It may seem unkind to compare any player to Vince Coleman, given that we know how Coleman’s story ended, but given the limited number of players who match Bourn’s performance to this point in his career, Coleman is probably the best match. If anything, Coleman was a better version of Bourn, striking out less and walking about as often. (I was surprised to note that of the seven comps identified in this exercise, Bourn had the seventh-highest walk total and fourth-highest walk rate.)
This is why Bourn is such a risky signing. Bourn’s OBP is held up not by his walk rate, but by his BABIP and infield hits, which are speed-based. (Also, last year, by a spike in HR/FB.) Once Bourn loses a little speed, he’ll lose some of those hits, and he’s right on the line as it is. Michael Bourn batting .275/.340/.370 bats leadoff for you. Michael Bourn batting .260/.325/.355 has to bat eighth. There’s really no middle ground for a hitter who lacks power, as does Bourn. In Bourn’s favor is that he clearly the best defensive player of the group mentioned above. Defensive skill matters in projecting longevity—but defensive skill won’t make you a good leadoff man.
We don’t have to go back very far to see what happens when a player roughly the shape of Bourn loses batting average. Two offseasons ago, the Red Sox signed Carl Crawford, basically Bourn with some extra pop, after his age-28 season. Like Bourn, Crawford brought the promise of defensive value, as well as stolen bases and double-play avoidance. Crawford, however, stopped hitting for average, slipping from .306 in his two seasons prior to free agency to .255 with the Red Sox. After a 2012 season lost to injury, Crawford is now a Los Angeles Dodger with five years left on a contract and a limited number of ways to earn back $20 million a year.
Bourn won’t get that kind of deal, but the Crawford experience is a clear example of the downside risk here. Bourn is going to steal fewer bases, because that’s what older players do, and he may lose a step in center field. If he slips from being a good leadoff hitter to a poor one, he doesn’t have a way to make up that value, and the line between him being a good leadoff hitter and a poor one is incredibly thin. When you look at what players of similar performance to Bourn have done in their thirties, it becomes clear that the market’s handling of his free agency isn’t irrational, but in fact, a reasonable approach to a player whose future performance is uncertain.
Posted: February 08, 2013 at 03:40 PM | 46 comment(s)
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