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Michael Bourn - The advanced stats darling

Michael Bourn - The advanced stats darling
February 14, 2013
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The Indians made the most surprising signing I can ever recall when they signed Michael Bourn on Monday.  When the talk came about that Bourn might even be on the Indians' radar, I like most fans thought it was just Scott Boras trying to drum up offers. Then around 9 PM on Monday the news broke, and thanks to a smart front office and some creative contract work the Indians had a new centerfielder.

The Indians had already committed $91 million total dollars in contracts before the Bourn deal as they signed a trio of free agent moves in Brett Myers, Mark Reynolds, and Nick Swisher.  The Bourn deal brings the total money spent in free agency up to $151 million counting all the options that are involved in the deals.

There were two major reasons that the Indians were able to make this deal. One, they were able to backload the contract as Bourn will make only $7 million this year which makes him one of the best bargains in baseball.  The other reason is because of the new TV deals. The new national TV deal will make each team an extra $25 million and the Indians selling SportsTime Ohio also nets them an additional $9 million this year from their local TV deal (not to mention a $230 million dollar windfall for the Dolans as well). In total they get an extra $34 million a year from these deals. All of their new additions come out to $31 million in payroll for this season, and if you add in Aviles then the total rises to $33 million. This shows that the Indians are spending every dime they get to help make this team better.

I have seen some some negative comments out there that the Indians gave all of this money to a guy who hit .274 and has never had double digit home runs in a season. The problem is if you use the old school stats you are going to totally miss the boat on Bourn whose skills go beyond average, home runs, and RBI.

The first stat I want to point out is that Bourn was 8th in the National League in walks last year, and while he hit .274 this meant his on base percentage was .348 which is well above average. This is part of what makes him an ideal leadoff hitter, is that he works pitchers and finds ways to get on base.

The other reason he is an ideal leadoff guy is that not only does he have plus speed, but he is a plus runner on the base paths. He is always one of the leaders in stolen bases, and does this while maintaining an 80% success rate. The golden rule for stealing bases is that if that rate falls under 80% then it's just not worth running. So while he might lead the league in caught stealing, it is because he attempts to steal so many bases. He gets on base and causes havoc. One cannot underestimate the pressure he is going to put on opposing staffs once he gets on base. For the first time since Kenny Lofton, the Indians have a guy who can get on base and make other teams have to concentrate and worry about the guy on first base.

Bourn's biggest strength is his defense. UZR is a very flawed stat, and really not intended to be used for single season data.  Saying that, it is still amazing if you look at Bourns UZR which was the best in all of baseball last season, and better than the next two centerfielders combined. It maybe be flawed, but there is value as long as you don't treat it as the end all be all. Also, it should be noted that the third ranked defensive centerfielder was Drew Stubbs and Michael Brantley came in 11th, so all three were in the top third of the league.

I am not exaggerating that much when I say Stubbs and Bourn alone would have been better than the Damon/Choo/Brantley combo in the outfield last season. This year the Indians should have the best defensive outfield in all of baseball. Bourn is one of the top defenders in the league, and the best defensive centerfielder in all of baseball.

When I wrote my piece on potential free agents and WAR, the name at the top of the list was Bourn. The reason for this is pretty simple as he was the 13th highest player in terms of WAR last year. While half his value was from his defense, it does not change the fact that according to WAR he was an MVP candidate last year.  His WAR was 6.4, and for comparison's sake Detroit's big free agent signing last year Prince Fielder posted a 4.9 WAR, good for 25th in baseball. Or maybe it would be better to phrase it this way: over the last four years only two outfielders - Ryan Braun and Jose Bautista - have had higher WAR totals. Using these numbers you can make the case over the last five years he might have been the best centerfielder and leadoff hitter in baseball.

I would be remiss if I didn't mention the market cost for a center fielder this offseason. The Nationals traded a top 50 prospect in Alex Meyer for Denard Span. The Braves gave B.J. Upton $75 million for the next five years. The Red Sox gave Shane Victorino $39 million for the next three years.  If you count Choo, the Indians got a top 25 prospect (Bauer) for him and a starting outfielder (Stubbs).  When you look at those deals it makes this signing even better. I mean, I like Bourn better than any of those centerfielders, and he was cheaper than all of them. Victorino might make less total money in the deal, but actually makes more per year.

The only other complaint I have seen is that the Indians lose another draft pick. They lost the competitive balance pick (end of second round) they picked up last summer to go along with the second rounder they lost when they signed Swisher. The counter argument for that is the Indians have not fared very well when it comes to second and third round picks the last few years.

