Monday, August 01, 2011

A Centerfielder Who Gets On Base!?! Where’s the Fainting Couch!?!

Frank Wren came towards the trading deadline with a team in dire need to a centerfielder who can hit.  The Braves have trotted out two players at the position during the year: Nate McLouth, whose production at the plate is average at best and who is a below-average defender in center, and Jordan Schafer, who cannot get on-base, but does add good defense.  Faced with an obvious weakness and armed with a deep farm system that is both a blessing and a curse at the trading deadline (a blessing for obvious reasons; a curse because potential trading partners know what the Braves have and therefore demand a higher price, not unlike trying to scalp a ticket with hundred-dollar bills peeking out of one’s pockets), Wren addressed the team’s need by fleecing the Astros for Michael Bourn.  Bourn gets on-base, he is one of the best base-stealers in baseball, and he is an above-average defender at a premium position.  For the first time since Rafael Furcal was playing for the team, the Braves have a true leadoff hitter.  And given Fredi Gonzalez’s insistence on playing fast guys in the lead-off spot, regardless of whether they can get on base, it’s critical that the Braves have a guy who fits the bill.

The reaction to the trade has been uniformly positive.  Here is David Schoenfield explaining that Bourn is a better player than Hunter Pence if we use wins over replacement as the measuring stick: and calculate WAR in different ways, but both rate Bourn as the more valuable player since 2009:

FanGraphs WAR, 2009-2011
Bourn: 13.3
Pence: 9.9

Baseball-Reference WAR, 2009-2011
Bourn: 11.8
Pence: 6.4

The differences in value primarily come from different methods in evaluating fielding (FanGraphs likes both players' defense better than B-R).

You don't have to agree with or even like the WAR statistic. It's just a tool -- a very good one, in my opinion -- in evaluating player performance. I think the main confusion or disagreement comes in understanding the position importance. Bourn is compared to other center fielders; Pence to other right fielders.

For example, here are Bourn's 2010 and 2011 average/on-base percentage/slugging percentage lines compared to the average National League center fielder:

Bourn 2010: .265/.341/.346
NL CF 2010: .260/.329/.406

Bourn 2011: .303/.363/.403
NL CF 2011: .267/.336/.417

And here's Pence compared to the average National League right fielder:

Pence 2010: .282/.325/.461
NL RF 2010: .264/.334/.443

Pence 2011: .307/.355/.468
NL RF 2011: .265/.338/.437

That's a bunch of numbers, but it translates to: Bourn gets on base more than the average center fielder. So despite his lack of power, he's still a productive hitter for the position (more so in 2011). Pence is hitting better this year but overall he's about league average or slightly above for his position.

I was going to look at these numbers, but Schoenfield crunched them for all of us.  Braves fans should be very familiar with the premium placed on players who can both hit and run enough to play centerfield.

Here is Jayson Stark listing the Braves as one of the winners at the trade deadline:

They lost out on Pence. They got outbid on Carlos Beltran. The best bats on the market were dropping off the board. So the pressure was mounting on the Braves this weekend, not just to keep up with the Phillies and Giants, but to make a move that made a real impact.

Enter Michael Bourn. Take a guy who has a .354 on-base percentage, add him to an offense whose leadoff hitters ranked 26th in baseball in OBP 'til he showed up and see what happens.

Now consider the lineup-changing effect of Bourn's 32-SB wheels (injected into a roster that had swiped 42 all year). And, finally, add in his top-of-the-charts defense. And this was a monster of a deal, especially considering the Braves were able to make it without giving up any of the elite pitching prospects they had balked at trading for Beltran or Pence.

If Bourn fits in and does what he was imported to do, said one scout, "this team is going to be dangerous."

Now, it bears mentioning that Stark has both the Giants and Phillies listed as winners at the trade deadline.  Thus, by improving the team, the Braves essentially stayed in place relative to two other prime contenders in the National League.  That said, the Braves paid less of a price than the Giants and Phillies did, hence the plaudits for Frank Wren.

And speaking of that price, here is Keith Law savaging the Astros and salving the consciences of Braves fans that the team gave up too much ($):

Bourn's best tool is his glove -- he covers a ton of ground in center and is one of the league's best half-dozen or so defenders at the position. At the plate he has almost no power, but despite that can at least foul off better fastballs that beat most zero-power hitters, and he draws enough walks to keep his OBP up over .340; his OBP of .363 this year would be third in Atlanta's lineup. Bourn is probably worth more than a win to the team during the rest of the regular season, but this move looks like it's more about improving run prevention in the postseason while reducing the number of automatic outs in Atlanta's lineup by one. He's under control through 2012, solving one position for the team for next year as well.

The return for Houston, however, is shockingly poor -- quantity over quality, to say the least -- and can't do Ed Wade any good in extending his status as GM beyond "lame duck." It makes me wonder if Houston had a ranking of Atlanta's top 25 prospects but looked at it upside-down.

Again, the merits of the deal won’t be felt so much this year – the Braves are better, but the Giants and Phillies also added outfielders who can hit – but rather over the coming years when the prices of the three deals in terms of prospects come into full view (assuming that the general consensus of the value of the minor leaguers traded by the three contenders turns out to be correct).

Here is R.J. Anderson of the Baseball Prospectus noting that the deal will increase the Braves’ already-excellent odds of making the playoffs and it will also have the knock-on effect of reducing the odds that the team will pick up Nate McLouth’s 2012 option ($):

With that in mind, Bourn is going to solve two problems for Atlanta. The first is obvious, as he will take over center field on an everyday basis. The Braves have not received much production out of the position from Nate McLouth or Jordan Schafer this season, and along with the other options they’ve run out there, they have a cumulative line of .241/.322/.324. As for the Braves leadoff hitters, they have hit .254/.306/.365 this season but somehow have managed .320/.389/.443 to open games. There probably isn’t much to that discrepancy other than selective sampling breeding some weird results, and Bourn should be an upgrade overall.

Bourn will not qualify for free agency until after next season, so this isn’t the typical rental situation. The guy who stands to lose the most in Bourn’s acquisition is McLouth as he will concede playing time and now stands even smaller chance of returning next season—although his play and the looming team option valued at over $10.5 million were doing a nice job of eliminating that possibility on their own. Barring the Braves doing something silly, like demoting Jason Heyward, McLouth figures to slide into a reserve role once he returns from the disabled list.

The Braves held an 87 percent shot at the postseason prior to today’s trade; look for those odds to increase and for Bourn to appear in the playoffs for the second time in his career this October.

The only downside will be for headline writers, who will now have to pick between bad “Brave New World” puns and even worse “Bourn[e] Identity” puns.

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