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Building a Wahoo Winner: Getting Swisher, Bourn back to form

Building a Wahoo Winner: Getting Swisher, Bourn back to form
Nick Swisher and Michael Bourn (Photo: AP)
October 14, 2014
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As the winter of 2012 thawed its way into the spring of 2013, so did the Cleveland Indians thaw the previously frozen heart of their organization. The additions of Terry FranconaMichael Bournand Nick Swisher prior to the 2013 season pumped life into a jaded fan-base and brought, if only for a fleeting moment, visions of the ticker tape floating from the sky and onto East 9th.

If the fans never believed that these additions were legitimate steps toward that ultimate goal, the front office - if in even the smallest way - did. Coughing up money for the biggest free agent acquisition in club history, luring arguably the most successful manager in the organization’s history and bringing in an All-Star caliber outfielder to man the leadoff spot weren’t done without a goal or purpose.

When those moves were made, I firmly believed- as did the front office- that the Indians were building themselves a four year window in which they planned to legitimately compete for a World Series.

If that was indeed the case, two years in, Cleveland has yet to see that plan come near fruition.

Year one was a step in the right direction.

Year two was a step back.

Which brings us to the winter before year three.

This is the pivotal year amidst the aforementioned four-year plan for the Tribe. Another failure, whether the lack of a playoff berth, an early round exit or anything in-between, could render the entire “four-year plan” a colossal failure. A successful run deep into the nights of October, however, could trigger the magic on the hallowed corner of Carnegie and Ontario that was seen throughout the 1990’s once again and prove the “four-year plan” a brilliant one.

By this time next year, we will likely know which of these scenarios will have come to fruition, but if the Indians are indeed to succeed, how are they going to do it? What is going to have to happen for the Wahoos to become the 2015 World Series winners?

That’s what we’ll be going over week after week.

We’ll take a look at the stats. We’ll compare with the teams making history this October. We’ll wax the hypothetical by taking a look at some moves the Indians should make as we go along. We’ll do all of these things and more as we look to build a World Series winner throughout this winter.

Step 1: Get Swisher and Bourn back to form

While the addition of Terry Francona might have been the initial step in the re-birth of the Indians organization, I would venture to say that the addition of Nick Swisher opened the initial four-year window of opportunity, thanks to the four-year, $56-million deal that he signed in December of 2012.

While I wasn’t in the room, it appeared to me that the front office felt comfortable in giving the 32-year old Swisher a four-year deal because they felt as if those four years would be the last of his truly productive seasons in the Major Leagues. They apparently felt that Swisher could be a good, consistent power cog in the lineup, all the while providing four years as the “face of the franchise” figure for the Tribe and being the charismatic clubhouse leader of a young-and-talented group of players.

As it stands today, after two years of the “Swisher Project” it’s been about as big a failure as the front office could have imagined.

In year one, Swisher inched his way toward his career averages and lead the Tribe offense in their September surge to the playoffs, which had fans thinking that the highest-paid free agent in team history might earn his massive contract in year two.

Instead, Swisher had as big a “sophomore slump” in Cleveland as imaginable, posting his worst-ever season as a big leaguer in 2014 before calling it a year in August by opting for surgery on both of his knees.

Shadowed by Swisher’s colossal contract and character is the “third installment” of the four-year plan, Michael Bourn.

Bourn was signed by the Indians just as the countdown to Spring Training crept into its final stages, but, despite the timing, was certainly not looked upon as an “afterthought.” Instead, Indians fans envisioned a Kenny Lofton-type center fielder, using his speed and athleticism to wreak havoc in the outfield and on the basepaths, and celebrated the final piece of the full rebirth of the franchise.

After two years, Bourn has been effective at times, but could also be described as underwhelming thus far. He seems to be battling injury day-after-day and, in doing so, appears to be a broken down version of his former self.

We could re-hash the failures of Swisher and Bourn down to the last nitty-gritty statistic, but the past is the past and the point of this series is to build the Indians into a World Series team a year into the future, so let’s look ahead.

While it would be easy to say, “get them both healthy and hope that they find themselves” there is certainly a better way to break it down.

If Swisher and Bourn are to return to being the players the Indians front office saw in the winter of 2012-2013, then how are they going to do it?

We’ll take a look at the numbers, starting with no. 24.

To get Bourn back to his All-Star form, at least in the batter’s box, it shouldn’t be all that difficult.

