Sep 18, 2014; Houston, TX, USA; Cleveland Indians center fielder Michael Bourn (24) hits a double during the ninth inning against the Houston Astros at Minute Maid Park. Mandatory Credit: Troy Taormina-USA TODAY Sports
Do you remember who played center field for the Indians for the first three years of this decade? I didn’t, I had to look it up. It was so ugly my brain did me the service of purging it from my memory banks. The list is not pretty. In 2010 it was Trevor Crowe for 122 games. Trevor was a nonentity defensively, just barely of negative value and he couldn’t hit a beach ball with the broad side of a barn. We got Grady Sizemore to tantalize us for 72 games of what could have been and a little bit of Ezequiel Carrera, who lived up to his last name in speed if not power to weight ratio. Then we ended up with Michael Brantley 2012 for 149 games. When he showed up people were cautiously excited because it’s easy to project on young players, and we saw a young, athletic black man in center and Kenny Lofton came to mind. It’s why stereotypes exist, and why they’re so bad, because Michael was just not good in center. At least we learned that before it could hurt a contending team.
The reason I mention all these potential trigger warnings is that we’re coming to the end of the second year of Michael Bourn signing a four year deal, and it’s good to remember what we as Indians fans dealt with before we found competence after half a decade of injury, tease and garbage flopping about in the field. When he signed, it was a big deal – Jason Kipnis was even blown away. Part of it was because everyone assumed, Bourn being a Boras client and all, he was going to get a heap of dough. Instead he waited too long, the market never materialized, and the Indians ended up with an actual, major league center fielder for the first time in years. He was a big signing for a team that never seems to be willing or able to lay out money and even if it’s not been the most perfect of marriages, having Bourn on the team shouldn’t be considered anything more than wonderful.
The first time I saw Bourn in person he was on the Atlanta Braves. It was 2012, Chipper Jones’ last year and I was paying my respects when he visited Wrigley. I’d known of Bourn, toiling for a few years in Houston obscurity and winning Gold Gloves then brought to Atlanta to help them over the edge to send Chipper out right. Bourn blew my mind. It’s not the biggest outfield, sure, but the way he moved the Braves didn’t need anyone else. On one play he was shaded to the right and a blooper was lofted to shallow left, a sure hit. But then he came on, faster than he looked and made the catch without even diving. Casual, calm, collected. He did the same thing twice more and also went up against the ivy to make a leaping catch. The Cubs, moribund on their best day, were stymied. And Bourn was electric.
So when the Tribe got him, I was as excited as everyone. Here’s a leadoff hitter extraordinaire who can play center with the best of them. Center field is just an inherently cool position, and he makes it look easy. He’s not stupendous at the plate, but it’s not like he’s some sort of soul-sucking lamprey, destroying the team from the inside. His strikeout rate has jumped to over 23% the last two years, though that had been trending up since his 18% his last year as an Astro. It’d be nice if his walk rate were closer to the 10% he marked as a Brave, but even 8% isn’t horrid. By wRC+ this year he’s a league average hitter, right at 100. Not like that’s something to aspire to, but considering how many players draw such immense value from their business at the dish, Bourn is a special case in that his offense, if anything, is a throw-in.
He’s the kind of guy you don’t much notice until he’s not there. The Tribe defense this year has been bad by any metric, and while Bourn isn’t the Gold Glover he once was he is the only bright spot out there. When he’s not leading off it ends up being someone like Mike Aviles, which isn’t very good, or even Jason Kipnis. I’m a fan of that second one, Kip has a different kind of multivariate impact, but Bourn just has that je ne sais quoi, it just makes sense. Plus he’s a better hitter than Kipnis this year, that helps. And actually makes sense, but whatever. He makes pitchers nervous when he’s on first, and in a mental war with Brantley or Santana for the at-bat, having that little speed demon bouncing about can be detrimental. Never mind that he scores on a double.
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The problem has become his inability to stay healthy. Speed based players, guys who make their money on the basepaths and in the outfield, often have leg problems when they get older because tendons and ligaments stiffen and they never got into yoga. Seriously, it’d be a sea change if a team instituted daily yoga sessions for the players. Mind and body would improve. Last year Bourn played 130 games, this year 89 of a possible 143. The biggest bummer has been he can’t steal bases. That could be because he’s just gotten a bit old, or maybe it’s an institutional thing. When you look at his past though, part of his massive SB numbers could have been simply from recklessness and getting by on athleticism. He’s led the league in stolen bases three times, but the last time was in 2011 before he even joined the Braves, and he also led the league in being caught. The next year he was down to 42 steals in 55 attempts , leading the league again in getting sniped. Surely the Indians saw this, knew what was coming and factored that into the contract.
I do understand why some Tribe fans are frustrated by Bourn. At times he just looks ugly at the plate. When he strikes out, he gets the most dejected look on his face, almost pained. He’s also one of the highest paid players on the team and his value was “supposed to” come from stolen bases. Even if that’s not true. He’s also hurt a lot. But you know, he does make the rest of the outfield better – Brantley doesn’t have to cover as much ground, whoever is in right likewise, and he adds dynamism to the lineup. That’s the key to it all. It’s nice to have “smart” baserunners, but having a guy who can just flat out burn is a luxury. That’s what Bourn is too, he was a luxury purchase for the Tribe, and even if he’s a little underwhelming, everything he does is a net positive, simply because the alternative would be so, so much worse. Maybe that’s not a reason to praise the guy, but it’s at least a reason to appreciate him. After all, we’d never appreciate a sunny day without a little rain.