Is Michael Bourn About to Decline?

Michael Bourn is the best free-agent left on the market. The main reason Bourn is still out there has to do with the market. After the other big-name outfielders signed, there were no teams left on the market who could offer Bourn a mega-deal. The only team he’s been linked to recently is the Mets, who are only interested in adding him if MLB decides to exempt the Mets from giving up the 11 pick. But even if the Mets signed Bourn, they would want him to lower his demands. The team doesn’t want to invest a five-year deal in a player so dependent on his legs, figuring, once the speed goes, Bourn will no longer be useful. The general notion suggests that players like Bourn fall off a cliff as their speed declines. But is Bourn the exception to that line of thinking?

In order to find similar players, I tried to find guys that utilized the same approach at the plate, at the same point in their careers. In order to find the players who were mostly dependent on speed, I sorted by stolen bases. The biggest problem here is that stolen bases is a counting stat. In order to get a better idea of the most frequent runners, I took plate appearances over that period, and divided by the number of steals. This gave me a nice rate stat I could use to compare players. From there, I grabbed the players who had a PA/SB rate of 30 or lower. This initially gave me a list of 34 players, including Bourn. For the purpose of looking at how Bourn would perform going forward, I had to remove all the current players on the list that haven’t hit age-30 yet. That bumped the list down to 28 players.

So, let’s assume Bourn has to settle for a three-year deal. If that’s the case, we can try to look at these players, and how they performed through their age-32 years. This is where we start to see a troubling trend. Fifteen of the 28 players saw their PA/SB rates fall below 30, which would have pushed them off the first list. Here’s a breakdown of how these players fared as aging kicked in.

PA/SB age 30-32 Players %
Major decline (over 30) 16 59%
Decline (lost > 4 PA) 2 7%
Same (within 4 PA) 5 18%
Better 4 14%

Fifty-nine percent of those players declined enough to not meet our initial threshold of one steal per 30 plate appearances. Seven percent saw a significant decline, but stayed within our threshold. In total, 32% of the players either stole bases at the same rate, or actually improved on their totals.

What if Bourn actually gets the five-year deal he’s looking for, though. When we sort that list to include how those players performed during their age-33 and age-34 seasons, things start to look pretty bad. The list drops to just 16 players, only eight of whom received 600 plate appearances over those two years. Outside of Fred Lewis, who had to be excluded because of age, 10 other players failed to see a major league plate appearance after their age-32 season. Of the 16 remaining players, 10 more fell below our 30 PA/SB threshold.

PA/SB age 33-34 Players %
Major decline (over 30) 20 77%
Decline (lost > 4 PA) 2 8%
Same (within 4 PA) 4 15%
Better 0 0%

Those last two seasons were tough. Seventy-seven percent of players saw a huge decline in their stolen base rates, and an additional eight percent saw a big decline. Only 15% of the remaining players were able to continue stealing bases at a similar rate at this point in their careers.

Overall, those numbers don’t bode well for Bourn. If there is a silver lining, however, it’s that the players who were able to maintain or improve on their stolen base rates over the next three seasons were the ones that received a lot of playing time. That does give some hope that Bourn might lucky enough to maintain his skills over the next three years. Giving Bourn a five-year deal would be a tough pill to swallow. The decline rate for these players is high enough in their early thirties, but it really jumps once they hit 33 or 34. Bourn had the most stolen bases of any player included in this study, which is another reason for optimism, at least in the short run. But the risk with speedy players is very real as they get into their 30s. The Mets are wise to be cautious in this scenario.




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Chris is a blogger for CBSSports.com. He has also contributed to Sports on Earth, the 2013 Hard Ball Times Baseball Annual, ESPN, FanGraphs and RotoGraphs. He tries to be funny on twitter @Chris_Cwik.


14 Responses to “Is Michael Bourn About to Decline?”

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  1. Sean-O says:

    Good article. It’s easy to see why teams are so reluctant to offer a long-term deal to Bourn.

    I’m sure somewhere Boras has a “mystery team” lurking though…

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  2. Muggi says:

    I think the rise (and IMO highly likely fall) of Michael Bourn was a contributing factor in the Ben Revere trade. The Phillies traded for what they see as Michael Bourn Lite (less power, more contact) heading into a “runner”‘s prime.

    Their numbers are fairly similar at this points in their career, considering the much higher K rate for Bourn and the much lower FB% for Revere.

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    • dave says:

      until you factor in ops .739 – .675, almost double the rbis, and 20 more runs, then yeah. Bourn had an awesome season last year. He might not produce like that again, and they might have similar #s next year, but bourn’s a tier above right now. Also, Phils definitely gave up a good amount in that deal, so he better perform like bourn in his prime years.

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  4. Mr Punch says:

    Carl Crawford demonstrates an additional aspect of the problem. A long-term, big-money contract for a guy like this is pretty much certain to be front-loaded in terms of expected return to the team; so a relatively minor injury can turn the deal into a disaster. In Crawford’s case, by May-June of his second year with the Red Sox, there was virtually no chance of a positive net result even if he regained his health.

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  5. Brett says:

    How could there be a mystery team out there when the only team expressing interest is a team waiting to have him drop his asking price and years… not to mention have zero interest if the MLB doesnt protect its 1st rd pick. Boras is a joke. Bourn isnt worth the years or price he is asking either, hence why he is wondering why he is still a free agent with 2 weeks until pitchers and catchers report.

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    • Sparkles Peterson says:

      Nobody wanted Prince Fielder without a discount in salary and years until the Tigers turned up. I’m skeptical that Bourn signs for anything approaching his early demands, but never say never.

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  6. Bourn to the Tigers makes the most sense.

    Why?

    1. Tigers Owner (Mike Illitch) takes phone calls directly from Boras.

    2. Tigers would be willing to spend $19MM for just ONE year. He would be in a loaded lineup perfectly suited for a “pillow contract”.

    3. The loss of the draft pick would counterpoised by the pick up of a compensatory pick in one year (2014).

    4. AJAX is would not be offended by moving to LF for a year. LF in Comerica is basically another CF.

    5. Trading Porcello for prospects would reduce their payroll by $5MM… $19-5 = $14MM is the net cost (after trading Porcello and gaining Bourn).

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  7. JKB says:

    Is the drop-off you saw in the 33-34 y.o. group a relatively new thing or are there historical precedents in the 80′s, 90′s, etc…?

    Said differently, could the drop-off in the 33-34 y.o. group be related to the increased testing for PEDs in the last few years? It seems logical to me that speed might be one of those skillsets impacted by the crack down.

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  8. James says:

    Interesting analysis. Not saying I’m in favor of signing Bourn, but he seems to have been fairly healthy his entire MLB career, averaging around 150 games per year from 2008 through 2012. Seeing that 33% of the players in the group stayed the same or got better in the first two years of their thirties, and around half that many managed to perform as well the next two years, is it possible that Bourn, who seems to have steered clear of significant injuries would be more likely to fall into the 33% who played the same or better. I’d be curious to see a comparison of how injury-prone this group of players is as that might be a predictor of performance.

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  9. astrosfanatic says:

    Just because he has hit 30 doesn’t mean his skills will decline. Look at Juan Pierre. He is 35ish and stole 37 last year without a starting job. I think Bourn is a much better hitter than Pierre ever was though. I don’t think Bourn will get the money he is looking for, but he is worth 5 years/75 million in today’s market.

    And the other thing that people like to overlook with Bourn is his defense. He is easily a top 3 defensive CF, and I would even go as far to say he is the best defensive CF in the game today.

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