The Extent of Michael Bourn’s Capability

Everybody loves a long home run, because they’re impressive, because they’re difficult. Last year, there were 96 particularly long home runs, if we somewhat arbitrarily set a minimum distance of 450 feet. That’s according to the ESPN Home Run Tracker. Giancarlo Stanton was responsible for seven of them. Miguel Cabrera was responsible for four of them, Yoenis Cespedes three of them. Phil Hughes, three of them, from the other end. Josh Hamilton hit one of them, and Curtis Granderson hit zero of them. Robinson Cano hit zero of them. Jay Bruce and Mike Trout each hit zero of them.

Michael Bourn, much like Kyle Lohse, is a fairly high-profile player who remains an available free agent as we start to think about the middle of January. Bourn, like Lohse, will end up signed to a significant contract, but Bourn, like Lohse, has seen his market fail to develop as expected. One issue might be that neither Bourn nor Lohse is a superstar. Bourn contributes an awful lot of value in the field and on the basepaths, but he strikes out fairly often, and he doesn’t hit for much power. His nine home runs last season were a career-high, by four. Bourn is 30 years old.

You know that Michael Bourn doesn’t hit for power. You’ve known that for as long as you’ve known about Michael Bourn. Officially, he stands five-foot-11; unofficially, he probably doesn’t. It’s not the end of the world, because you can still be a good player without much in the way of power. Ben Revere got dealt this offseason, and he’s still looking for his first big-league dinger. Ichiro was a superstar in Seattle for a decade. Tony Gwynn hit fewer career home runs than Matt Lawton and Edgar Renteria. Nobody believes that Michael Bourn is bad, and I’m not here to argue that he isn’t, because, again, nobody believes that Michael Bourn is bad.

But recall this post’s first paragraph. I was going over Bourn’s ESPN Home Run Tracker page, and I was interested by the fact that Bourn hit a couple dingers beyond 420 feet last season. That’s 420 feet, standardized — environmental conditions stripped away — and that’s a substantial home run. That caught me by surprise, given my impressions of Bourn’s strength, so I did some more background research. In 2011, Bourn hit two home runs, the longest being 401 feet. In 2010, he hit two home runs, the longest being 398 feet. In 2009, he hit three home runs, the longest being 456 feet.

Three home runs, the longest being 456 feet. Or, in ESPN Home Run Tracker terms:


The official distance is listed as 457, but the ball gained a foot from the warm gametime temperature. It wasn’t the longest home run of the season in baseball, of course; plenty others were longer. But those longer home runs were hit by players you expect to hit long home runs every so often. Adam Dunn, Lance Berkman, Russell Branyan, even Wladimir Balentien. Michael Bourn drilled a Jeff Suppan delivery more than a twelfth of a mile. No, that doesn’t sound very impressive, so let’s try again. Michael Bourn drilled a Jeff Suppan delivery more than a football field and a half.

Interestingly, Bourn’s home run is mentioned nowhere within the Astros’ game recap. It’s not available in the Top Plays Archive, nor is it included in Bourn’s personal video highlight archive. Thankfully, condensed-game footage survives, so we can confirm that Bourn did, indeed, do this in a game that happened, in front of people.


That was Bourn’s first home run of the season, and he’d hit two more. One on June 20, that went 387 feet, and one on July 10, that went 363 feet. Michael Bourn doesn’t have power; Michael Bourn hit the 2009 Astros’ second-longest home run of the season, three feet behind a blast by Lance Berkman. In Bourn’s career against Jeff Suppan, he’s recorded one hit in 13 at bats and 16 plate appearances. He made the hit count, literally and figuratively.

It doesn’t really matter, from an evaluation perspective, what Michael Bourn did once in 2009. He also grounded into a double play once in 2009, and was intentionally walked once in 2009. Bourn has enough of a statistical track record that we have a pretty good idea what he is, and what he ought to be at least in the near-term future. But you figure every player in baseball has a power maximum, and Bourn’s dinger off Suppan is proof, inarguable proof, that his power maximum is high, and probably higher than you might’ve assumed. In theory, a pitcher could strike out 20 batters in a game just because the batters all sucked. The batters could, in theory, all get dust in their eyes, or just take lousy swings because they have headaches. Michael Bourn couldn’t fake this home run. Suppan served the pitch up, yeah, but Bourn’s the only guy responsible for the batted baseball’s distance covered. Michael Bourn, with that body and that swing, can hit a mammoth home run.

