Michael Bourn’s Questionable Future Defensive Value

Michael Bourn is a pretty terrific defensive center fielder. Last year, he was the best defensive outfielder in baseball by UZR (after you account for the positional differences), grading out as 25 runs above an average defensive player, and it wasn’t a one year aberration, as no player has a higher FLD+POS rating over the last four years either. With over 6,500 innings big league innings, we’re not dealing with problematic small samples either. Bourn has been a tremendous defensive asset this far in his career.

However, teams are no longer as willing to pay for past performance as they used to be, as front offices are now populated with people who are more interested in projecting a player’s future than they are with paying for an established track record. So, while Bourn’s defensive performances are notable, they’re only worth paying for to the extent that they inform our understanding about what they mean for his defensive value in the future. Now 30-years-old, Bourn’s getting further and further from his peak, and defensive skills seem to plateau earlier than offensive skills, so there’s some legitimate questions about just how much of his defensive value he will retain in future years.

To try and shed a light on that question, we can identify players who were valuable defensive outfielders in their twenties, and then see how much of that value carried over to their thirties. If you’re Michael Bourn, or Michael Bourn’s agent, you might want to stop reading now, because the answer probably isn’t something you’re going to want to hear.

I started off by filtering the leaderboards to display outfielders from 18 to 29 years of age, and then limited the list to just those who received at least 2,500 plate appearances from 2002-2011. This gave us a list of 44 outfielders who got regular playing time in their twenties during the UZR era, and also had a chance to have an age 30 or older season in 2012. There were 44 such players, and of those 44, 12 of them averaged +5 runs or better (by UZR plus the positional adjustment) per 600 plate appearances during that time. For ease of conversation, we’ll just call FLD+POS per 600 “defense”, and it will be labeled as DEF in the table below.

Of those 12 players, three of them don’t provide us with any useful information about their age 30 and beyond seasons. Bourn hasn’t played in his thirties yet, Willy Taveras was out of baseball after age 28, and Carl Crawford only managed 125 plate appearances in his age-30 season last year. That leaves us with nine outfielders who were regularly valuable defenders in their twenties and have already amassed at least a bit of playing time in their thirties. Below, we present a table of those nine outfielders, their average seasonal defensive value through age 29, and then their seasonal defensive value from 30 and beyond.

Name 29- PA 29- DEF 30+ PA 30+ DEF Change
Andruw Jones 3,305 19.7 2,047 4.9 (14.8)
Aaron Rowand 2,804 11.5 1,865 3.9 (7.6)
Coco Crisp 3,451 11.0 1,419 1.7 (9.2)
Corey Patterson 3,569 9.2 738 (4.5) (13.7)
Juan Pierre 4,333 6.8 2,715 (5.1) (11.9)
Curtis Granderson 3,424 6.3 1,375 (8.0) (14.4)
Shane Victorino 3,043 6.1 1,252 4.7 (1.3)
Carlos Beltran 3,299 5.9 3,171 (0.7) (6.6)
Alex Rios 4,125 5.3 1,210 (5.8) (11.1)
 
Average 3,484 9.1 1,755 (1.0) (10.1)

That right hand column tells the story, with all nine players posting worse defensive numbers from 30 on than they did through age 29, and most of them declining in really large ways. Andruw Jones went from best-of-all-time to okay. Aaron Rowand and Coco Crisp went from great to slightly above average. Corey Patterson, Juan Pierre, Curtis Granderson, and Alex Rios went from comfortably above average to well below average. Only Shane Victorino hasn’t taken a huge step backwards, but he’s only played two seasons in his thirties, so he has both a smaller sample size and his data skews towards his younger years. Overall, the group average very nearly matches Bourn’s personal mark (9.1 versus 8.9), and the group as a whole was rated slightly below average defensively in their thirties. Not a great sign for Bourn’s long term future.

