his fewest since in 2007 rookie season. So far this season he has only played in 93. Just playing in fewer games hurts his value, naturally, but the injuries themselves are probably making a difference in his performance. Given that many of his problems the last couple of seasons have been leg-related, the injuries are probably contributing to his speed-related issues. Sometimes one might argue that injuries mean that once a player is healthy, he will return to prior levels of performance. However, given Bourn’s age, that would not be the safest bet to make. And not all of his problems, e.g., strikeout rate, are obviously speed-related.

Back when Bourn was a free agent, Dave Cameron wrote about the dangers of signing a player whose value stemmed mostly from outfield defense going into his thirties. The point could be extended, at least in Bourn’s case, to the problem of having speed as the primary source of his value — in the field, on the basepaths, and at the plate (via his BABIP). While there is evidence that faster players decline later than other players, if speed is the primary locus of a player’s value, once that goes, he has less to fall back on. And losing that makes the decline in less obviously speed-related aspects of Bourn’s game such as strikeout rate all that much more problematic.

Bourn’s future is not set in stone, of course. This season has been really bad for him, but in 2013, he still had some decent value, even if it wasn’t as much as hoped. Four years and $48 million is not all that onerous compared to many of the contracts given out these days (although Cleveland is hardly one of the teams capable of giving out the big contracts). Still, Bourn has not been the value Cleveland had hoped, and while some issues have been bigger than others, it has been a combination of a number of smaller issues that have led to the decline.

Matt Klaassen reads and writes obituaries in the Greater Toronto Area. If you can't get enough of him, follow him on Twitter.

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9 years ago

Wasn’t Bourne the big free agent nobody wanted after 2012 until Cleveland came around and signed him? Seems a bunch of teams that needed outfielders took a pass on him.

9 years ago
Reply to  Hurtlockertwo

If you needed a center fielder, your only alternative was BJ Upton, unless you count Nyjer Morgan who ended up in Cleveland anyway a year later (Pagan re-sign with the Giants). Compared to the team who let Bourn go, Cleveland did pretty well.

9 years ago
Reply to  Hurtlockertwo

Bourn was one of the QO casualties from 2012 (like Ervin Santana and Nelson Cruz; good enough to draw interest, but not so much that a team wants to lose a draft pick).