He won’t hit many of them, if he hits any of them between now and the end of his career. He’s a groundball hitter who survives with his speed, and his career HR/FB is 4.1%. In any given plate appearance, if you assume Michael Bourn is a player without much power, odds are you won’t be proven wrong. But, one time. Good science requires repeatability, but we have video evidence of this happening. We know that Michael Bourn hit that ball, we know where it went, and we know what that must mean.

Michael Bourn is not a power hitter. He has demonstrated that he is a hitter with more power than you’d think. Maybe you’re not impressed, or maybe you don’t understand, so imagine instead that .gif shows Jeff Suppan striking Bourn out with a 95 mile-per-hour fastball. That would be weird. This is weird. Jeff Suppan coughed up a lot of dingers, but he might never have coughed up an odder one.

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Jeff made Lookout Landing a thing, but he does not still write there about the Mariners. He does write here, sometimes about the Mariners, but usually not.

50 Responses to “The Extent of Michael Bourn’s Capability”

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  1. Cidron says:

    ok.. and Jim Thome has 19 stolen bases? You aren’t paying for Bourn’s homers, nor are you paying for Thome’s steals. Not sure what it is you are trying to sell in this article.

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  2. Fatalotti says:

    He’s not selling anything. It’s January friggin 7th, and he wrote a baseball article that has a pretty interest fact in it.

    Just enjoy it for what it is.

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  3. asdfg says:

    I really don’t see the point of this article. Bourn once hit a long home run, ok, noted.

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    • Matt says:

      I don’t see the point of this comment. You’re devoid of a sense of humor and not interested in baseball factoids, ok, noted.

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      • Juan B says:

        I love how defensive people get when someone criticizes an article. It’s like FanGraphs writers can do no wrong according to some readers…

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    • Train says:

      It’s not that Fangraphs readers get defensive, it’s just such a waste of time to read critical comments from people who expect every Fangraphs article to provide them some gem to win their roto league. If you play fantasy, but don’t really enjoy any other facet of baseball, don’t come to the site.

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  4. mikk402 says:

    Now that is a fun fact I will use in the future. Please tell me Suppan has actually thrown a ball 95MPH before as well.

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  5. Polka says:

    jesus, you guys need to take the bats out of your asses!
    He’s just stating some facts…good article to keep us wondering why Bourns Market isn’t more open???

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    • Spike says:

      I would say a more relevant article about Bourn would be to examine the say 3 or 4 teams who might/should be looking at signing Bourn… or how much Bourn might have to sacrifice (in $) to sign… the fact that Bourn once hit a long HR… well next we’ll be seeing articles suggesting that Dan Uggla once laid off a slider…

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  6. Samuel Deduno says:

    CC Sabathia hit a 440 ft homerun against the Dodgers in interleague play.

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  7. Eric says:

    I highly enjoyed this. I enjoy tales of the odd and interesting.

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  8. Scott says:

    This is an amazing fact at least to me that you have presented here. Bourn isn’t as slight as many speedsters and one could certainly interpret this blast to mean he has a certain (surprising) amount of strength. Good stuff as usual Jeff.

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  9. jdbolick says:

    I doubt there are very many players whose lack of home runs stems from a physical lack of strength, so I don’t see any real meaning to this one blip of data.

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    • Sammy Solis says:

      Maybe you’d be surprised how strong you have to be and how efficient hitting mechanics have to be to send a baseball 450 ft. Compared to non-athletes, many homerun lacking players are still very physical but when compared to sluggers, many just aren’t as strong. Some player’s swings just aren’t meant for power like you alluded to, but not being as strong is probably almost as likely.

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      • jdbolick says:

        The dramatic increases in physical strength from steroids showed how that does affect batted ball distance, but the hitting mechanics you referenced have far, far greater impact on the number and distance of home runs. Remember that the first major leaguer who tested positive for steroids was Alex Sanchez, he of six career home runs in 1,527 official at-bats. More strength results in higher bat speed which means more distance, but that only produces home runs if the batter is already hitting arcing fly balls. The major leagues are littered with 210lb+ guys who don’t hit many home runs because their swings aren’t conducive to them. Strength isn’t the limiter in most cases.

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      • Sammy Solis says:

        We’re talking about 450 ft homeruns. No doubt there aren’t many hitters who aren’t strong enough to hit more than a few each year, but you need excellent mechanics and strength to hit a homerun 450 feet. Many power hitters can’t send a baseball 450 feet.

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  10. Keith says:

    This piece was great/read like fine investigative journalism. I’m curious whether this insight enhances Bourn’s prospects for a 20-hr season, if he played in Yankee Stadium, for instance, and swung–as Ichiro evidently has–for the right field fence.

