Last week’s edition of The Diff was a fun little side project on young NBA guards and high usage rates. It wasn’t exactly the biggest conversation-starter, however. So let’s change that with the hot topic du jour: Michael Bourn.
It’s an exciting time to be an Indians fan. And we should cherish that. Not often in the last 10 years has there been so much fever about the Cleveland Indians in February. And no matter what happens, that’s something to be recognized and valued. Yet there certainly are a lot of myths out there about Monday night’s incredible signing of Michael Bourn. So let’s get to work.
It’s difficult for most people to wrap their mind around this at all. First of all, it’s the middle of February and we’re still talking about free agents! This offseason has been a wacky one in Major League Baseball, something actually our very astute Jon predicted in November 2011 might be the case with the new Collective Bargaining Agreement that came into effect for this year.
I wish I had some more time today to share my thoughts on the context for what brought Bourn to Cleveland and ignited Cleveland’s interest that was reported as early as mid-December by Jim Bowden. But I can only write so much in one post.
So for today’s edition of The Diff, it only seemed natural to aggregate some general Cleveland feelings in the forms of myths and analyze them in the context of what many other writers are saying about this deal. And who is this Bourn guy anyway? Let’s play a little myth and rebuttal game.
Myth #1: “Michael Bourn’s not that valuable of a player since he’s not a great hitter.”
I’ll start off with some good news and some positive feelings 1 : It’s undoubtedly true that Michael Bourn has been one of the more productive players in the baseball over the last five years 2 . So let’s go to some stats to show that.
Since the start of the 2008 season, there have been 507 MLB players with at least 500 plate appearances. That’s about as many plate appearances as one might get in a full-time season playing maybe 130 games. Here is where Bourn ranks in a variety of categories among these 507 players:
Field + Position Runs
So yes, obviously, the **’s next to Leader are a note that when Michael Bourn is the leader, this column shows the second-highest total. And all these stats are via Fangraphs.
In the end, you can’t ignore the fact that Bourn has been one of the more consistently healthy players who has produced a lot of value in these five years (despite an strangely down year in 2011 when he was traded; I don’t want to call it fluky as that tends to happen in trade/new team years for various players even in recent MLB history (i.e. Swisher), but it’s a notable outlier), especially the most recent four years.
In terms of position players alone, he’s produced the 32nd-most wins since 2008. In a crude sense, that means, yes, he’s nearly as good as being the best position player on a team and is about the caliber of a fringe All-Star, on average. And that’s despite producing a fairly mediocre line of .272/.338/.365 in this span, which equals to an OPS+ of only 91 (essentially meaning that he’s 9% below adjusted league average for OPS). Or, as Keith Law wrote in ESPN:
In fact, as good as Bourn is, [Michael] Brantley actually had the better triple-slash line last year while playing in the better league, although he can’t touch Bourn on defense or on the bases.
This all goes to show the incredible value that Bourn has produced outside of the batter’s box. In a sense, this is again Moneyball 2.0 analysis for folks unfamiliar with recent statistical evaluations that emphasize baserunning, defense and enumerating how everything relates to wins.
Using the traditional rule of thumb of about 10 runs saved/added equaling 1 win, slightly over half (10.4) of Bourn’s WAR is from his fielding/positional scarcity and baserunning alone. The other half (10.7) is actually more than over-compensated from the replacement level factor in FanGraphs’ calculations. This means Bourn’s hitting actually has produced negative wins (-1.5) in these five years. (Note: calculations aren’t precise of 10/1; it’s just an easy rule of thumb.)
So clearly, despite being a replacement level contributor as a batter alone, Bourn’s been insanely valuable elsewhere. Jonah Keri wrote eloquently about this topic for Grantland.
Myth #2: “Michael Bourn’s 30 years old, so he’s going to start regressing soon anyway.”
