After years of enduring a seemingly endless parade of underqualified and overmatched center fielders, Braves fans were finally treated to a full year of competency from that troublesome position. The Braves' savior (Bravior?) in 2012 was the previous season's trade-deadline acquisition, Michael Bourn. Despite a late-season slump, Bourn posted a typical season for him: solid on-base numbers without much power, supplemented with fantastic defense and baserunning. Add that all up and you have one of the most valuable center fielders in baseball.
If you looked just at Bourn's on-base (.348) and slugging (.391), you'd say he had essentially the same offensive season as he did in 2011 (.349 / .386). And indeed, he had identical wRC+ values of 104 both years, meaning he's been exactly 4% better than league average with the bat.
However, Bourn's batting average did drop 20 points to .274 this season. This was due in part to a career-high strikeout rate of 22% (omitting an 11-PA cup of coffee in 2006) and partly due to a slight regression in his BABIP (it was still .349, right around his career average of .343). Bourn finished with 155 strikeouts, a figure that caused some alarm in Braves Country, but this was mostly a function of Bourn's huge plate appearance total (703). His 22% K rate was just a tad higher than the MLB average of 21%, and his contact rate of 78% was likewise right in line with the league's 79% figure.
Bourn compensated for the modest uptick in strikeouts by posting a career high walk rate (10%) as well as career-best power numbers (9 homers, .117 ISO). While 9 homers is nothing to brag about, it was certainly more than the Braves were expecting out of him. In fact, it was more than he'd hit in the previous 3 seasons combined (7). Oddly, five of those homers came in a 3-week stretch in May in which Bourn posted just a .269 OBP; this stretch also included the Braves' 9-game losing streak.
Surprisingly, Bourn hit essentially the same against left-handers (.273 / .345 / .383) as he did against right-handers (.275 / .350 / .395). This was a break from past seasons, and while it may be the result of random variance, the Braves were certainly happy to have some extra production against lefties.
Once Bourn got on base, he was (as usual) a terror to opposing pitchers and catchers. While he "only" stole 42 bases, down from 61 last year, that was hardly his fault. He simply had less reason to steal because the hitters behind him (Martin Prado and Jason Heyward, mostly) were doing so well. According to FanGraphs, Bourn was worth 6.6 runs more than the average player on the bases; that was 12th-best in MLB (Heyward was 6th-best). Bourn was also 2nd in MLB with 29 bases taken on wild pitches, passed balls, fly balls, and similar plays (Angel Pagan was 1st with 33; Prado was 3rd with 28).
Finally, we get to the core of Bourn's value: defense. Even if Bourn were just average defensively, he'd still be a valuable player. What puts him over the top to become a star-level player is that he has tremendous range in center. It's not just his speed, either, although obviously Bourn is incredibly fast. He also gets good reads on balls off the bat. I can't count the number of times Bourn caught a ball this year that I thought was uncatchable; many of them he caught easily.
According to FanGraphs, Bourn made 113 plays outside of his designated defensive zone, which was the most in MLB (Heyward was 5th). Thanks to Bourn, Braves center fielders were the 2nd-best in baseball (behind the Blue Jays) at holding runners from advancing on hits; runners took the extra base less than half the time against Bourn. Since Bourn's arm is fairly weak, this is due entirely to Bourn getting to the ball more quickly than other outfielders would.
Bourn, in my view, deserves a Gold Glove this year, as he does every year. (Heyward should also get strong consideration.) The advanced defensive metrics agree. Enthusiastically. Ultimate Zone Rating (UZR) thought Bourn was 22 runs better than the average center fielder, which was the 2nd-highest UZR at any position this year (behind only Heyward). Defensive Runs Saved had Bourn at +24 runs, third best in MLB at any position (behind Darwin Barney and Brendan Ryan).
Now that I've made the obligatory mentions of Bourn's stratospheric one-year defensive numbers, I will now put those ratings into a better context. UZR and DRS really need to be used in 3-year intervals to have an adequate sample size, so let's total his 2010 through 2012 numbers to get a clearer picture of his true defensive value.
Over the past 3 years, Bourn's total DRS is +51 runs, which is second only to Ryan among all players (Heyward is at +50, 3rd-most overall). Bourn's total UZR is +35 runs, second only to Heyward's +36 (Ryan and Adrian Beltre are at +34). Given that larger sample size, it is clear that Michael Bourn is one of the premier defensive players in all of baseball.
Taking the averages of the three seasons implies that Bourn is worth between 12 (by UZR) and 17 (by DRS) runs more than the average CF. While less than the 2012 figures, that is still a huge amount of value. Combined with his baserunning, that means that Bourn is worth an added 2 wins or so in areas other than hitting.
As we all know, Bourn is a free agent this off-season. I won't belabor the discussion of the situation, but I should address it briefly.
Bourn is a great player. His hitting isn't enough to put him at MVP-level, but he's definitely in the upper tier of center fielders when the total package is considered. That means he's worth quite a lot of money. While he won't get quite as much as he would if his value were more concentrated in hitting, he will still get a huge contract.
Will the Braves be willing to make that kind of an offer? I have no idea. They have expressed a desire to try to retain Bourn, and they have a lot of salary coming off the books, but signing Bourn would almost certainly require the biggest contract handed out by the Braves since Chipper Jones' 2001 extension. Given that Frank Wren hasn't signed any free agent to a multi-year deal since January of 2009, it's hard to predict his willingness to bid seriously on a major free agent like Bourn.
If I were the GM, I probably wouldn't be willing to offer Bourn a top-of-the-market deal. The risk of it coming back to haunt the team is high. All that said, I love having Bourn around. I love having the best defensive outfield in baseball and a dynamic top-of-the-order threat. Most of all, I love having a center fielder that I can feel confident in, for the first time since Andruw left. So I won't be upset at all if the Braves do manage to re-sign him, even if the contract is highly questionable.
If the Braves don't re-sign Bourn, I hope he signs outside the NL East so that I can still root for him to do well. He's a fun player to watch, and he seems like a class act off the field, too.