Bats: Left Throws: Right
Acquired: Signed to 4-year/$48M contract, February, 2013
2014 Salary: $13.5 million
The Indians signing Michael Bourn was a major surprise to most, given that the team had already laid out a lot of money two months earlier when Nick Swisher joined the team. While somewhat overlooked by many fans, Bourn rated as one of the best players in baseball in 2012, according to metrics like WAR, due to his excellent base running and defense, and he looked to be the next great Tribe centerfielder, arguably the strongest position in franchise history (Speaker, Averill, Doby, Butler, Lofton, and Sizemore being the best).
2013 in Review Hub: Your destination for Let's Go Tribe's look at key prospects and players from the Indians in 2013
Bourn's season got off to a great start, as he collected 15 hits in his first ten games, 7 of them for extra bases. On a close play at first base though, Bourn slid head first to avoid a collision with White Sox reliever Matt Thornton, only to have Thornton accidentally step on his hand, causing a large laceration that caused Bourn to miss the next 21 games.
The finger wouldn't seem to have had anything to do with it, but by the time Bourn returned, his hot start had cooled way off. It took him another 37 games to match the 7 XBH hits he'd had in those first 10 games, and by that time his OPS had fallen from .975 to .731. From the time he returned from that injury through the end of the year, Bourn's batting line was just .256/.310/.338. Bourn wasn't signed for his bat, but it was still a disappointing season at the plate. His wRC+ in 2012 was 105, a bit above average. In 2013, it was just 91, a larger bit below average. It doesn't appear to have been bad luck either, as his BABIP was .338, in line with his career mark of .342. His walk-rate was the lowest of his career, while his strikeout-rate was the highest.
Adding to the disappointment, after stealing an average of 52 bases over the previous three seasons, with an 80% success rate, Bourn stole just 23 this year, with a mediocre 65.7% success rate. He still rated as a plus base runner, a sign that he's taking the extra base at a solid rate, I suppose, but in another sign that his speed is probably slipping from elite to above average, his bunt success was by far the lowest of his career. In each of the five previous full seasons of his career, Bourn had reached safely on at least 36% of his bunts, but in 2013 that figure fell to 26%. He'd average 12 bunt hits a season til this year, when he had just 5.
Finally, his defensive marks were also down. He went from being rated as the best defensive centerfielder in baseball 2012 to an average one in 2013. There were balls he was getting to in the past, that remained out of his grasp this year, plays it looked like he was going to make, but didn't. The difference between excellent and average in centerfield is worth a couple wins over the course of the season.
That all sounds pretty awful, as he was noticeably down in all three aspects of the game. It turns out Bourn was basically an average player this season, which is better than the rest of this may have made him sound, and better than many fans probably think he was. FanGraphs has him with 2.0 WAR, Baseball-Reference with 2.4. Still, while average isn't bad, it's a far cry from he was from 2009 to 2012, when he was worth an average of 5 wins a year.
Some believe the decline was due to changing leagues, having to learn new pitchers, new pickoff moves, and new ballparks. I can believe there's something to that, but I can't be convinced that explains more than a small part of his drop in production. Bourn is young enough yet (31 come Opening Day) to bounce back, but speed tends not to stick around long after 30, and Bourn's game is built on speed, so it seems likely to me that what we saw in 2013 is what we're going to see in 2014 as well.