A massive debate broke out on Twitter at the end of Friday’s disheartening 3-2 Indians defeat. This time around, it wasn’t actually about attendance.
No, it was about Michael Bourn and his eventually failed bunt attempt. After red-hot Lonnie Chisenhall started the bottom of the ninth against the Blue Jays with a double, Bourn attempted to bunt twice and failed each time. On the 0-2 pitch, he struck out with a weak swing.
Was it the right decision to bunt when the Tribe needed just one run to bring the game into extra innings? Should Bourn be bunting at all? And what does this all have to do with WAR and the changing evaluations of baseball?
It’s all wrapped together in the way we think, talk and write about Michael Bourn, a 31-year-old center fielder being paid $13.5 million this season and a guaranteed $27.5 million more through 2016. He’s back in the lineup after starting the year on the DL. What should we expect? What’s next?
Generally speaking, new-wave sabermetric thinkers hate bunting. In this day and age, most advanced minds will preach constantly about the waste of an out in the act of a sacrifice bunt. There are relatively few situations in which they make sense at all. This might have been one of them. Maybe.
Consulting a handful of run expectancy charts1, we see that the Indians would have been expected to score about 1.05 runs in the ninth after Chisenhall’s leadoff double. That’s important to know; all things considered, they were expected to essentially tie from that one hit alone.
What is the run expectancy with a runner on third and one out? Notably lower, right around 0.90 runs. And with a failed sac bunt, leaving a runner on second and one out, the odds drop significantly to 0.65.
So from the perspective of scoring the most runs possible, yes, there’s a clear drop and no real incentive in even trying to bunt. There’s no advantage. But in the end, the Indians weren’t necessarily just looking to scoring the most runs possible – they were hoping to simply tie and continue the game, at least. That’s a slightly different equation. Ninth innings change the mind frame a wee bit.
Consulting the numbers, there’s actually a minute increase in the probability of scoring at least one run in the instance of a successful sacrifice bunt. Runner on third and one out, there is a 0.67 probability of scoring. Runner on second and no out, that’s 0.63. Runner on second and one out, 0.42.
That means if you have at least an 85% faith2 in your sacrifice bunter to do a successful job, then yes, per the math, it somewhat does indeed make sense to bunt in playing not to lose. This is a rare instance of bunting practically. But the numbers do show some perhaps slant to maybe actually bunting, if you have an elite bunter.
In this instance, Michael Bourn walked to the plate a combined 4-for-32 in the majors and minors so far in 2014. He was going to be followed by Jason Kipnis and Nick Swisher, two of Cleveland’s usual best hitters. Bourn had laid down 33 sacrifice hits in his MLB career, so he wasn’t not an exact stranger to the bunt historically.
That’s what the numbers say. A bunt might have been an OK call in some instances. It’s not that obscene or egregious. For an elite bunter, this was a possibly solid value proposition.
After Bourn struck out and the inning eventually ended in heartbreak, the conversation on Twitter took a slightly different approach. Some argued: Why should you be bunting your leadoff hitter, your $13.5 million man? This requires a bit more study.
Let’s review what I wrote back in February 2013, shortly after the team signed Bourn. I shared four myths and attempted to debunk them. The first myth I discussed: “Michael Bourn’s not that valuable of a player since he’s not a great hitter.” That was certainly a myth.
One key quote that I referenced from ESPN Insider’s Keith Law: “In fact, as good as Bourn is, [Michael] Brantley3 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.”
That was written about the 2012 season when Brantley was 25 years old and Bourn was 29. That season, despite hitting just .274/.348/.391, Bourn produced a career-high 6.4 WAR good for sixth-place among National League position players. So yes, very, very valuable.
For his career, Bourn carries a 91 OPS+. He actually had a slightly better than career norm year at the plate in 2013, despite his oft-noted struggles, with a 92 OPS+. He’s a below average hitter. That’s what he is. But as we’ve learned in today’s day and age, there’s much more to evaluate than just hitting.
From 2008-12, his first five full seasons, he ranked first in runs produced4 from baserunning and eighth in runs produced from fielding, per Baseball-Reference. Again, this was a slightly below average hitter. But he managed to average 3.8 WAR during these seasons. That’s fringe All-Star material – and very valuable on the open market5. Almost exclusively from non-hitting attributes.
There are conflicting research projects on how speed/defense/athleticism age as opposed to traditional power and contact skills. I also wrote about comparing Bourn’s deal to Josh Hamilton’s and these different skill characteristics. From the initial article, another myth I busted was “Michael Bourn’s 30 years old, so he’s going to start regressing soon anyway.” But our area of concern: Is that necessarily true?
As I shared, Bourn had a better than normal year at the plate in 2013. But the issue was his baserunning and defense, which usually were elite. He stole only 23 of 35 bases, a negative value and well off his usual averages. He was inconsistent in center field, often taking poor routes. He finished with only 6 runs produced above average6 from fielding/baserunning; he averaged 20, second-best in baseball, in the previous five seasons.
That stat, combined with his very poor start at the plate, should make Indians fans wonder: Is he declining rapidly? Is this the end of Bourn’s prime? Will this previously fair deal turn into a Travis Hafner-esque albatross contract? The Indians can hardly afford these type of mistakes, which is why they likely won’t sign Justin Masterson to a free agent deal.
If every team is baseball is seeing these same Bourn stats and worrying about the same things, his previous open-market trade value would be squashed too, obviously. The Indians have to hope they’ve found some way to correct his flaws, not just at the plate with his slow start, but specifically in his token areas of baserunning and defense. Without them, he’s merely just your ordinary center fielder, not a $13 million one.
The Indians are off to a 6-8 start and although Bourn’s only had a small role in that from his three games played, his future play should be a key area of concern going forward. It’s OK if he remains a slightly below average hitter, that’s what he is. But he needs to return to his elite production elsewhere for the Indians to reach their full potential.
see here, here and here. these tools are incredibly useful for future purposes. [↩]
as you might know, the formula for WAR is the addition of several base components of “runs produced above average.” for position players, these categories include hitting, baserunning and fielding, at least. more on this later. [↩]
usual free agent $/Win models estimate that 4 WAR annually is worth about $20-28 million. so if bourn kept producing that, his contract would be a steal. [↩]
note: above average, not replacement value. WAR formula includes a replacement level constant that is added later. in essence, approximately 10 runs – in any instance – is equivalent to a win. [↩]
Jacob Rosen is a long-time contributor to WaitingForNextYear. He's also a writer online at SportsAnalyticsBlog and Nylon Calculus . An Akron native, Jacob is a current MBA student at the University of Oregon's Warsaw Sports Marketing Center. You can follow him on Twitter @WFNYJacob or e-mail him at udjrosen(at)gmail(dot)com.