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  11. geefee says:

    Bourn’s swing is obviously not geared for power, but he has pretty big forearms and the traps of a running back; people underestimate the kind strength a smaller elite athlete can have. Fast twitch athleticism is good for more than just running, doesn’t surprise me at all that he can hit the ball as far as power hitters when he really gets into one.

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    • Jimmy Rollins says:

      “people underestimate the kind strength a smaller elite athlete can have”

      I agree.

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    • CJ in Austin, TX says:

      Bourn has tremendous bat speed. After years of watching him hit, I am always struck by his bat speed. But he doesn’t have an upper cut swing. He is a line drive hitter. My recollection is that the long HR cited here drew concern from Astros’ fans and broadcasters that it might lead Bourn to try to hit HRs in the future, which probably would hurt his hitting.

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  12. Tom says:

    Did that homer really travel 457 feet? It was hit to the left of the 373 sign, so a conservative estimate would be maybe 60 feet past where it crossed the fence. I find it unlikely that it’s 20 yards from the fence to where it landed.

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    • Sean O'Neill says:

      You have to adjust for the height of the stands as well (I believe).

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    • Dave S says:

      That was my thought also. No way that ball went 457.

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    • Dave (UK) says:

      I thought it hit the face of the second tier

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      • schlomsd says:

        Yeah, I think you are right. That makes a lot more sense as if it didn’t hit that facing above the stands there is no way that went 457 feet. I was looking at the .gif on my phone so I couldn’t see it clearly.

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      • BenH says:

        What if whoever was tracking this homer thought it hit the facing when it didn’t? It doesn’t look like it does to me, but then again, it’s just a grainy .gif.

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  13. PillsburyFlowboy says:

    My brother Kevin and I used to race our bikes down Cherry Hill every day after school. We raced every day and he always beat me, but one time, one time… I beat him.

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  14. maqman says:

    Try him on Blueberry Hill. You’ll find your thrill.

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  15. Hurtlockertwo says:

    Barry Zito got four hits last year, that factoid has got to be much more amazing than Bourne hitting one long home run. Zito is a terrible hitter.
    He may be the worst starting pitcher hitter in baseball.

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  16. ttnorm says:

    Good article.

    There is one other piece of the puzzle that puts more ambiguity into these hittracker models. MLB accepts a +/- of 5% COR in their approved baseballs. If this was a +5% tightly wound ball, it would travel an extra 20+ feet to an average ball at this distance. If we take that 20 feet away, we are perhaps not having this discussion.

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  17. Mr Punch says:

    Carl Yastrzemski (listed at 5-11, 175) who had 452 homers (and was at one time the only active player with three 40-HR seasons) has talked about the one time he really hit a pitch perfectly. I believe it reached the facing in RF at Fenway where the retired numbers are.

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    • Hurtlockertwo says:

      Willie Mays was listed a 5’10” and 170 lbs, he hit a few HR’s too. Joe Morgan etc. I agree that Bourne hitting one long HR is only in context of him trying to get a new team/contract.

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  18. Bob says:

    Mike is definitely not 5’11”, he’s more like 5’9″. I never thought he’d make it in pro ball because he hardly ever hit the ball out of the infield in college with a metal bat. He’s definitely stronger than he was when I played with him, but even that one at Minute Maid isn’t 456 ft. Maybe more like 420-430. Doesn’t matter though because he gets paid for his speed, not power.

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    • Downer Debby says:

      I don’t understand the point of your comment. Knowing he is shorter than listed is normal for every short athlete and saying he didn’t have much power in college can be understood by seeing he has only 2 homeruns and 23 extra base hits total in his entire collegiate career. Then you post the final thing about not looking 450 ft that was said earlier and seemingly makes your comment look like you actually have some valuable addition to the discussion. There are two reasons you could have posted this. Either you want us all to be impressed with your participation in D1 baseball or you’re making this up for the same reason.

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  19. Meyer Wolfsheim says:

    It’s pretty clear to me that Bourn did that because of PEDs. Why is nobody talking about this?

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  20. randplaty says:

    Cameron Maybin hit one 485 feet this year. He regularly hits HRs in the 430 range. If this means anything for Bourn, it means even more for Maybin.

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    • Downer Debby says:

      Maybin is a physical monster at a lean, sinewy 6’3″ 210 lb frame. Bourn is a much smaller 5’11” 180 lb man whose swing isn’t exactly built for power.

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  21. AA says:

    Mel Ott was 5’6″

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  22. Willie says:

    I call BS on the 457 ft estimate. The ball landed first row ( and did not hit off of the facing on the upper deck). That was 420 tops.

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