Bourn To Run Toward Big Contract?

Players switching their representation to Scott Boras in order to maximize earnings isn’t uncommon. Jayson Werth felt it prudent to do so last season in anticipation of his big upcoming contract. Robinson Cano acted accordingly in February. Around the same time as that Yankees slugger, Astros center fielder Michael Bourn followed suit and dropped SFX Baseball for the biggest agent in the game.

Bourn doesn’t necessarily profile similarly to Werth or Cano, but a player does not seek the help of Boras to offer hometown discounts or sign at a below-market rate. Just like the aforementioned triumvirate of new Boras representees, Bourn’s change in agencies likely signifies that he feels his money is coming. He avoided arbitration and signed for $4.4 million this season. Next year will mark the end of his arbitration eligibility, as he reaches free agency for the first time in 2013.

Is Bourn, 28, really a big contract type of player? Upon revisiting this story and reviewing his numbers it seems that, while he may be vastly underrated as a player, three issues loom with respect to his pending contractual status: the perception of players whose value is heavily derived on defense, his offensive numbers relative to the new league averages and not those from 2006-08, and the current status of the Astros franchise.

Defense First
Simply put, defensive metrics receive far more skepticism than offensive stats. It’s much easier to trust an on-base percentage, wOBA, Isolated Power, stolen base efficiency mark, etc, than it is to see Bourn’s 19+ runs saved via UZR last season, or 10 runs saved the year before, and put the figures in perspective. Comparisons prove especially troublesome when various defensive metrics disagree with one another.

Treating defensive stats similarly to batting numbers, from a cost standpoint, may not be an optimal use of resources because of the inherent uncertainties in the data. Obviously it would be a different story if scouts backed up the data, or offered an estimate that fielding skills and positional value alone are worth the price of two wins.

But it’s tougher to consider his WAR totals as equivalent to those of, say, Werth, whose offense was the driving force behind consecutive 5-win seasons. Suffice to say, I was a bit shocked to see that Bourn added 4.9 WAR in 2009 and 4.8 WAR last season, his second and third full seasons in the majors.

It’s unlikely that I am alone here in considering Bourn to be worth X, when in reality he has produced X+3. It quickly becomes apparent when watching him patrol his outfield post that he takes tremendous routes and can track down virtually any ball. Some centerfielders mask a poor sense of direction with fantastic speed. Not Bourn, who is fast in addition to being a solid all-around outfielder.

Regardless, a gap exists between his value per all-encompassing statistics like WAR and his perceived value on the open market. Much of his value is tied to an area that many treat with large doses of skepticism.

Offense Relative to League
Pop Quiz: what is the league average slash line in the NL right now? Answer: .249/.318/.383, down from the .255/.324/.399 in 2010, and the .259/.331/.409 on display two seasons ago. The measuring stick has substantially changed, meaning that Bourn’s offense isn’t as unimpressive as it might have once seemed. Two years ago, a .265/.341/.346 was unimpressive. Now it represents an above average slash line.

He has hit .275/.347/.365 without much seasonal fluctuation since 2009 and his baserunning prowess elevates his value as well. Since 2009, his 131 steals leads all of baseball, with Carl Crawford‘s 114 ranking a somewhat distant second. Further, his 11.2 BsR since 2009 ranks second in the senior circuit to Colby Rasmus, and fourth overall among qualifying players.

Bourn might be known as a defense-first player, but let’s not act like he swings feebly. He can run, and reaches base at an above average clip to properly utilize his speed. Put everything together and Bourn has truly maximized his value based on his skills. Is that worth 5-WAR money? I have a hard time seeing some team giving him a 5/$75, or a 6/$87.5, which would calculate out to a break-even at 3.5 WAR/season.

The data might suggest he is an elite fielder while scouts consider him solid but not overwhelming, and it is tough to evaluate offensive skills without incorporating the league averages into the mix. Even tougher is being cognizant of the league averages enough to make those evaluations.

League average hitters who play great defense are often cost-effective for a team with a tight budget because, frankly, defense costs less. Players fitting this description don’t sign enormous contracts. Bourn might extract as much as he can with Boras steering the ship, but a 4/$40 might be a more realistic expectation. Teams may shy away from a longer-term deal under the assumption that his defense and speed will erode over time. Without those two components, his value obviously takes a massive hit.

The Astros Status
As the team undergoes its ownership change it will have to decide whether or not a complete reboot is necessary. There are few pieces on the major league roster that would merit a big enough return to make a deal, and Bourn is one of them.

It would seem strange for a team without any real help on the farm to dole out lucrative contract extensions to the likes of Bourn or Hunter Pence, especially when those two players could actually help the team more based on what other teams would pay to acquire their services.

The Astros aren’t going anywhere this year, or next year, and though Bourn is from Houston, and went to school at the University of Houston, the Astros don’t need to, and shouldn’t, pay him handsomely given the current state of the franchise. A switch to Boras indicates that handsome payments are desired.

The best course of action would be for the Astros to test the trade market for Bourn, as many teams could benefit from what he provides much more than they will. The move would make plenty of sense this year, as well, given his $4.4 million salary — taking on half of that over the rest of the season would not hinder payroll flexibility or the ability to make additional in-season moves. Bourn is an average hitter with tremendous defensive ability. He will get paid, but it shouldn’t be by the Astros, and it will almost certainly be for an average annual value less than his recent production merits.