Some people might say that imitation is the sincerest form of flattery. So if that’s the case, then I might be flattering our dear friend Jon and the Grantland fellow from above quite a bit over the next few points. Let’s start with this:
I would argue that one of these players is aging better than the other. Also: DASHBOARDS! twitter.com/WFNYJon/status…
— Jon (@WFNYJon) February 12, 2013
The above is a little screenshot from Jon’s infamous MLB value dashboard. It shows the various WARs, from FanGraphs and Baseball-Reference plus Jon’s average of the two, of Shin-Soo Choo and Michael Bourn since 2008. The quick synopsis: Choo was above 3.0 WAR from 2008-10, but now hasn’t reached that plateau in the past two years. Meanwhile, Bourn wasn’t very good in his first full year in 2008 and now has at least a 3.0 WAR in each of the past four years 3 .
Then there’s this tidbit from Jonah Keri’s Grantland article:
Bourn turned 30 in December, so we should expect at least some speed erosion during the next four years, and thus a dip in his legs-related value. Still, if Bourn ages the way players like Kenny Lofton and Rickey Henderson did, we could reasonably expect two or three more years of elite or near-elite value on the bases and in the field.
In essence, what Keri is trying to say is that Bourn has “young man skills,” unlike the “old man skills” of Travis Hafner that Rob Neyer alternatively wrote about in relation to this trade.
Old man skills vs. young man skills is a topic that essentially relates to PECOTA, Nate Silver’s landscaping-changing player evaluation tool that compares the career arcs of similarly skilled players. What Keri is saying above is that players such as Bourn — ones with excellent baserunning and fielding abilities — age better, as demonstrated by Henderson and Lofton, than average. The less-athletic and more power-driven Hafner, on the other hand, did not age well and that’s customary for players with those strengths.
So if Bourn was 32, like Nick Swisher, then he would have more risk. And if Bourn had a similar skill-set as Nick Swisher, then he also would have more risk. But Bourn at 30 years old and only 871 career games (simple math: 871/162 = 5.4 full seasons) and at his particular skill-set should easily have several more productive years ahead of him, or at least that’s the common assumption in the sabermetrics community based on over a century of comparable player analysis.
This all means that although peak athletic performance likely is around 25-28 years-old for the average player, Bourn certainly has better odds for longevity because of his skill set and his relatively youthfulness in terms of his actual MLB experience. So while 30 might not be the new 25, it doesn’t look too bad on Mr. Bourn.
Myth #3: “So … who is going to bat leadoff? Or second? Ah! The batting order!”
This is a fun debate. I totally get it. Whenever any new full-time position player is added to a team’s roster, it’s a natural reaction of fans and analysts to begin debating where said player will slot into the team’s expected everyday lineup. Heck, our very own TD did it last night in his instant anaysis.
Before I begin sharing some statistics related to that debate, I first wanted to share three ideas: 1) IT DOESN’T MATTER. 2) Isn’t this a fantastic problem to have? 3) In case you don’t understand the first two points, I’ll continue flattering Jon with a nod back to his fantastic “SABR-toothed Triber” series and specifically the edition he had on lineup arrangements. Let’s hear what Jon had to say back in 2010 about lineup configurations: 4
What I find most interesting is that even with the worst possible lineup, we’re only costing ourselves, 0.31 runs per game over the best possible lineup. Yes, that’s a cost of 50 runs over the course of season, or about 5 wins, but we’re talking about THE WORST LINEUP against the BEST.
His capitalization truly was necessary. Because if we’re dealing with a 5-win difference when debating the absolute extremes of ordering — as Jon’s specific example showed, that would mean having your first four hitters as LaPorta-Valbuena-Hafner-Marson in that order — then we’re logically only dealing with a maximum 2-win difference in the actual consideration set of likely configurations. No one in their right mind would actually bat Luis Valbuena second! (Oh wait: Valbuena had 69 plate appearances as a No. 2 hitter in 2012. Sorry.)
And so that last parenthetical aside even goes to show the randomness and variability of a team’s assumed everyday lineup. So I went on a little stats adventure. Let’s start with this:
That, my friends, is a breakdown of the various positions in the batting order for the Cleveland Indians in 2012. The “Most” column shows the plate appearance total by the individual who had the most plate appearances at the slot. Then “Total”, of course, is the sum of all plate appearances that season by all of the players at that spot. So that must mean we have a percentage! Let’s call this Batting Order Randomness Distribution, or, fittingly for such an adventure, BORD.
