I’m not really one for betting or making flashy predictions, especially when it comes to something with as many variables as baseball. There’s a good reason that YCPB is a thing.
But in the spirit of good fun – and, full disclosure, an eye towards winning a friendly wager with fellow Halos Daily writer Drew Mumford – I’ve decided to throw caution to the wind and make a crazy(?) conjecture about the Angels’ 2013 season, knowing full well it has a very good chance of biting me in the ass at any time in the next seven months.
I believe that Peter Bourjos will have a better 2013 at the plate than Michael Bourn.
There. I said it and now there’s no taking it back.
I thought for a long time about adding the caveat “with a full season of playing time,” but that wouldn’t make my prediction very bold, so I decided to toss it out.
Thus, the prediction is as straightforward as they get: either Bourjos has a better year and I win, or he doesn’t and I don’t. Meaning that as much of this rides on the whims of Mike Scioscia’s line-up merry-go-round as it does Bourjos himself.
So… now I guess it’s time to defend my claim.
Bourjos and Bourn both profile as defense-first center fielders with tons of speed and without much in the way of power, so it makes a certain amount sense to compare the two directly.
For all the time it seems that Bourjos has been on the Halos’ roster, it’s very easy to forget that he’s entering just his age-26 season. The Indians’ new $48-million man, on the other hand, is entering his age-30 season. Going by the traditional aging curve, we’ve likely seen the best of Bourn, while Bourjos should be entering his prime. Thus, the early advantage goes to Bourjos, though fast players are known to age more gracefully.
As luck would have it, both players entered the league as part-time players during their age-23 seasons and had just one year as a full-time player entering their fourth MLB campaigns (age 26), so let’s start by comparing their rather similar first three years in the league:
At first glance, it looks like Bourjos has the advantage in almost every category. He has the benefit of about 300 more plate appearances, however, so comparing counting numbers alone isn’t fair. With that in mind, let’s look at their rate stats over that same span and see how they compare:
As the first chart made evident even without CS numbers, Bourn was/is absolutely better at swiping bags than Bourjos. That’s not to say Peter is a slouch when it comes to stolen bases – 73% is probably around his break even point – but he’ll never lead the league in steals like Bourn did for three consecutive seasons.
But what Bourjos lacks in base-stealing acumen, he more than makes up for with the bigger pop in his bat. Bourn’s slugging numbers were (and are) well below league norms, while Bourjos sits just above average. Not only that, but Bourjos’ above-average number of extra-base hits were put up in a much more depressed offensive environment than Bourn’s, which makes his performance more impressive and accounts for the massive discrepancy in OPS+ in the previous chart.
What stands out next is the discrepancy in walk and strikeout numbers, with Bourjos on the wrong side of both. The numbers aren’t great by any means, but they’re also not atrocious. Bourjos has a better walk rate than both Erick Aybar and Mark Trumbo, who have had plenty of success despite swinging at everything that moves.
A lot has been made of Bourjos’s strikeout issues, but Bourn is right there with him, as are many others. You know who struck out a career-high 22.8% of the time last year but still put up career numbers? Torii Hunter. And you know who whiffed 21.8% of the time but had the best season since the earth was void? Mike Trout.
The point being I really don’t think that Bourjos’s proclivity for giving the umpire a nice breeze in a fifth of his at bats is as big a deal as people make it out to be. Yes, it’d be nice if he cut down on the whiffs, but it’s not as though he’s Mark Reynolds (32.6%)… or even Mark Trumbo (23.9%).
The real wild card in all of this – that which will likely decide who is buying whom the round of drinks come October – is the stat that traditional number lovers seem to love to hate: Batting Average on Balls in Play (BABIP).
For the uninitiated, BABIP is essentially a modified version of batting average that removes strikeouts and home runs from the equation. The thinking behind that is to measure how often a guy reaches base when he hits a ball that the defense has a chance of making a play on. The league average for BABIP hovers around .290 — meaning abnormally high and low numbers will typically move towards .290 as the season progresses — but not all players normalize to that number.
For instance, guys like Carlos Quentin or Rod Barajas — who are not only painfully slow but also hit a high number of pop-ups and fly balls — have career BABIPs around .250 and they’re always going to stay there. On the other end of the spectrum, guys like Austin Jackson and Dexter Fowler — quick-footed, ground-ball guys — sit in the .350+ range.
In his first three years, Michael Bourn was one of the normal guys as far as BABIP was concerned, coming in at .299 through is first 650+ big-league plate appearances. For the last four seasons, however, Bourn has been a card-carrying member of the speedster/ground-ball group: his .354 BABIP since 2009 is the seventh best in all of baseball and is a huge reason for his rise to fame and $$$.
Bourn’s seemingly permanent increase in BABIP — while his rate stats have remained pretty stable — has allowed him to put up a much more serviceable .280/.348/.378 line over the past four years, and set him up for his big payday with the Tribe last month. If Peter Bourjos wants to put up the kind of numbers that will make my prediction seem prescient, he’s going to have to join Bourn and the rest of the speedster BABIP crew.
Like Bourn’s early years, Bourjos has fluctuated around league norms in terms of BABIP in his first three seasons, sitting at .302. Given his quickness and his propensity for hitting grounders, there’s a chance that Bourjos will make the same BABIP leap that Bourn did at 26, but he’s got his work cut out for him if he wants to make it happen.
Unlike Bourn and most of the high-BABIP guys, Bourjos hits a lot of infield flies, and not a whole lot of line drives. According to FanGraphs, Bourn has hit just 20 infield fly balls — otherwise known as sure outs — in his seven-year career. Bourjos, on the other hand, has 22 in three years. Not so great. As bad as it may look, though, not all is lost.
Nearly half — i.e. nine — of Bourn’s pop-ups came in his first 650 plate appearances, with just 11 coming in the last 2500+. Likewise, Joey “The King of Pop-Ups” Votto hit seven infield flies in his first two campaigns, but has hit just four in the last four seasons. So, like Bourn and Votto, perhaps Bourjos will hit fewer infield pop-ups as he adjusts to big-league pitching. Or not.
PECOTA, ZIPS, Bill James, Oliver, Steamer, Pythia, and all the other projectors seem to think that Bourjos’ BABIP will stay pretty much where it is, maybe creeping its way up to .315 or so. But because this is a bold prediction, I believe that not only will Bourjos hit fewer pop-ups, but also that many of those cans of corn will turn into line drives or extra grounders, putting him in league with the high-BABIP gang and one-upping Bourn at the dish with his superior power.
Now, so far as what a “better 2013 at the plate” entails in terms of tangible numbers, I’m thinking it should come down to triple slash line and number of extra-base hits, or maybe oWAR. Perhaps even an end of year vote?