Of course, no team is going to sign Michael Bourn through his age 39 season, so casting that large of a net forces us to include some seasons that we shouldn’t necessarily care about when discussing his next contract. Realistically, he’s not going to get more than a four year deal at this point, and even that might be pushing it. So, let’s re-run the table, only looking at these players from their 30-33 seasons:

Name 29- PA 29- DEF 30-33 PA 30-33 DEF Change
Andruw Jones 3,305 19.7 1,556 7.3 (12.4)
Aaron Rowand 2,804 11.5 1,865 3.9 (7.6)
Coco Crisp 3,451 11.0 1,419 1.7 (9.2)
Corey Patterson 3,569 9.2 738 (4.5) (13.7)
Juan Pierre 4,333 6.8 2,276 (5.0) (11.7)
Curtis Granderson 3,424 6.3 1,375 (8.0) (14.4)
Shane Victorino 3,043 6.1 1,252 4.7 (1.3)
Carlos Beltran 3,299 5.9 1,954 4.6 (1.2)
Alex Rios 4,125 5.3 1,210 (5.8) (11.1)
 
Average 3,484 9.1 1,516 (0.1) (9.2)

Unfortunately for Bourn, the numbers don’t really improve much. Jones and Beltran get slight bumps, since we’re dropping off their later seasons where their defense really declined, but for most of these players, we were already looking at the beginning of their thirties. Granderson is only 31, like Victorino, and he’s already experienced a big dropoff according to UZR. Same with Rios. Crisp is just 32, but hasn’t graded out nearly as well as he did in his twenties.

Part of this is just natural regression to the mean. We started by selecting players at the very top of the scale, so no matter what metric we were measuring, we would have expected future performance to be worse. And, yes, we are dealing with some sample size issues on for 30+ years, as the nine players combined for 31,000 plate appearances in their twenties but just 13,000 in their thirties. Crisp, Rios, Victorino, and Granderson could all post monster defensive numbers in 2013, which would significantly alter the numbers if we re-ran the table 12 months from now.

But, the fact remains that Major League teams have seen the most recent crop of great defensive outfielders age very poorly, at least when it comes to maintaining their defensive value past their age-30 season. With so many examples fresh in their mind, it shouldn’t be hugely surprising that teams aren’t overly eager to pay a premium for Bourn’s decline years. He’s starting from a higher baseline than most of these guys, and he’s certainly a better hitter than Patterson or Pierre, but if Bourn follows the pattern and regresses into something like an average defensive outfielder over the next few years, he’s not going to be a particularly great player anymore. He won’t be useless, but he needs to maintain a decent chunk of his fielding ratings in order to remain a strong asset in his thirties. Recent history suggests that teams have been wise to proceed with caution.



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Dave is the Managing Editor of FanGraphs.


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B
Guest
B
3 years 8 months ago

So is this a bias in the free agency system? Seems like if a player doesn’t make free agency by mid 20s he won’t get the chance to cash in on defensive value. If that’s all he has, then he’s screwed.

thistakesgumption
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thistakesgumption
3 years 8 months ago

Then again, players can get promoted quicker on the basis of defensive skills.

But yeah, that’s not going to get them to free agency that much quicker

Uncle Randy
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Uncle Randy
3 years 8 months ago

No research here, so I could very well be way wrong, but over that period, didn’t several of those players (Beltran, Jones) have injury histories that Bourn does not?

B
Guest
B
3 years 8 months ago

Might be that speed guys are more prone to injury.

Antonio bananas
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Antonio bananas
3 years 8 months ago

I can’t remember Andruw jones having an injury problem. A fat problem maybe.

Carry On My Heyward Son
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Carry On My Heyward Son
3 years 8 months ago

Andruw did have surgery for torn cartilage in his right knee in 2008, the year when his defense really started to drop off.

RMD
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RMD
3 years 8 months ago

If the Mariners sign him, he can turn more deep fly balls into outs and allow him to be slightly more valuable. A team like Texas could use him, but have a smaller park. (They seem to proud to sign a player that will clearly decline in 2016 anyway.) The team that would benefit the most from his skill set isn’t going to sign him to a deal that only benefits in the short term could be another reason front offices have been weary so far to sign him.