Bourn’s line-drive percentage in 2014 of 24.2% was actually higher than in both last season and his 2012 campaign with the Braves. His plate discipline numbers show that he’s no more anxious or free-swinging at the plate than he was two years ago. His strikeout rate - the undoubted Achilles heel for him as a leadoff hitter - is only one percentage point higher at 23.0% than it was with the Braves in 2012 at 22.0%.

It’s not Michael Bourn in the batter’s box that is the problem. It’s Michael Bourn leaving the batter’s box that is a problem.

In the four seasons prior to Bourn’s arrival in Cleveland, he was known as an absolute terror on the base-paths, accounting for an average of 54 swipes on around 66 attempts per season. Since he arrived in Northeast Ohio, however, he has stolen just 33 bases and has been caught a total of 18 times.

There’s more bad news that points to a rapid decline in Bourn’s base-running ability. Combined between 2011 and 2012, Bourn’s percentage of bunts that went for base hits was at around 41%. Combined between 2013 and 2014, his bunt-hit percentage was 28.55%.

As if that’s not enough evidence, there’s more. His 6.8% infield hit rate in 2014 was the second lowest he’s ever posted, showing that he hasn’t been able to leg out the hits he’s accustomed to beating.

This evidence allows for two claims: Michael Bourn is aging quickly and is losing his quickness or Michael Bourn has been hurt.

If the former is the case, the Indians could never have imagined the then 29-year old Bourn would denigrate this quickly and the Kenny Lofton-esque player that Indians fans imagined will never have come to fruition. If it’s instead the latter, an offseason to get healthy is just about all that will help him to become the player he was expected to be.

Along with age, bodies breakdown. Athleticism fades. It happens. If the Indians are to get to the World Series in 2015, however, they’ll need a re-birth from the former speedster, if only for a single season.

For Swisher, the story is similar, yet different.

While Bourn’s injuries never fully pulled him from the field, Swisher’s did so almost immediately and invoked thoughts that maybe injuries are the reason for his immense under-performance thus far.

Again, the hypotheticals of injury aren’t enough, however, so let’s look at the numbers.

When Swisher was healthy or feeling well enough to play, he was uncharacteristically lost. His .278 on-base percentage this season was by far the lowest of his career. His 27.7% strikeout rate was almost five percentage points higher than any other point in his career. His walk rate was the lowest he’s ever posted, which is especially troubling for a player known for his keen eye at the dish.

These numbers prove that something was wrong with Swisher, but, as further evidence will show, this problem couldn’t be fixed by knee surgery.

Be it self-placed pressure to carry the offense or something in his eye, Swisher’s plate discipline numbers in 2014 were far-and-away the worst of his career.

His O-Swing %, the percentage of pitches he swung at outside of the strike zone, was the highest of his career at 27.2%. His Z-Swing %, the percentage of pitches he swung at inside the strike zone, was the second-highest of his career at 67.6%. Hit total swing percentage- the total number of swings he took- was also the highest of his career at 44.7%.

What makes it more strange is that when Swisher did make contact, his line-drive rate of 24.2% was the highest of his career. In other words, Swisher was making solid contact more often than he ever has before, but was making less contact than ever before.

For Swisher, the hope seems to be that a renewed set of knees will help to renew Swisher’s patience at the plate. When a player is not 100% they can develop bad habits at the plate and try to cheat to get around on balls, which can result in a decline in approach as we saw with Swisher this season. With a more patient approach, he may once again be the offensive player that the Indians paid for.

That all being said, it appears as if Swisher, who’s been far worse than Bourn thus far, might actually provide more hope for a turnaround than Bourn and produce at the rate he was expected to when he first arrived. It might be a matter of the type of player that Swisher is - more rooted in hitting than in defense or base-running - that will allow him a final shot to return to form.

Bourn, while a decent leadoff hitter, seems to have lost the step that made him once so increasingly valuable. Unless he somehow regains that step, it’s hard to see him getting back to where he once was.

The good news for Bourn is that maybe that time spent scouring the basepaths can now be spent on more time in the cage. Maybe he can perfect his craft further at the plate and work to lower the strikeouts that have plagued him throughout his career. If that were to occur, maybe his value would manifest itself in a different way.

Whatever the case may be, the first step in getting the Indians to the 2015 Fall Classic is to get these two guys back on track.