Yes, undoubtedly, there were many, many factors at play when it comes to analyzing the crazy distribution of the ’12 Indians lineup. The team wasn’t very good, there was the whole Manny Acta controversy thing and there was a whole slew of trades/changes and other things going on throughout the year. It wasn’t pretty, and such chaos displays itself quite prominently on our BORD table above.
But, obviously, one can quickly point out the trend: Lineup slots 1-4 seem a bit more steady, while 5-9 is nearly a total crapshoot (With obviously No. 9 being skewed based on interleague games, thus different for NL teams and affected by the new schedule for 2013-beyond. So let’s stick with American League teams only for comparisons for now). That kind of makes sense, of course, intuitively, so let’s map that out with a few comparisons:
I picked the most recent two iterations of the Indians and the 2006 Indians, the franchise year with the most runs scored in the last decade. Then, I also looked at the Rangers and Yankees — the two AL leaders in runs scored in ’12 — and the Red Sox, who led the way in 2011.
So yes, first and foremost, the most recent two years of the Indians have had quite bad offenses 5 and quite bad BORD statistics. And that begins with consistency in the first four slots in the lineup. While the ’06 Indians and ’12 Yankees didn’t have such consistency, they at least were 40%+ overall and 60%+ in the 1-4 slots.
There’s likely a correlation here — or maybe it’s even a causation, in terms of lineup chaos leading to less production. Either way, it’s some type of relationship. And, along with my stat a few weeks back about year-to-year roster turnover ((I’ll also add some more context to my stat there about the staying/going rates of AL Central teams. The ratio of top 7 players’ to total team plate appearances on those 2012 AL Central ranged from 64.9% (Cleveland) to 69.3% (Chicago). So it hovers right around 2/3rds. Which means that even a team’s 7 most regular players only on average take up 6/9ths of a team’s lineup throughout the entire season.)), it just goes to show the uncertainity of debating lineups and how what really, really, really matters is getting better players.
Michael Bourn is a better player. He’s better than giving everyday at-bats to Lou Marson and Mike Aviles or Jason Giambi, or however else the lineup would have worked with replacement-level players. He’s been better than all but 30 players in terms of WAR over the last five years. And that’s nearly irreplaceable.
Myth #4: “This signing will immediately make the Indians contenders with the Detroit Tigers in the AL Central.”
Thus far, I’ve been overtly optimistic about Michael Bourn and his addition to the team. Or, at least I’ve been debunking some myths that were negative and then showed how they really don’t matter and Bourn’s a good player and that’s all that matters.
But then we get into the final question: How much does it matter? Again, let’s go see what some others are writing. And I’ll start again with Jonah Keri at Grantland:
Just how much better they figure to be is an open question. The Replacement Level Yankees Weblog runs forecasts for all 30 teams using the CAIRO projection system plus some manual depth-chart input. For the latest update, made before Dice-K, Giambi, and Bourn signed on, CAIRO pegged the Indians at 74-88. Acknowledging that this is simply a back-of-the-napkin, hypothetical projection, it can be tough to reconcile a team picked to finish below .500 with spending more than $100 million on a pair of over-30 outfielders.
That listed 74-win mark isn’t far off from what I off-handedly predicted in my edition of The Diff two weeks ago about the Indians and strikeouts 6 My comment was that the Indians were likely a best-case 81-win team. I probably would have pegged my estimate right around that 72-76-ish range.
Oh. And surprise, surprise, Jon wrote about a month ago about “How improved are the 2013 Indians?” His conclusion was eerily the exact same:
Last season, this team won 68 games. Using my most generous assumptions, I’m getting them to 74 in 2013. That’s….just not going to cut it. And to be honest, that’s why a lot of scribes were advocating blowing up the roster this off-season. Trade everybody. Start over. This group just doesn’t have the talent to compete, and giving $70 million to Nick Swisher might just be a way of telling fans not to pay too much attention to that man behind the curtain.
