Michael Bourn is everything that the Braves need in one nice, neat, talented package. He is a lead off hitter, he's a gold glove defender, and he's an elite base stealer. These are three things that we've been lacking in the lineup or in the outfield for several years now, and without him, we are not a complete team. There is nobody in our organization who can replace the void that will be left if Bourn walks as a free agent - the closest would be Jose Constanza, but he'll never do what Bourn does. Bourn is not only a smart re-sign candidate, he's an absolutely essential piece to the Braves being a successful team over the next few years.
Bourn is the first real lead off hitter the Braves have had since 2005 with Rafael Furcal. If you're having a hard time remembering when the Braves last won their division, let me refresh your memory... It was 2005! Lead off hitters, in theory, should get on base and be fast. They're absolutely essential to any good team and the Braves are the perfect example of this fact.
Traveling through our impressive streak of division titles you'll see Otis Nixon, Marquis Grissom, Kenny Lofton, and Rafael Furcal getting things started. Really throughout our entire 14 year run there were only two or three different seasons where we either didn't have a real lead off hitter or had to switch people in and out, and at least one of those seasons was due primarily to an injury to Furcal. The others were filled in by guys like Gerald Williams, who was a .300 hitter at the time with some speed. I don't believe that there's any coincidence to the Braves' division titles ending when the lead off hitting disappeared. From 2006 to 2011 we've struggled to contend, largely in part because we've struggled to maintain a consistent offense, which in turn has been caused by iffy lead off men.
Let's look at the recent history of Braves' lead off hitters:
'05 - Rafael Furcal - .284 BA, .348 OBP, 46 SB's
'06 - Marcus Giles - .262 BA, .341 OBP, 10 SB's (Pete Orr also saw time here)
'07 - Kelly Johnson - .276 BA, .375 OBP, 9 SB's (Willie Harris and Diaz also saw time here)
'08 - Kelly Johnson - .287 BA, .349 OBP, 11 SB's (Escobar and Blanco also saw significant time here)
'09 - Nate McClouth - .257 BA, .354 OBP, 12 SB's in 84 games after trading for him. (Yunel and Prado also saw time here)
'10 - Melky Cabrera - .255 BA, .317 OBP, 7 SB's (McClouth, Prado, and Yunel also saw time here)
Do you see a trend here? The Braves haven't had a steady lead off hitter in a long time. The line up has been a constantly-shifting, ever-changing mass of confusion. When you have no consistency at the top of the order, it's hard to have any consistency anywhere else in the order. Because we didn't have a real lead off hitter, we were always jamming different unqualified players into the slot hoping that something would click and that things would work out. They rarely did.
Michael Bourn fixes that. Since acquiring him last year from Houston, he's been a very consistent hitter at the top of the lineup. He gets on base, he steals bases, and he scores runs. His OBP is by no means astronomical, but it's been extremely consistent since he got a starting gig in 2008. Consistency is vital at the lead off slot.
Bourn also solves much of the defensive woes we've had since Andruw Jones gained weight and lost effectiveness. When was Andruw's last gold glove? 2007, not long after we stopped winning our division, and if you look at the numbers, Andruw's range took it's first sharp decline in, you guessed it, 2006, the first year we didn't win our division in a decade and a half!
So how good is Bourn defensively? Well, he's fast and he's got two gold gloves, for starters. Defense is one of those really subjective, fickle stats. There are crazy formulas for Range ratings, Zone ratings, defensive runs saved, and much more, but sometimes they don't tell the whole story. Bourn has great numbers for 2009, 2010, and so far in 2012, but for some reason his 2011 numbers look terrible despite the fact that he made the same number of errors in both 2010 and 2011. He got to fewer balls per innings played in 2011, but that could be blamed on a variety of factors out of his control such as far fewer opportunities due to ground ball pitchers or less balls being hit to dead center, etc.
What's important is that this year, Bourn is second among OF's and third in all of baseball in Range Rating, 7th in all of baseball in UZR, which is supposed to be the most complete measurement of defense, and 10th in all of baseball in defensive runs saved, which is obviously a pretty important stat. To put it more simply, Bourn is in the top ten in MLB among hundreds of position players in every way when it comes to defense.
Bourn, as I mentioned earlier, is also fast. Really fast. He's third in SB's this season, lead the league last year, and was second in 2009 and 2010. He's without a doubt one of the three or four fastest guys in the league. Base stealing is something that Braves fans have gotten used to doing without in recent years. Base stealing as a whole has been de-emphasized by baseball. How do you think Rickey Henderson feels when he sees a league leader with 61 bases? Probably something along the lines of "Oops, I meant to look at the full season leaders, not the first half leaders". Again, the Braves are a perfect example of baseball's slowing down:
SB leaders per year:
'05 - Furcal, 46 (team 92)
'06 - Renteria, 17 (team 52)
'07 - Harris, 17 (team 64)
'08 - Blanco, 13 (team 58)
'09 - McClouth/Diaz, 12 (team 58)
'10 - Heyward, 11 (team 63)
If you add up the highest number of SB's from 2006 through 2010, you get 70. Michael Bourn's career high is 61 SB's, which he's done twice. Also, if you look at the team SB totals each year... Yeah, it's bad when one guy regularly steals as many bases as an entire team. That's almost as bad as when Barry Bonds was intentionally walked 120 times in 2004 and the team with the most intentional walks that year (other than Bonds' Giants obviously) was the entire St. Louis Cardinals team with 64.
A single and a stolen base is every bit as good as a double, and really it's better. Why? Because stolen bases are disruptive. If a pitcher knows a base stealer is on base, he has to keep that runner in the back of his mind at all times. Anything to get a pitcher not to focus 100% on the batter is a benefit to the team. Stolen bases also create opportunities for bad throws or catches on pickoff plays or from catchers trying to gun the runner out. This is something the Braves have sorely lacked for many years now.
Finally, if you're big into WAR, or Wins Above Replacement, a complicated statistic that is supposed to calculate how many team wins a player is worth above the generic, absolute average middle of the road player, Bourn is currently the 8th most valuable player in baseball this year and the most valuable player on the Braves.
I know that some people think that lead off hitters are not worth big bucks, and they may not be. Michael Bourn is a lot more than that, though. To be rated as the 8th most valuable player in baseball this year obviously means that he is worth giving some pretty legitimate money to. During the Ryan Dempster trade talks the Braves were said to have been planning to resign Dempster. Well hell, Dempster is probably going to make $12-15 million dollars a year when he signs a contract for 2013 and beyond. Why in the world would our organization be prepared to offer that money to a 35 year old pitcher with a 4.31 career ERA when they could resign one of the best players in baseball instead? It absolutely baffles me! Beyond that, Bourn is doing some great things in the community, which is not something that should be taken for granted.
Where are we going to get another lead off hitter? Where are we going to get another gold glove outfielder to complement Heyward? Where are we going to get another elite base stealer? Michael Bourn is everything that the Braves need and is absolutely worth a 5 year deal at around $65 or $70 million. Not signing him would be almost as bad as the Atlanta Falcons resigning an aging John Abraham and signing an aging Tatupu instead of resigning Curtis Lofton, one of the best linebackers in the country, who went to the Falcons' top division rival, New Orleans.
Frank Wren needs to be hounded, pressured, begged, and propositioned until Michael Bourn is inked as a Brave for at least several more years. If we want to win, we need what he brings to the table. Don't let the Bourn legacy end somewhere else; he's too important right where he is.
* All stats courtesy of the wonderful databases at www.fangraphs.com and www.baseball-reference.com