For Swisher, a couple of new knees to bring confidence back in his approach might do the trick. Bourn, on the other hand, needs to find the step he lost or make himself a better hitter and find value in another part of his game.

If neither of those things happen, the team will need to start looking for answers elsewhere and the four-year window with both players will have closed. That’s not a good thing when both would still be on the hook for nearly $30 million in 2016.

But if both of those things are to happen, a step towards the 2015 World Series will have been taken.

User Comments

Jeff P.
October 16, 2014 - 11:48 AM EDT
The article is right on the money. The fantasy land some Indians fans live in is delusional. There is no way we can trade either guy right now or simply cut bait with them and replace them with more money. Your house has structural damage that has caused it to be condemned and insurance doesn't cover it. So just cut bait with it and buy a new one. What? You can't afford that? Neither can the Indians just eat 30 million dollars
October 15, 2014 - 11:04 PM EDT
The Rockies don't want to get rid of CarGo. They want to rebuild, and see him as an expensive, valuable piece they could move for a significant prospect return.
October 15, 2014 - 11:00 PM EDT
Rockies want to get rid of Cargo and we want to get rid out Bourn. How about a trade for Cargo to play right field??? I cannot see Swisher coming back at 34 from both knee surgeries and playing. He would make a good hitting coach. Trade Murphy back to Texas and get Beltre as our new DH.
October 15, 2014 - 7:45 PM EDT
Hafner was a proven roid fraud IMO and we kept rolling him out there even though it was obvious by 08 he couldn't hit run or field without getting hurt. That is a fact. Some bs shoulder injury. Like sonny Liston!

They should have sent him home contract and all like det did with d. Willis. If bourn and swish continue to stink by late next year just let them go. But it will never happen.
October 15, 2014 - 1:33 PM EDT
Shaver, I am no Bourn fan, but Holt is absolutely nowhere close to the player Bourn is. Holt is a backup/depth outfielder. Not a starter. He's more likely to be a J.B. Shuck kind of guy who probably serves a bench role and is a journeyman outfielder between AAA/MLB the next several years.
October 15, 2014 - 12:39 PM EDT
Seriously, this article is the epitome of the obvious. The Indians need to stay out of the FA market as they have proven time and time again that they are incapable of assessing talent. How about there be an article written on how the Indians should bite the bullet and lessen the exposure of these two and about four others? Why do we as fans have to constantly pay the price of inept and wasteful spending on high priced has beens and low budget reclamation projects? for instance, Tyler Holt, in spite of his lack of experience, offers more offense and better defense in CF than Michael Bourn but because the Indians are paying Bourn a lot of money, we are subjected to his mediocrity.
October 15, 2014 - 12:09 PM EDT
Swisher and Bourn kind of remind me of the whole Matt Lawton thing all over again. He really underperformed and as soon as he bounced back with a good year in 2004 they traded him for Arthur Rhodes. Could see that happening with Swisher and/or Bourn.
October 15, 2014 - 11:36 AM EDT
Tony you are absolutely right. The FO will not just shrug their shoulders, discard Bourn or Swisher and make some impact signing. It's just not realistic. While I don't think either will get back to their peaks performances, they are certainly likely to have better seasons than 2014. For conversation sake, if Bourn and/or Swisher have great 1st halves, do you think the FO would look to trade them in fear of regression again?
October 15, 2014 - 9:43 AM EDT
Fans may not want to hear it, but the Indians can't just treat Swisher and Bourn like a sunk cost and go out and spend $12M+ per year on a multi-year deal for another bat as long as they are here. They need both to rebound and perform as expected because neither has done anything close to what was expected when they signed. Given their age and injury history, banking on them returning form could be foolish.....but there is really no alternative other than building up some depth around them (cheaply).
October 15, 2014 - 9:08 AM EDT
The Red Sox have Rusney Castillo and Mookie Betts for CF, so no they would not do that.
October 15, 2014 - 9:02 AM EDT
Great article Hayden. No your not nuts. You just stated the true reality if the Indians want to get to the WS in 2015 both Swisher and Bourn need to return to there playing levels of 2012. They are currently untradeable which puts the team between a rock and hard place.

If the Indians were able to trade Bourn, not sure if the Red Sox would do it, is trade Bourn for Allen Craig.

Craig becomes the new 1b for the Indians, which would free up Santana to be part of trade for Donaldson or Beltre.
October 14, 2014 - 9:06 PM EDT

are yo u nuts

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