As the 2011 Major League Baseball trade deadline approached, the Atlanta Braves front office watched as the rival Philadelphia Phillies dealt for outfielder Hunter Pence and chief wild card competitor, the San Francisco Giants, acquired veteran Carlos Beltran.
General Manger Fran Wren patiently waited, knowing the best fit for his Braves wasn’t a corner outfielder.
Wren tells Sirius/XM sports radio he wanted a premium center fielder that was a true leadoff hitter at the plate.
Enter Michael Bourn.
Given a full season, Bourn will attempt to fuel what was at times an anemic offense during 2011. Atlanta finished in the bottom half of the National League in nearly every major category, including runs (10th), RBI (10th), AVG (13th), SB (14th) and Team WAR (13th).
Bourn’s top priority as a leadoff hitter is to get on base so he can provide run scoring opportunities for middle of the order hitters like Chipper Jones, Brian McCann, Dan Uggla and hopefully, Jason Heyward.
Stealing bases or scoring runs become moot if Bourn can’t get to first base.
His On-Base Percentage (OBP) has been .340-plus in four of the past five seasons, which is above league average.
The Braves will be content if he maintains a number over .340, but the ability for more is there. He showed promise last year when he had a .363 OBP before being traded to Atlanta.
Ron Shandler, author of Baseball Forecaster, says “Once a player displays a skill, he owns it.”
That means Bourn should be able to repeat his 2010 walk rate of 9.8 percent. The combination of an improved walk rate and the continued progress he has shown against left-handed hitters (.254 in 2011 and .287 in 2009) would go a long way towards producing an OBP above .360.
Two projections for 2012 have Bourn scheduled for a dip in OBP, ZiPS at .331 and Bill James at .339.
RotoChamp projects Bourn to maintain is current pace with a .346 OBP.
It seems obvious that getting on base more often leads to scoring runs. To demonstrate that further, the top five scoring teams in MLB last season were also the top five teams in OBP.
OBP in 2011: Red Sox (.349), Yankees (.343), Cardinals (.341), Tigers (.340) and Rangers (.340).
Once the leadoff man gets past that initial 90-foot hurdle, getting into scoring position is a vital.
Bourn is the best in the game at getting from first to second with no help from the batter. He has led MLB in stolen bases in each of the past three seasons with 61, 52, and 61 stolen bases respectfully.
Manufacturing runs wasn’t considered “old fashioned” until steroids, bandbox ballparks and seven-hole hitters with 20-plus home run power became the norm.
In a December article, The Sun Sentinel stated that a manufactured run is when two of the four bases are the result of a sacrifice bunt, stolen base, hit and run, or bunt single.
According to Bill James calculations, Bourn ranked atop the National League just ahead of Jose Reyes in manufactured runs.
The actual scoring of runs is almost entirely dependent on if the hitters behind a player can produce, so the 94 runs Bourn scored last season are not a complete reflection on him alone.
Weighted Runs Created (wRC) is an advanced metric system that determines a player’s total offensive value and measure’s it by runs.
Using the wRC formula, Bourn’s 92 total was tied for 35th in MLB. To get an idea of how other leadoff hitters performed using wRC, look at Jose Reyes (98), Starlin Castro (93) and Jimmy Rollins (78).
As with most of Bourn’s projected totals for 2012, Bill James expects a regression from a career high of 92 to 73 wRC.
Rotochamp is a little more optimistic with its 83 wRC projection.
While scoring runs on offense helps a team win, the prevention of runs on defense goes easily unnoticed at times.
As mentioned earlier, Braves GM Frank Wren not only wanted a true leadoff hitter atop his lineup, but he also wanted a premium centerfield defender. Bourn has proved to be just that, winning Gold Gloves in 2009 and 2010.
The Ultimate Zone Rating (UZR) attempts to give a numeric value to a player’s defensive skill. An expansion of that is the UZR/150, which helps compare players by scaling the UZR into a 150 game basis.
Bourn’s UZR/150 was the lowest of his career last season at minus 6.2, which is below league average.
It seems odd that a player could win back to back Gold Gloves the previous two seasons then become a below league average defender.
It’s possible that changing teams and home ballparks could have been a factor. His second lowest UZR/150 total was 4.0 in 2008, which came during his first season at Minute Maid Park following his trade to the Houston Astros.
Expect Bourn’s Gold Glove caliber defense to return this season as he patrols a more familiar Turner Field.
With Scott Boras as his agent, the Braves front office realizes Bourn will test free agency at the end of the season. As expected, a contract extension is not currently being discussed.
To avoid arbitration this season, the two parties recently agreed to a one-year deal worth $6.845 million.
The pending “walk year” could be a two headed monster for the Braves.
It’s uncanny how players sometimes perform during the last year of a contract, which could be a positive for Atlanta because of the production they will get in 2012.
The flip side is obvious; a good season by Bourn means an off-season price tag the Braves won’t be able to afford.
There isn’t currently an in-house replacement for Bourn if he doesn’t re-sign with the club. Jose Constanza will likely be the back-up this season, but he is not a long term solution.
There are no MLB-ready centerfield replacements in the Braves farm system. That is the main reason why Atlanta insisted on getting one of the Colorado Rockies young outfield prospects back during trade talks this off-season.
Knowing the probability of losing Bourn at the end of 2012 when they traded for him last season, the Braves would be more than willing to accept a great “walk year” performance in exchange for losing him at the end of the season if it means a run at the World Series.