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2014 Key Players: Michael Bourn

Whether or not Bourn bounces back a key question facing team

2014 Key Players: Michael Bourn
Michael Bourn (Photo: Brittany Chay)
March 13, 2014
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The third player in my 2014 Key Players series is Michael Bourn. The first two players covered were Danny Salazar and Yan Gomes. Unlike those two, Bourn is not an up-and-coming player who the team is looking for to take on a larger role. Instead, Bourn is a player who the team will be looking for to bounce back.

When Bourn signed with the team last year it sent shockwaves through the fan base. After already signing Nick SwisherBrett Myers, and Mark Reynolds during the offseason, the team surprised everyone by shelling out $48 million on Bourn. In my opinion, more so than the Swisher signing, it was Bourn’s signing that really told us the team was serious about competing. Even living in Virginia, it got me excited enough to go online and purchase tickets for Opening Day. Unfortunately, the honeymoon didn’t last long. 

Bourn signed with the Indians after coming off a 6.2 WAR (Fangraphs) season for Atlanta. He had posted 3.7 WAR or better in each of the last four years. Mark Shapiro himself has told us that the market values one WAR at $9 million. For an average of $12 million a season, Bourn looked like a bargain. He was advertised as one of the league’s best defenders in center, a terror on the bases (an average of 54 steals over the last four years), and a capable leadoff hitter for an offense that should be much improved.

None of that would prove to be the case as Bourn struggled in his first year in Cleveland.

With 2014 looming, the question becomes what to expect from Bourn moving forward. A lot of people will look at his age (31) and last year’s performance and assume he’s a regressing player. I don’t know how we can say that with any sort of certainty at this point. He could be, as it’s true that speed-based players tend to regress more dramatically than others. Still, some decline in performance could be attributed to change of leagues, pressure from having the big contract (one of the few on the team), or even injury as Bourn was banged up for parts of the season.

None of those items can be used as an excuse this season.

Over the past four years, Bourn has been able to disguise some flaws/inconsistencies in his overall production with improvements in other parts of his game. For example, in 2010 his BABIP dropped to .329 (.366 in 2009, .369 in 2011) and led to a batting average of just .269. However, he had a career low K rate and delivered a Gold Glove season defensively to still grade out as a 4+ WAR player. In 2011, his walk rate fell from 9.8 percent to 7.3 percent, however he was buoyed by a career-high .294 batting average and recorded 61 steals. His strikeout percentage ballooned to 22 percent in 2012, but increased power (.117 ISO, career-high nine home runs) and an increased walk rate (career-high 10 percent) helped him overcome that to have his best year ever.

In 2013, everything went wrong. His walk and strikeout rates were a career-worst. His defense in center graded out as nothing more than average. He went from stealing 40+ bases every season to stealing just 23 with only a 66 percent success rate. He underperformed across the board, and yet the team still was able to make the playoffs. That’s an important takeaway. Instead of hoping for the 2012 version of Michael Bourn, we should understand that a player somewhere in between Michael Bourn of 2009-2012 and Michael Bourn of 2013 would become a significant improvement for the team’s offense.

The lineup starts with Bourn, literally and figuratively. The most pressing issue that needs to be corrected is his .316 on-base percentage. Typically, hitters in their age-30 and 31 seasons don’t have regression in plate discipline. Furthermore, Bourn hasn’t shown a trend of regression. His walk rate has bounced between seven percent and 10 percent over the last five years without any sort of consistency. On the other hand, he has shown a trend of higher strikeout totals. It’s probably fair to say that Bourn’s strikeout rate is going to continue around his 2012-2013 totals, but his walk rate should revert back to around career levels (8.5 percent) which still bodes well for improvement on his 2013 numbers.

Bourn has already told the media that he plans to be more aggressive bunting and stealing bases in 2014 and that would be a welcome change. It’s hard to pinpoint what exactly went wrong on the bases last year. Bourn has said he was adjusting to the new league and tendencies of pitchers, but I’m skeptical that fully explains the problem. His baserunning regression and defensive regression could have some overlap; the dreaded loss of speed and athleticism. However, he’s had off years defensively before and bounced back and truthfully should still have a few more good years left in his legs.