Yes, Jason Kipnis has been very good, but the rest have failed to yield any results to date. Levan Washington has struggled with injuries, Dillon Howard disappointed last season, and Trey Haley in the last four years has managed nine games at the Double-A level.  Cord Phelps is the only third rounder do anything since Jensen Lewis, and I think that is all you need to say about that. Draft picks are great - I mean I specialize in writing about them - but there should be no concern about the loss of a second round pick when you are getting an All Star caliber talent at the Major League level.

Bottom line, Bourn was a coup for the front office. This was another move which screamed the influence that Terry Francona has had on this team since he got the job.  This was the kind of move that Indians fans would dream about and never expect to happen. This is the move that changes fan perception and helps make a team feel like they have a legit chance to win. This change in perception all started with Francona, but it might be the Bourn move that catches the headlines as well it should. Yet I can't help but feel that without Francona in place that Bourn is never an Indian.

So gear up and get ready for the Indians this year. It should be a fun year, but it's going to be hard to top the fun this offseason has been for Tribe fans. For the first team in years the off season is helping to build momentum for the fans and team as everyone gears up for spring training and the regular season.

Follow Jeff on Twitter @jeffmlbdraft, or email him at

User Comments

February 15, 2013 - 2:51 PM EST
This move really made our offseason. In so many ways. Lets take a look.

1. We replaced a void in our team at DH by signing Bourn. It's also huge because we needed a leadoff guy and hes the type of player that can really bring out the best of the hitters behind us. It gives us great speed with Bourn, Stubbs, Kipnis, Brantley, Asdrubal and maybe even Z Carrera.

2. It gives us the best defense in Center maybe in baseball.

3. It gives us better defense in Left Field. I am willing to bet that Brantley and Stubbs have a better UZR out of Center and at the corners.

4. Better defense in Right, even without the awesome arm of Choo.

5. PLUS, it gives us much better defense at first just be keeping Reynolds off the field. I am willing to bet that Nick Swisher will make a much better defensive First Basean just by default.

6. Not related by we also traded for Mike Aviles. This should really help the infield defense as well. In fact post Opening Day I would start Aviles at short everytime Masterson pitches and either give Ascab the day off or have him DH. I am not sure if he is better a third then Chiz but if he is then slid him over when Masterson pitches.

These moves should all really help our pitching. Not just the starting staff but bullpen as well. In particular the moves will help with Ubaldo and new starter Bretty Meyers. Getting Ubaldo to at least play like a middle inning starter and having Meyers fill that role as well would be huge. Then we only have two slots open with McCalister, Carrasco, Bauer, Kazmir, Dice K, Kluber and Josh Tomlin as at our call. I would imagine that new outfield would also help Tomin alot since he is such a fly ball pitcher. Might be a nice depth option for the rotation or bullpen.

My hope is that both Kazmir and Carrasco have come back seasons along with Masterson and Ubaldo. Then Meyers does his job and eats innings like a Jake Westbrook type. Even if we go by the rules of nature and one of those guys is horrible we could plug in McCalister, Bauer or Dice K. My hope is that McCalister and Bauer can get another year of development and join the rotation next year.
February 14, 2013 - 10:15 AM EST
Thanks, Jeff, I love this column. Not being a NL fan I had no idea that Bourn was the best centerfielder in baseball if you factor in defense as well as offense. Like you said, what a coup!

This guy is going to make the hitters behind him better because it's going to be harder for pitchers to concentrate on the hitter with Bourn on base. Also, they'll have to throw more fastballs and less breaking balls down and away with Bourn running as often as he does.

It's going to be exciting watching this guy stretch singles into doubles and doubles into triples, not to mention running down drives into the gaps.

This new outfield will really help Ubaldo, IMO. Some of those extra base hits he gave up last year will be outs this year. If Josh Tomlin comes back he will be helped, too, as he's an extreme fly ball pitcher.

It won't make as much difference to Masterson, who is a ground ball machine when he's on.

It was frustrating to me the last couple of years when the Indians were not able to score runners from second on base hits because of lack of speed. Kotchman, Hannahan, Duncan, LaPorta (when he got on base) - those guys clogged up the bases. We still have a few plodders, but with Brantley, Bourn, Kipnis, and Stubbs in the lineup we'll finally see a team that can take the extra base, score from first on a double, and score from third on a shallow sac fly. Runners will be taking off when a pitch in the dirt rolls a few feet away from the catcher, unlike last year. There will be a lot more plays on the basepaths which makes for exciting baseball. Bring it on!

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