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The Reality Of Michael Bourn

Michael Bourn, glistening
Michael Bourn, glistening

When the Mariners were first linked in rumors to free agent Michael Bourn -- I think it might've been early last week -- I, like a lot of other people, dismissed it as nonsense. I figured someone had an agenda in pretending like the Mariners were in the mix, and it's not like Bourn represented an obvious fit. The Mariners have been looking for a slugger, and Bourn's nine home runs were a career high. Bourn's a center fielder, and the Mariners already have Michael Saunders and whatever parts of Franklin Gutierrez are left. At that point, a lot of teams wanted center fielders, and the Seattle fit just didn't seem natural.

I've come around now. I think the Mariners are genuinely interested in signing Bourn, and the teams that wanted center fielders have pretty much all already acquired center fielders. Maybe you interpret that as a negative -- why didn't any of them sign Bourn? -- but lots of good players are still available. Bourn's a good player, and he might end up with the Mariners, and we should talk about him because he's worth talking about.

Bourn's good, and don't let anyone tell you differently. I think a big part of the appeal, aside from Bourn himself, is that signing Bourn would leave room in the budget for another upgrade. You sign Josh Hamilton and that's pretty much it. The rest of your moves have to be cheap. Bourn isn't going to sign for Hamilton money, and one notices that Nick Swisher is still out there, too. Is it inconceivable that Bourn and Swisher could combine for roughly the same average annual value as Hamilton? Is it inconceivable that the Mariners could end up with both? Not that we need to get ahead of ourselves. This is just about Bourn, and Bourn on his own would be a get.

Bourn's 29, and almost 30. All right, aging risk, check. Swisher's two years older. Hamilton's body is basically a vase on a rickety pedestal and last year he posted one of the very lowest contact rates in baseball. Go back to last offseason and Prince Fielder was this big giant beast of a man, and it's easy to envision knee and general durability problems beginning almost any day now. Free agents have risks. Every single one of them. We don't know enough about any of them to state matter-of-factly that this one will decline abruptly, while this one will stay at or near his peak.

And Bourn is a Chone Figgins-type. I think that's a big reason why Mariners fans are so unexcited about these developments. I don't mean that Bourn has been a utility player -- I mean a lot of his positive contribution comes from his legs and his defense. He does not stand in the box and mash dingers. He's made a career out of being annoying, and the last time the Mariners got a guy like that, he immediately turned into a pile of crap. Yes, there's no denying that Chone Figgins was a disaster. But remember how we felt when the Mariners first signed Figgins? Michael Bourn isn't Chone Figgins. They're not even related! Four years in a row, now, Bourn has been excellent, as himself. Bourn could collapse, too, just as anyone could collapse, but this is entirely independent. The Michael Bourn/Chone Figgins thing isn't Michael Bourn's fault. It's your own fault. You and your damn neurosis.

Here's a fun fact I put on Twitter last night, to fairly predictable response: since 2009, Michael Bourn has posted a higher WAR than Prince Fielder and Josh Hamilton. That is, according to FanGraphs, over the past four seasons, Michael Bourn has been a more valuable baseball player than Prince Fielder and Josh Hamilton. This generated all the usual complaints. That's fine. WAR critiques are mostly valid. Over the past four seasons, Michael Bourn has also been just a league-average hitter. The next-best average hitter has been Jimmy Rollins.

People don't buy into Bourn's WAR because it's surprising, and because people really really really don't like advanced defensive metrics like UZR and DRS. Perfectly fine. I don't love them either! But the question isn't "do you think defensive stats capture everything?" The question is "do you think defensive stats capture anything?" The numbers love Michael Bourn. Do you suppose it's all fiction? Watch this. Or watch the .gif below.


Is UZR making a great defensive player of an average defensive player? I think that's pretty unlikely. Bourn's still trusted to be an everyday center fielder, and it's easily observable that he has plus speed. The fans have been rather fond of him. Of course it's weird that Bourn's defensive numbers were poor in 2011 before bouncing back. Here's Bourn's defensive value, by UZR:

2010: +19
2011: -6
2012: +22

Now here's Bourn's offensive value, by runs above average:

2007: -1
2008: -26
2009: +1

Why is the second one so acceptable, while the first one is so unacceptable? Things happen, and we've warned you before about single-season UZR samples. Overall, Bourn looks great, and you can safely think of him as great, or as very good. You don't have to trust the UZR numbers. Input your own numbers, if you like. But they'll be positive, unless you're a moron.

And there's this other element to Michael Bourn's game, too. It's kind of related to defense, in that it's less visible and based in large part on footspeed. Michael Bourn might be the game's most valuable baserunner. Over the past four years, FanGraphs has Bourn's baserunning as having been worth about four wins. Baserunning can never be quite so impactful, on an event-by-event basis, as a homer. This is why people like sluggers over runners. But of course baserunning contributes value, because baserunning isn't irrelevant. If baserunning contributes value, it stands to reason there will be more valuable players and less valuable players. Bourn might be the most valuable player in this regard. Over four years, he's stolen 216 bases. He's excellent at taking the extra base when it's available. When Bourn has reached base, 39 percent of the time, he's scored. The league average last year was 30 percent. Bourn can motor and that motoring helps. I know plenty of you will scoff, if you're not already actively scoffing, but remember, that's your own bias. There are many ways in which a player can help his team win.

Consider how long most of this city embraced Ichiro. Ichiro was a better hitter than Bourn has been, no question, but so much of Ichiro's value was tied up in the other things, the non-dinger things. Bourn is about as good as it gets with regard to combined defense and baserunning. He's also been pretty durable. This is a good baseball player who is available on the market.

I don't know for a fact that Bourn has been more valuable than Hamilton and Fielder over the past four years. WAR comes with unseen error bars, and maybe Bourn is overrated. But don't worry so much about ranking. If WAR thinks a player has been highly valuable, odds are that player has been highly valuable, if not exactly as valuable as the number would suggest. Do you deny that Michael Bourn has been valuable? If a player has recently been valuable, and if the player still hasn't turned 30, don't you suppose he'll probably continue to be pretty valuable going forward?

There are red flags. Bourn doesn't hit for power, and he strikes out unusually often for a player of his type. A lot of his value comes from a consistently inflated BABIP. There does exist some possibility that Michael Bourn will completely and utterly collapse after finding a new home. Josh Hamilton is a fragile, recovering drug addict who just swung through more pitches than Miguel Olivo did.