Keith Law’s comments of course were derisive among Indians fans, but I can’t say I necessarily disagree with him too much:
What I don’t see here is the endgame for Cleveland. The team still isn’t good enough to catch the Detroit Tigers without a substantial amount of luck in both directions — bad for Detroit and good for Cleveland — because the Indians lack the pitching to challenge for the division.
Ken Rosenthal at Fox Sports also added his take on the new-look Indians since the Bourn deal:
Well, the Indians will take him — take his base-stealing ability, his elite defense in center field, his average of 153 games played over the past four seasons. The Cleveland rotation probably won’t be good enough for the team to compete with the Detroit Tigers in the AL Central. But offensively, Francona’s new club sure is interesting. … I’ll be watching. We’ll all be watching. The Indians suddenly are a must-see team.
“Interesting.” I’ll buy that without a doubt. As many have argued — practically speaking, maybe every single one of the writers I’ve cited thus far — the Indians sure have a strange offense/outfield group heading into 2013. There certainly are a variety of ways in which new manager Terry Francona will be able to organize this talent. It’s not conventional by any means. So definitely, I think that then falls into the bucket of “interesting.”
But let’s go back to Michael Bourn’s added value. On average, over the past five seasons, he’s been a 4-win player. That includes his still-quite good 2011 season with a 4.1 WAR as well as his 2012 season with a 6.4 WAR, which was a career-best and, as the great ClevTA pointed out on Twitter, tied for 6th-best in the National League.
Yet something doesn’t really add up here: 74 wins + 4-6 added wins with the Michael Bourn signing still only =’s 76-80 wins. That probably will be enough to be in “contention” for a potential Wild Card spot through Labor Day and keep things undeniably “interesting” for a confused fanbase, but it still won’t be enough to be an actual “contender.” And it’s certainly not any easier in the American League Central when you’re facing up against the defending pennant winners Detroit 19 times a season 7 .
So yes, the Bourn signing is exciting. And it’s fun for the fans and for the city. When else have we been this excited in February and the Indians were the top story being written about in a positive way on almost every single sports site out there? It’s been a long while. And we should enjoy this. But it doesn’t magically mean the Indians will necessarily be that dramatically much better than they were a month ago. Because of, of course, math.
It seems like it’s been a while since Craig pulled out a #PositiveVibes on us.
So has Nick Swisher, of course, but that’s another story
A quick side-tangent on Choo and Bourn: Many have debated this comparison. It’s relatively fair, in my mind. Choo’s a significantly better hitter and adds little value with his glove. Bourn’s the opposite. Both will make close to $7 million-ish in 2013, as Bourn’s contract was heavily back-loaded — something very creative by the Indians front office. Bourn’s final three guaranteed years are close to 3 years and $45 million. I’d expect Choo to find a relatively similar deal in free agency next offseason.
And boy, was that 2010 post fun. Jon even had separate lineup conditions for whether or not the Indians used Branyan more often in a full-time role rather than Michael Brantley. And yes, that’s Russell Branyan. That one.
It’s easy to see 667 runs and 704 runs and compare it to some great offenses and say “bad.” What’s not so easy is talking about that in February. The Indians might be significantly better offensively in 2013, yet this is still a fun exercise.
About that topic briefly: Bourn has a K% rate of about 20% consistently for his entire career. My projection for the Indians in that article was just about 20% as well, which would place the team just over the league average. Assuming Bourn’s everyday appearance takes at-bats away from players such as Stubbs, Reynolds, Marson, McDade and other players with even higher K% rates, there’s no reason my prediction should change drastically at all. I’d feel perfectly fine with keeping it right about 20%.
My point being that although Chicago, Minnesota, Kansas City and Cleveland might all be 82-win teams or so at best, the AL Central is still a tough place to live because the Tigers are there. And that’s all that matters in terms of pure “contention,” although certainly the new Wild Card system creates an additional playoff opening.