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Second Thoughts: Swisher, Bourn have not been up to par

Second Thoughts: Swisher, Bourn have not been up to par
August 27, 2013
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Over the winter, Michael Bourn and Nick Swisher were given a combined $106 million (with the possibility of up to $132 million) to play for the Indians for the next 4-6 years. While they have both certainly helped the team more than hurt it in year one, neither has quite performed at their standard level of production.

In fact, one could argue that each of them is having one of the worst seasons of their respective careers. The Indians are 12 games above .500 and in the thick of a playoff push, but it leaves one to wonder just how much better they could be if Bourn and Swisher were more typical versions of themselves.

Teams pay for wins. In terms of 2013 salary, Swisher and Bourn are the two highest-paid position players, pulling in $11 million and $7 million, respectively, with only one other even remotely close (Asdrubal Cabrera, at $6.5 million). Currently, they are the fifth and sixth most valuable position players on the team, as measured by Fangraphs wins above replacement. In front of them are two emerging stars in Jason Kipnis and Carlos Santana, and two mostly backups in Ryan Raburn and Yan Gomes.

The four outpacing Swisher and Bourn in wins so far are due to make a combined $2,752,400 this season. Of course, this is nothing new. Young players are going to make six figures until they hit arbitration or receive an extension, all while possibly playing as well as anyone. In Raburn's case, the veteran received an even one million-dollar deal. For what the Indians offered Swisher and Bourn, and with history in mind, the return has come up short of expectations thus far.

Swisher has been a full-time player for nine seasons now. For the first time, he is in jeopardy of failing to reach 20 home runs (an average of 25.9 over that span). He stands at 15 and is projected to finish with 19. That is really the only missing piece of his game from years past, his power. Everything else is pretty well in line and doesn't deviate from standard Swisher, but any power category, whether it be home runs, doubles, or subsequent measures like slugging percentage or isolated power, is pretty significantly down.

The hope is that the power decline has to do with the shoulder injury that Swisher suffered in May, and there is evidence that he is finally healed and turning a corner lately. After hitting 11 home runs in his first 437 plate appearances of the season (one every 39.7), he recently had a stretch of four in 45 (one every 11.5). The alternative possibility is that the 32-year-old is just starting to wear down and lose bat speed, which would obviously present a much bigger problem going forward. For now, I think fans should be willing to give him the benefit of the doubt and assume that the drop-off had more to do with his health. The track record is there, and power can certainly remain in the early-to-mid-30s.

In the case of Bourn, the concerns are more pressing. While focusing strictly on the numbers that represent the kind of player he is (that is, nothing to do with driving the ball or driving in runs), they are down across the board. Offensively, he is posting the worst walk rate of his career as a regular (6.9% vs his career average of 8.6%), the worst strikeout rate (23.1% vs. his career average of 20.5%), and the worst weighted stolen base level (-0.5 vs. the next closest at 2.3). He is on pace to steal 26 bases, which would be a career-low as a full-time player by 15.

And it doesn't end there.

Based on what are believed to be the two best defensive statistics currently available (defensive runs saved and ultimate zone rating), Bourn is in the midst of having either his second or third-worst season as a fielder. While trying to peg exactly why he is struggling with his plate discipline is difficult to figure even after looking through the PITCHf/x data (the short of it is that he is chasing more pitches out of the zone and, in turn, making less contact, but we don't really know why), this valley of a season on the bases and in the field points to a decline in speed.

Bourn may be almost two full years younger than Swisher, but speed has historically dissipated before power, and he is around the age where it tends to. If he is at the precipice of steadily losing his most important tool, that four-year contract may become a problem sooner than later.

Anyway, so where would the Indians be right now if Swisher and Bourn were playing to career averages, assuming that wins above replacement was a perfect science and it was that simple to conclude?

Over five seasons as a regular, Bourn has been worth an average of 3.5 wins per. He is on pace for 2.6 in 2013 (-0.9 net difference). Over eight seasons, Swisher has been worth an average of 3.2. He is on pace for 2.5 (-0.7). With the Indians sitting 5.5 and 2.0 games back in the division and wild card races, those extra 1.6 wins sure would come in handy.

User Comments

September 12, 2013 - 4:51 PM EDT
Swisher's stats as a Yankee can be attributed to their stud line-up. He won't put up those numbers again.
August 28, 2013 - 8:45 AM EDT
Bourn has been a bit of a disappointment. For a lead-off guy, he strikes out too much, hits the ball in the air too much, doesn't hit the ball on the ground to take advantage of his speed and doesn't bunt enough. However, WHEN he gets on base (.267 avg), his speed helps a lot. Give him time...let's see what happens next year.
August 28, 2013 - 3:50 AM EDT
The rough consensus is that each +1 WAR added by a player is worth ~3 million dollars. So going by that Bourn who sits at 1.9 WAR right now with some time to go won't be much of an overpay if it is at all. Swisher who sits at 2 war probably isn't going to hit that +3 war but his contract still isn't that absurd since the going rate on the free agency market is actually much higher than that ~3 mil level per win.

The problem is the Indians don't spend a lot, so these are considered big time contracts where for most teams they wouldn't be out of the ordinary. Since the front office is actually spending money we fans want the players to be much more than they actually are. Let's be real at least these will never look as bad as the value added for the price of Josh Hamilton.

I also expect much better seasons from these two next season assuming the FO can add one more bat.

Also, par is a defined level. Which is defined as about 2 war. So both players will definitely break that 2 war plateau to turn in better than par seasons. It's not a big deal but the incorrect use of the term par has become a pet peeve of mine recently.
Rich Smith
August 27, 2013 - 10:27 PM EDT
Sorry, type-o, meant changing "leagues."
Rich Smith
August 27, 2013 - 10:26 PM EDT
If Bourn is losing speed and this causes his defensive drop, wouldn't a simple fix be moving the younger Stubbs or Brantley to center and moving Bourn to either corner?

Regarding his drop in offense, including stolen bases, isn't it very typical to have trouble when changing leads since you don't know the pitcher and his moves?

I do believe that while Swisher, Reynolds and Cabrera have received a lot of criticism for their sub-par play that Bourn has gotten a free pass this year.

I believe that Swisher and Bourn will have much better years next year. Cabrera too, assuming he isn't traded in off-season.

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