Eminor3rd
Member
Eminor3rd
3 years 8 months ago

Also, Rios was played out of position in CF in 2011, his only year with a significantly below average UZR. Last year, back in his natural position, he was a scratch defender. Still an overall decline, but that -7.0 from 2011 makes a big difference and may not be that useful.

fred
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fred
3 years 8 months ago

Using the position adjustment rather than just UZR should mitigate this

wilt
Guest
wilt
3 years 8 months ago

So I’m assuming the defensive decline can be attributed entirely to losing speed, as route instincts and reactions times aren’t going to diminish (if anything I’d think they would become more refined and efficient).

So my questions is, what is the answer to the oft asked, “which skillset erodes quicker?” — The old player’s power/BB, or the speedster’s quickness/defense? Or is the answer muddled and somewhere in between?

I’ve been hesitant to pick a side in such discussions because I’ve seen arguments going both ways from saber inclined individuals.

Damien
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Damien
3 years 8 months ago

What if expanded data set prior to 2002? In other words, what other historically “great” defenders would make the list…of course realizing the limitations of defensive stats prior to that time frame (i.e. no UZR).

One quickly springs to mind….Paul Blair. Had very good/spectacular numbers in his age 30 and age 31 seasons, then promptly fell off a cliff in 1976 both offensively and defensively.

Perhaps also would be useful to tally out all of the +10 FLD seasons from centerfielders age 30 or older.

BIP
Guest
BIP
3 years 8 months ago

Mike Cameron. Fantastic in his 20’s, still great in his 30’s.

cody k
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cody k
3 years 8 months ago

this article has done a lot to change my position on Bourn… I have been arguing most of the off-season that the Cubs should sign him to either a front loaded contract or one with a significant signing bonus given their position, however, that was contingent on assuming he can average 3.5 to 4 WAR over a 4 year contract which appears like too much to ask when considering this article.

I understand the natural regression that is going to come with age but it appears that OF’s that rely on a high defensive value probably fall faster than the naturally assumed 0.5 War per year

Krog
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Krog
3 years 8 months ago

Baseball teams never sign players to front loaded contracts because of inflation. Other sports like football have front loaded contracts because salary cap issues.

TKDC
Guest
TKDC
3 years 8 months ago

I think this article does more to explain the lower than expected market for Bourn than predict well how he’ll do going forward. He seems to have more speed to lose, lack of injury history, and a slender body type that handles aging better. Of course he is likely getting worse, but he could still be good to very good for another few years and then merely average for the backend of a 5-6 year deal.

walkie
Member
3 years 8 months ago

Mike Cameron is another relatively recent example. Between the ages of 24 and 30 he was worth about 10 wins with his glove. He accumulated just 1 win over the rest of his career.

John Roberts
Guest
John Roberts
3 years 8 months ago

Devon White would be another. About 13.5 wins with his glove through age 30. Less than 1 the rest of the way.

Spike
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Spike
3 years 8 months ago

it’s usually hard to doubt Boras but it’ll be a challenge to get more than 3/$30M for Bourn I think, given the comp issue now.

Matt
Guest
Matt
3 years 8 months ago

Seems way off. He’s a better and younger player than Nick Swisher…

Sparkles Peterson
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Sparkles Peterson
3 years 8 months ago

He’s a much worse offensive player than Nick Swisher, and as illustrated above, teams that pay players with the expectation of elite defense usually turn out to be spending their money foolishly.

Matt
Guest
Matt
3 years 8 months ago

Ok, take three-year WAR averages for each player, then go ahead and dock Bourn the full 10 points of UZR that the elite center fielders experienced as illustrated above – meaning you’ve fully accounted upfront for defensive decline – and they’re roughly equal players right now. And Bourn’s still younger.

If you’re looking for comps, Swish got 4/56. If no team is willing to give Bourn this, we’re almost certainly looking at a market inefficiency.

