If your team is in the free agent market, there are a few things you root for. One would be this slugging god of a player who can hit the ball over the deepest fences. A Fielder-type of guy. Another on the wish list is a stud pitcher like Greinke or even Sanchez. And perhaps you would want a stud closer such as Soriano. For most fans, signing a player like Michael Bourn would not make you beat your chest and want to go down and toast with a tasty beverage.
And yet, with the way ballplayers are valued now, Michael Bourn is valued right alongside stud pitchers and the sluggers. Consider, if you will, that by what we know each "win" is now worth in the WAR statistic, Bourn's average value the last four years has been $22.05 million a season according to Fangraphs.com and $21.38 million by Baseball-reference.com. Fangraphs ranks him as the tenth most valuable position player in the majors in 2012.
Our problem as fans is that defense and base running do not get us excited. When we think of offensive players, we want to think of guys who "produce." Guys like Bourn do not excite us. The guy had an ISO of .118 last season and a wOBA of .326. Those are hardly thrilling numbers for an offensive player. Heck, a 38 year old Jeter got on base more than Bourn did and had higher ISO an wOBA scores. So why would you want Bourn?
Why indeed. He is your prototypical lead off batter. But his .348 on-base percentage does not fill you with excitement. His range of on-base percentages have been rather static the last four years and range from a low of .341 to a high of .354. He has never scored a hundred runs in a season. He has never had 200 hits in a season. He came close in 2011 with 193 but hit safely only 171 times in 2012 despite 700+ plate appearances. He's not a .300 hitter. He has struck out 295 times in the last two seasons combined.
So again, how can a fan be excited by a team shelling out $20 million a season for Michael Bourn? The two stats that build up his value are his base running skills and his fielding. The way base running is calculated seems fairly stable and accurate. Both stat sites listed above value Bourn's base running identically. He is at the peak of his professional career. Speed ages fairly well.
But how long do you want to bank on that speed? Does the fact that Bourn's 76% success rate stealing bases was down in 2012 from his career success rate of 81.1% concern anyone? He did hit ten triples which shows the guy can fly though.
And then there is his defense. He plays a premier position as a center fielder. He is one of the best according to his fielding stats. Surprisingly, both stat sites listed above somewhat agree on how valuable his fielding was last season. Baseball-reference.com takes its fielding data and converts it to what they call, "dWAR," or defensive WAR. They valued Bourn's defense as being worth three wins. That's pretty astounding.
We are warned by the experts to look at multiple years of defensive data to get a better perspective. Bourn was rated as spectacular in 2012 and much less than that in 2011. But if you look at four or five years of his data in defense, the spectacular happens more often.
So yeah, Bourn can go get it. He has a noodle for an arm, however. But teams can live with that. But it is hard to think about paying $20 million a year for Bourn in large part because of his defense. For example, the Yankees won 95 games in 2012 despite having the worst fielding center fielder in the American League last year.
The stats say that Michael Bourn is worth at least $21 million a year. There is no doubt that his agent, Scott Boras, is highly familiar with that number and valuation. The interesting questions is whether teams will agree that Bourn's base running and defense are worth that kind of paycheck. What happens with Bourn this off season will be one of the most fascinating things to watch.