Originally posted on Fangraphs  |  Last updated 1/7/13
Everybody loves a long home run, because they’re impressive, because they’re difficult. Last year, there were 96 particularly long home runs, if we somewhat arbitrarily set a minimum distance of 450 feet. That’s according to the ESPN Home Run Tracker. Giancarlo Stanton was responsible for seven of them. Miguel Cabrera was responsible for four of them, Yoenis Cespedes three of them. Phil Hughes, three of them, from the other end. Josh Hamilton hit one of them, and Curtis Granderson hit zero of them. Robinson Cano hit zero of them. Jay Bruce and Mike Trout each hit zero of them. Michael Bourn, much like Kyle Lohse, is a fairly high-profile player who remains an available free agent as we start to think about the middle of January. Bourn, like Lohse, will end up signed to a significant contract, but Bourn, like Lohse, has seen his market fail to develop as expected. One issue might be that neither Bourn nor Lohse is a superstar. Bourn contributes an awful lot of value in the field and on the basepaths, but he strikes out fairly often, and he doesn’t hit for much power. His nine home runs last season were a career-high, by four. Bourn is 30 years old. You know that Michael Bourn doesn’t hit for power. You’ve known that for as long as you’ve known about Michael Bourn. Officially, he stands five-foot-11; unofficially, he probably doesn’t. It’s not the end of the world, because you can still be a good player without much in the way of power. Ben Revere got dealt this offseason, and he’s still looking for his first big-league dinger. Ichiro was a superstar in Seattle for a decade. Tony Gwynn hit fewer career home runs than Matt Lawton and Edgar Renteria. Nobody believes that Michael Bourn is bad, and I’m not here to argue that he isn’t, because, again, nobody believes that Michael Bourn is bad. But recall this post’s first paragraph. I was going over Bourn’s ESPN Home Run Tracker page, and I was interested by the fact that Bourn hit a couple dingers beyond 420 feet last season. That’s 420 feet, standardized — environmental conditions stripped away — and that’s a substantial home run. That caught me by surprise, given my impressions of Bourn’s strength, so I did some more background research. In 2011, Bourn hit two home runs, the longest being 401 feet. In 2010, he hit two home runs, the longest being 398 feet. In 2009, he hit three home runs, the longest being 456 feet. Three home runs, the longest being 456 feet. Or, in ESPN Home Run Tracker terms: The official distance is listed as 457, but the ball gained a foot from the warm gametime temperature. It wasn’t the longest home run of the season in baseball, of course; plenty others were longer. But those longer home runs were hit by players you expect to hit long home runs every so often. Adam Dunn, Lance Berkman, Russell Branyan, even Wladimir Balentien. Michael Bourn drilled a Jeff Suppan delivery more than a twelfth of a mile. No, that doesn’t sound very impressive, so let’s try again. Michael Bourn drilled a Jeff Suppan delivery more than a football field and a half. Interestingly, Bourn’s home run is mentioned nowhere within the Astros’ MLB.com game recap. It’s not available in the Top Plays Archive, nor is it included in Bourn’s personal video highlight archive. Thankfully, condensed-game footage survives, so we can confirm that Bourn did, indeed, do this in a game that happened, in front of people. That was Bourn’s first home run of the season, and he’d hit two more. One on June 20, that went 387 feet, and one on July 10, that went 363 feet. Michael Bourn doesn’t have power; Michael Bourn hit the 2009 Astros’ second-longest home run of the season, three feet behind a blast by Lance Berkman. In Bourn’s career against Jeff Suppan, he’s recorded one hit in 13 at bats and 16 plate appearances. He made the hit count, literally and figuratively. It doesn’t really matter, from an evaluation perspective, what Michael Bourn did once in 2009. He also grounded into a double play once in 2009, and was intentionally walked once in 2009. Bourn has enough of a statistical track record that we have a pretty good idea what he is, and what he ought to be at least in the near-term future. But you figure every player in baseball has a power maximum, and Bourn’s dinger off Suppan is proof, inarguable proof, that his power maximum is high, and probably higher than you might’ve assumed. In theory, a pitcher could strike out 20 batters in a game just because the batters all sucked. The batters could, in theory, all get dust in their eyes, or just take lousy swings because they have headaches. Michael Bourn couldn’t fake this home run. Suppan served the pitch up, yeah, but Bourn’s the only guy responsible for the batted baseball’s distance covered. Michael Bourn, with that body and that swing, can hit a mammoth home run. He won’t hit many of them, if he hits any of them between now and the end of his career. He’s a groundball hitter who survives with his speed, and his career HR/FB is 4.1%. In any given plate appearance, if you assume Michael Bourn is a player without much power, odds are you won’t be proven wrong. But, one time. Good science requires repeatability, but we have video evidence of this happening. We know that Michael Bourn hit that ball, we know where it went, and we know what that must mean. Michael Bourn is not a power hitter. He has demonstrated that he is a hitter with more power than you’d think. Maybe you’re not impressed, or maybe you don’t understand, so imagine instead that .gif shows Jeff Suppan striking Bourn out with a 95 mile-per-hour fastball. That would be weird. This is weird. Jeff Suppan coughed up a lot of dingers, but he might never have coughed up an odder one.
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