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Eric is an accountant and statistical analyst from Philadelphia. He also covers the Phillies at Phillies Nation and can be found here on Twitter.

21 Responses to “Bourn To Run Toward Big Contract?”

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  1. Highway 61* says:

    thanks, Eric. well-written article.

    as a bourn fan, glad to see his game get some props. in your opinion, where would be the best fit for bourn’s game?

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    • steex says:

      I think he’d be a great 2012 fit for the White Sox. It would allow them to push Rios back to RF and Quentin back to LF, an overall upgrade to the OF defense simply by subtraction of Pierre. Offensively, Bourn shares the same theoretical profile as Pierre, except he’s actually good at it. Plugging him into the leadoff spot would help the OBP a lot, greatly improve SB%, and allow Ozzie to run the offense the way he insists on running it anyway.

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      • reillocity says:

        Bourn wouldn’t provide much of an upgrade in OBP over Pierre, and he strikes out a lot. The primary difference is that Bourn is younger and faster and thus covers more ground in the OF and is more successful at stealing. Bourn doesn’t have much of an arm, but relative to Pierre he has a cannon.

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    • brendan says:

      OAK a possible landing spot for bourn? they have sought out defense-first players recently, and crisp will be a free agent after this season.

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  2. OremLK says:

    I don’t expect the Astros to trade either Bourn or Pence unless the new ownership comes in with a drastic eye toward tearing everything down and rebuilding from scratch. I suspect Crane will not want to alienate fans by getting rid of either of those players, who are both fan favorites, and will instead seek to continue Ed Wade’s policy of bridging the gap and gradually rebuilding instead of blowing everything up at once. If Bourn is eventually traded, I doubt it will be this year. The Houston front office will instead seek to see what they can get in return for Wandy Rodriguez, who is older and more expensive, but still would be a nice piece for a contending team.

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  3. hunterfan says:

    Isn’t there a competing interest here where the Astros have to field some level of a competitive team (i.e. a team including Bourn and Pence)? The Astros, from a business standpoint, probably can’t punt the next 3 seasons and play all young kids because I don’t think the fans would show up to see it, even though from a logical standpoint, it would make sense.

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    • NLeininger says:

      The fans aren’t showing up to see Bourn and Pence. Trade them and Wandy to get premium return. As a life time fan of the Astros, I submit that I would be more willing to go see a game with young players than I am currently with Carloss Lee, Bourn, and Pence playing the OF.

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      • hunterfan says:

        Is it fair to extrapolate from your views to the majority of fans? You’re a fairly well-informed, savvy fan, and you understand why trading Bourn might be a good idea.

        Does every fan understand that? Are they going to pay to see a bunch of no-name scrubs?

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      • timmy! says:

        The Astros are not a small market team and can afford to pay some players to play on a team even if they’re not going to compete. Plus if the Astros can sign him obviously they’re getting a great deal out of signing him which should be the goal of any team, not just competing ones.

        Plus it’s baseball as much as we like to pretend we can foresee the future, it doesn’t always work out that way.

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  4. The Ancient Mariner says:

    Regardless, a gap exists between his value per all-encompassing statistics like WAR and his perceived value on the open market. Much of his value is tied to an area that many treat with large doses of skepticism.

    Maybe he switched to Bora$ because he figures that Bora$ can overcome that.

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  5. lee___D says:

    if boras can a team to vastly overpay for bourn. He could shift the entire free agency landscape’s view on paying defensive 1st players (or at least offer a precedent).

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  6. Slugger27 says:

    Swisher went from joe bick to dan lozano…. not boras

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  7. gary says:

    But if the market underestimates Bourn’s real value, that means the Astros won’t get much in return for him. Might as well keep him.

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  8. Bryan says:

    A lot of teams could benefit from signing Bourn. After all, he’s the most underrated player in the game. Objectively speaking, that is.

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  9. sabernar says:

    Looking at Baseball Reference’s numbers, Brett Gardner looks pretty equivalent to Bourne. A little better at offense, a little worse at defensive (though still REALLY good at defense, plus he’s now playing LF). WARs are about the same.

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  10. fdhjstf says:

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  11. Fred says:

    I think you hit the nail on the head about the defensive #’s

    One thing that never gets mentioned about Crawford when he signed his deal… Career UZR/150 at the Trop: ~22.5, on the road ~7.5. This is an 8 year sample size (so effectively 4 years on each split)… is he really that much better at the Trop or is there something potentially off with the metrice (input data, park factor, input bias). His arm rated ~5 runs better at home than on the road (again /150).

    Any contract that is based as much on defense as on on offense needs to be scrutinized beyond a UZR based WAR model…. How would Crawford’s contract look if he you saw him as a 7.5 UR/150 defender instead of an overall 15 defender?

    I think their is just too much assumption that UZR is nailing it (don’t get me wrong it is a significant step up from past defensive metrics)… but at some positions (anecditally for me corner OF and 1st base come to mind), I wonder if it is missing something that might be significant.

    Bourn doesn’t have that same volume of data, but he’s been about 15 runs better at home over each of the last 2 years…. if that trends continues this year and next, it might be worth looking at why some folks have such pronounce home/road defensive splits.

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  12. kick me in the GO NATS says:

    The Nats could really use Bourn. Our biggest whole is CF.

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