Throughout spring training I’ll be highlighting “things to work on” for certain key players this year.
While I was excited as anyone about the signing of Michael Bourn, let’s not forget that he is coming off a dreadful end to the 2012 season.
In the second half last year, Bourn hit just .225 and struck out in just over one-fourth of his plate appearances (which, sadly, was a better rate than both Mark Reynolds and Drew Stubbs).
But even if Bourn leaves that slump in 2012, as we all expect him to, there are still significant holes in his game—ones that may continue to get worse as the 30-year-old ages.
The issue for Bourn is simple: he can’t hit the slow stuff.
Against fastballs, Bourn is borderline elite, hitting .336 with a .920 OPS in 2012.
But if you can force Bourn to offer at an offspeed pitch, the results are ugly.
Since 2009, Bourn has a .194 average against the slow stuff.
One of the major issues for Bourn against offspeed pitches is that he simply can’t make contact.
In 2012, Bourn whiffed at 40.3 percent of the offspeed pitches he offered at—the 10th worst rate in the league.
Bourn’s struggles with the offspeed pitch are especially interesting considering his role as a leadoff hitter. Since 2009, 33 leadoff hitters have seen at least 1,00o offspeed pitches. Of that group, only Stubbs has whiffed at a higher rate than Bourn’s 38.1 percent.
Most of the game’s elite leadoff men handle the offspeed pitch just fine. Ellsbury, Jeter, Reyes, Victorino, Roberts, Rollins, Kinsler, Furcal, Suzuki and others all whiff at a rate under 25 percent.
It will be interesting to see how Bourn adjusts to life in the American League.
Typically players find immediate success when they switch leagues, as it takes time for pitchers to learn their weaknesses.
But in Bourn’s case, the weakness is so obvious that I wonder if the effect may be reversed.
I wouldn’t be shocked if Bourn gets off to a slow start as pitchers feed him a steady diet of offspeed pitches early in the season. Then, hopefully, once he’s seen a pitcher a few times he’ll begin to adjust to their arsenal.
Medfest brings up an interesting question in the comments: as a leadoff hitter in the AL, will he see more fastballs than he did in the NL due to the fact that he’s no longer batting behind the pitcher?
I hadn’t though of this, so I looked up some stats and it turns out Medfest might be on to something.
AL leadoff hitters saw 57.3 percent fastballs in 2012, compared to 54.1 percent for NL leadoff hitters.
However, I’m skeptical as to whether or not this will be the case with Bourn. In 2012, Bourn ranked 25th out of 29 qualifying leadoff hitters in terms of percentage of fastballs seen (52.3 percent). So pitchers clearly know this is his weakness, and they’re throwing him off-speed stuff whenever they get the chance.
Additionally, AL pitchers have shown a willingness to throw off-speed stuff to leadoff hitters when it’s a known weakness. Last year, the Blue Jays’ Brett Lawrie saw the lowest percentage of fastballs (48.1 percent) among leadoff hitters.
Raising further doubt about this theory is the fact that, as a leadoff hitter, Bourn actually saw a lower percentage of fastballs with men on base (50.6 percent) than he did with no one on (53.2 percent).
Based on this trend, it would appear as though pitchers are actually more willing to challenge Bourn with a fastball when there’s little damage to be done. But when men are on base, pitchers approach him cautiously.
So while Medfest’s theory is definitely logical, and probably would apply for many leadoff hitters moving from the NL to the AL, Bourn’s struggles with off-speed pitches trump the pitcher’s fear of potentially walking him by pitching around him with the slow stuff.