Matt
Guest
Matt
3 years 8 months ago

Take a 5/4/3 weighting of his WAR the past three seasons and you get 5.2, then to be safe take away a few extra UZR runs (his three year average is about 15; dock him half that) and call him a 4.5 win player. With your standard .5 WAR/year decline and $5 million/win – to be extra conservative, even throw out inflation – we are talking about something in the range of 5 years/$90 million.

That seems like it’s on the conservative end, but I remember people guessing he would sign for something like 5/80. Is he demanding much more than that or are teams *really* worried about his defense crashing?

Spike
Guest
Spike
3 years 8 months ago

who’s the market at that price?

It’s nice to speak in theoretical terms but in reality the market seems almost non-existant for Bourn unless the price comes way down.

Matt
Guest
Matt
3 years 8 months ago

I’d argue in that case that there’s a serious inefficiency in play here.

Even accounting for a steep decline in defense, Bourn is a quality player. Make him an average center fielder in 2012 and he still would have been worth 4 WAR.

The article makes some good points, but it doesn’t fully explain why teams are staying away. I think there’s still a bias against defense and baserunning.

Spike
Guest
Spike
3 years 8 months ago

if the price comes down to 3/30M I think the Rays will pounce. I don’t see why the Rangers would be involved since Leonys Martin is ready to go and they have Gentry to play CF as well and Borbon as a fallback to both.

I get that the draft pick penalty is prob keeping a bunch of teams away. The Rays have already gained a pick from BJU so it’s less of a penalty for them than most other teams. Just about $ for them.

hildebeast21
Member
hildebeast21
3 years 8 months ago

He isn’t worth 5 years and $60-$65million??? Assuming that his bat is league average (on average) over the next 5 seasons (600PA); that his base running goes from merely very good to totally average; that is fielding is great, then good, then average, then bad, then very bad; and that he gets almost all of his starts in CF at first and then fewer and fewer as time goes on until he no longer has a positive positional adjustment. With $5million/war this offseason, so really no inflation from 2012, that still makes him “worth” ~$61.52million. Am I crazy? Or stupid? Or both?

fred
Guest
fred
3 years 8 months ago

I think it would make more sense to normalize to UZR/600 PA to correct for playing time

rubesandbabes
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rubesandbabes
3 years 8 months ago

Talking about Bourn is a great way to talk about the Mike Trout 2012 AL MVP quest.

You loved Trout’s speed in fantasy, the modern stats love Trout for his speed, too. There is no question that Bourn’s defense is closely comparable to Trout’s D – the speed and D games are the same.

But now Josh Hamilton gets the $ and Bourn doesn’t.

You’ve all turtled over this without explanation of the financial disdain for Bourn’s speed vs. Trout as the true 2012 MVP.

Hello! Hi! How are you?

Jon L.
Guest
Jon L.
3 years 8 months ago

I’ve carefully read what you just wrote about 4 times, and I’m now ready to diagnose you as either a very bad editor or – tentatively, mind you – schizophrenic.

Baltar
Guest
Baltar
3 years 8 months ago

I want some of what Rubes is ingesting.

Damien
Guest
Damien
3 years 8 months ago

Both Devon White and Mike Cameron had outstanding age 30 seasons.

From there, their performances were scattered. Some very good +10 seasons, some not so good.

Devon White was still a good defensive asset until his age 36 season and then fell of a cliff.

Mike Cameron had 2 outlier years in San Diego (post Mets injury), but then returned with two excellent years in Milwaukee.

Balthazar
Guest
Balthazar
3 years 8 months ago

Aaron Rowand is an excellent comp for Bourn, handedness aside. Bourn walks a tad more, but otherwise they are very similar strikeout prone speed guys, with excellent base running and good D; high end D in their 20s. Rowand has remained a defensive asset and a good baserunner, but nothing like he was, and there’s nothing to fill the gap. Harder for him to help the offense since he’s not getting on base now either.

—And that’s why anyone would be CRAZY to sign Bourn to a five-year deal. If Bourn loses even a step, he’s still useful but nowhere near his per annum in return. And that’s always been the problem. On a three year deal, correctly priced, Bourn would be a real plus for the right team, but no one should buy those last two years because the value doesn’t bet to be there.

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