If you're one who is fortunate enough to see the glass half full, you’ll recognize what a player with Michael Bourn’s skillset could bring to the 2014 Cleveland Indians. The upside of a player who’s more than capable of putting up a .340-.350 OBP batting leadoff, swiping 40 bases, and playing great defense in center field has considerable value. That possibility still excites me today. I think it’s reasonable to expect a slight uptick in his walk rate, stolen bases, and overall defense. If he can stay healthy, I think he becomes a 3+ WAR type of player.

Production aside, Bourn is still a positive player in the clubhouse, a hard worker by all accounts, and player who can impact the game in multiple ways. Sometimes a disappointing season is just a disappointing season. Sometimes it’s a precursor to much more serious issues. For Bourn, my gut feeling is on the former. If it’s the latter, then the Indians have a much bigger (read: expensive) problem than a leadoff hitter with declining speed and on-base skills.

Either way, it’s safe to say that Bourn’s performance is going to be one of the more interesting storylines of the 2014 season. 

User Comments

Joe Chengery
March 14, 2014 - 10:06 PM EDT
Bourn is not the type to hit for that much power, and he still should have well above-average speed for the next few seasons, so bunting well and bunting for hits should be a part of his arsenal. For the record, I never thought of him as a great leadoff hitter, not in the mold of a Henderson, Lofton, Damon, even DeJesus with KC. Bourn reminds me more of the Sizemore type with fewer walks and power, but more speed, more stolen bases, and a lot of strikeouts and difficulty with LHPs, a much different type of leadoff hitter as that Henderson/Lofton//Damon/DeJesus era.
March 14, 2014 - 12:29 PM EDT
An extra 7 hits would have raised Bourn's OBP from .316 to .328....obviously much better but still bad for a leadoff guy. Still 7 pts below his career mark too and 20 pts lower than what he put up the previous four years.

Not really accurate to just add 7 hits either. Don't believe it was the lack of bunt hits that hurt Bourn last year. Can't hurt to bunt more though I guess.
March 14, 2014 - 11:34 AM EDT
From 2009-2011 Bourn hit 7 HR's in 1,797 at-bats.

Then in 2012 he suddenly hit 9 HR's, more than he hit the previous three years combined. It's like he's realizing that as he turns 30 he can't continue to steal 40-50 bases per year - it's too hard on the body, especially since he's averaging 600 AB's per year.

Then last year he hit 6 HR's and his bunt hits declined. It looks to me like he's trying to transition from a pure speed player to a guy who tries to drive the ball. I haven't looked it up but I think Ricky Henderson did the same thing.
March 14, 2014 - 11:22 AM EDT
From Hoyne's column on March 7:

Short game: The Indians have asked leadoff hitter Michael Bourn to work more on his bunting this spring.

As Jason Lukehart of SB Nation pointed out at the end of last season, Bourn averaged 12 bunt hits per season during his career - until last year, when he had just five. Perhaps that will help improve Bourn’s .316 on base percentage from 2013.
March 14, 2014 - 11:18 AM EDT
I was surprised last season to see that Bourn rarely bunted. For a left-handed hitter with great speed who routinely gets infield singles, I expected a lot more bunt attempts. If he bunts more this year it should reduce his K rate and force the corner infielders in, opening up bigger holes when he does swing.

He looked like he was swinging for the fences most of the time last year.
March 14, 2014 - 10:16 AM EDT
I'm clearly not Bourn's biggest fan...but do think a 3-win season is very doable for him in 2014. Hell, with all the issues he had last year still managed a 2.0 fWAR. 2.5-3 shouldn't be too hard.

I'm not quite as optimstic about his OBP and prospects in the leadoff spot, partly due to, as you mentioned, his walk rate being so erratic. 8.5% for his career but has never been at that mark or really even close to it. He's either been way above (2009, 2010, 2012) or well below (2008, 2011, 2013). Which Bourn will we see in 2014? Career OBP of .335 is pretty bad for a leadoff guy...over the last 5 years is a respectable .342 at least (still wouldn't have been in the top 10 last year for leadoff guys).

Simple way to put it...I am optimistic that 2014 will be better for Bourn than 2013. How much better remains to be seen. His April (before the injury) was looking very good last year...

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