The Indians spent significant money on Michael Bourn last offseason and the addition was reason for great hope entering the season. But the Indians 2013 success may have actually come despite their expensive leadoff hitter.
Bourn got off to a hot start, posting a .333 average prior to his mid-April injury, but it was all downhill from there. His abysmal .299 on-base percentage in the second off the season was more fitting of a No. 9 hitter than a former All-Star leadoff man.
Most managers are stubborn when it comes to lineups, but Terry Francona has a history of making switches at the top of his order, which made his insistence on keeping Bourn in the leadoff role a mild surprise.
In 2007, when Julio Lugo’s leadoff OBP dipped below .300, Francona went to a mixture of Dustin Pedroia and rookie Jacoby Ellsbury in the leadoff role. And in 2000, while with the Phillies, Francona dropped struggling veteran leadoff man Doug Glanville in favor of Bobby Abreu and rookie Jimmy Rollins.
So will Francona look to shake things up at the top of the order in 2014? Here a few reasons why he should…
He can’t get on base
Bourn’s .314 on-base percentage from the leadoff slot wasn’t just disappointing, it was historically awful.
To better put this historically low OBP in perspective, consider this: since 1916, the Indians have had 22 players start at least 75 games in the No. 9 spot. Of those 22, eight players posted a higher OBP than Bourn. The list includes such gems as Jerry Willard (.320 in ’85), Felix Fermin (.321 in ’89) and Einar Diaz (.322 in ’99 and ’01).
He has no patience
Bourn’s career high in walks is 70, and even then (in 2012) he walked just once every 10 plate appearances.
A low walk total can be a result of a high-contact hitter, but for Bourn it stems from his propensity to chase pitches out of the zone.
In 2013, Bourn offered at 25 percent of the pitches he saw out of the zone, which is actually right on par with the league average for leadoff hitters. However, Bourn demonstrates his lack of patience most in hitter’s counts.
In hitter’s counts, the league average chase rate for leadoff hitters drops to 20 percent. This is logical, since a hitter can be more selective when the count is in his favor. Bourn’s chase rate, however, rose to 27 percent – the highest rate among all qualifying leadoff hitters.
And it’s not as though Bourn is the second coming of Vladimir Guerrero either. When swinging at pitches out of the strike zone, Bourn posted .140 batting average, fourth worst among qualifying leadoff hitters.
Finally, my favorite stat to demonstrate Bourn’s unwillingness to just wait for the right pitch: on average, he saw more pitches per plate appearances when the pitcher threw a first-pitch strike than a first-pitch ball.
He’s easy to finish off
Part of the leadoff hitter’s job is to make the pitcher work. But if a pitcher get ahead against Bourn, there’s little Bourn can do to fight back. In plate appearances in which the pitcher threw a first-pitch strike, Bourn managed a .251 on-base percentage, well below the league average of .294 for leadoff hitters.
And if the pitcher could get Bourn into a two-strike count, the at-bat was essentially over. Bourn struck out in 42 percent of his at-bats that reached two strikes, ranking him dead last among leadoff hitters.