Michael Bourn's 2009: A Lesson On Cynicism

Nathaniel StoltzSenior Analyst IJune 21, 2009

CHICAGO - MAY 16: Michael Bourn #21 of the Houston Astros swings the bat against the Chicago Cubs on May 16, 2009 at Wrigley Field in Chicago, Illinois. The Cubs defeated the Astros 5-4. (Photo by Jonathan Daniel/Getty Images)

"Bourn should never, ever be allowed to face a left-handed pitcher...he doesn't swing with any authority against righties, either...his speed doesn't get a chance to work. There's no way he should be a starting center fielder in the majors...without the manager's inexplicable desire to...play him every day, the Astros might have achieved even more..."

-Baseball Prospectus 2009's comment on Michael Bourn


Those of you who know my work know that I'm heavily influenced by Baseball Prospectus (for those of you who don't know my work, I'm heavily influenced by Baseball Prospectus. Now we're all on the same page). The writers at BP are great, and they blend excellent analysis with satire and humor to make everything they write interesting and informative to read.

Of course, this style leads to comments like the one that began this article. When a player can't hit, the folks at BP will not only put it bluntly, but they'll rip a player apart quite thoroughly, often with some interesting similes. I like the way they do it, and I try to emulate that somewhat in my own writing.

When I read that comment sometime in March, I totally agreed with it. Bourn was a complete disaster in 2008 for the Astros. In 514 plate appearances, the center fielder hit .229/.288/.300. That's a .588 OPS. Nobody with a .588 OPS should ever get much playing time.

Only exacerbating the problem was the fact that the Astros led Bourn off most of the season. If you're going to play a .588 OPS hitter, at least follow the rival Cardinals' example and hit him ninth, behind the pitcher.

Bourn's fast (he went 41-51 in steal attempts in 2008), but speed alone doesn't make you a leadoff hitter. When you hit only .229 and draw just 37 walks in a full season, you belong in Double-A, especially when you collect just 19 extra-base hits and strike out 111 times.

Aside from the steals, Bourn showed zero capability offensively in 2008. Now, Bourn had been okay as a backup for the Phillies in 2007 (.277/.348/.378), and his minor league career rates were .285/.379/.393, as he had drawn a lot of walks in A-ball in 2003 and 2004. It was fair enough to assume he wouldn't hit .229/.288/.300 again, but he clearly wasn't an everyday-caliber player, and I figured his true ability was something like .250/.320/.340.

Well, it's June 21st, 2009, and so far, Michael Bourn is hitting .298/.377/.423.

I didn't really notice this until about a week ago, because I never pay attention to small-sample spring and April stats, and it's not like I really care much about the Astros. Of course, knowing Bourn's old ability, I figured it was a fluke; maybe he just squeaked a bunch of grounders through the infield.

A quick visit to fangraphs.com, however, quashed that theory. Bourn has raised his line drive rate from 16.7 percent in 2008, well below average, to a whopping 23.5 percent this year, tied for 10th in the majors. 73 percent of liners fall in for hits, so that means that the line drive increase alone raises Bourn's expected batting average by almost .050.

Bourn has also cut his popup rate from 8.2 percent to 2.1 percent. Popups are basically automatic outs (batters hit about .014 on them), so Bourn's expected batting average gets another boost from that of about .015. The improvement in his batted-ball splits explains the jump in batting average, and it's a completely legitimate one. 

On top of his batting average gains, Bourn has improved his walk rate (from 7.3 percent to 11.1 percent) and strikeout rate (from 23.6 percent to 22.2 percent). He's swinging at fewer pitches outside the strike zone as well (21.7 percent in 2008; 20 percent in 2009). His .125 Isolated Power is a 48-point jump, and he's still got the speed (23-30 in steals).

None of this is a fluke. Somehow, some way, Michael Bourn has become a good major league player. 

I don't know if Bourn will continue this excellence, but he has found a way to become, for three months at least, a well-above-average leadoff hitter and center fielder. There's nothing in his stats that indicate he's been lucky, perhaps his .377 BABIP should be 10 points lower, but that would only drop him to about .290/.370/.410, still very good. 

There's a lesson to be learned here. American media often glorifies unlikely rises to prominence and people who "beat the odds," even if it's just luck.

Every year, statheads like me see an article about how some offseason breakthrough made a pitcher's ERA fall by two runs, when we know it's because their BABIP went from .350 to .250. We hear about the "gritty middle infielder" who is a "team player" and "effort guy" and we scoff because he has a .600 OPS. We deride that player as unfit for his role, no matter how much effort he gives. And quite often, we're right.

One of my first articles here was entitled "Luis Hernandez, Brian Bocock, and the Suicide of Two Organizations," completely ripping apart the Orioles and Giants and their Opening Day shortstops. I got a lot of grief for the title and the content of that article, because many people said I should be happy that Bocock managed to go from High-A to the majors with a good spring, and how great it was that he fought hard to get the job.

I was incredulous that people were bashing me for saying a .221 High-A hitter wasn't a major leaguer. In that case, I was right: Hernandez is now a backup on the Royals struggling to hit .200, while Bocock is flailing away in High-A ball again (.213/.260/.317). 

But sometimes, cynics like me completely write guys like Bocock, Hernandez, and Bourn off, and something like this happens. Sometimes, in the midst of all these faux-feelgood stories, there actually is an instance where a player finds a way to better themselves. Just because Brian Bocock and Luis Hernandez fell flat didn't mean Michael Bourn couldn't improve, past stats be damned. Heck, Bocock's still just 24; maybe he figures out how to hit one day.

So congratulations, Michael Bourn. You've become a good major league player, and you've taught me a valuable lesson: Never write somebody off, no matter how bad they appear. They may surprise you.