“Show me a good offense,” Chipper Jones said Monday, “and I’ll show you a good leadoff hitter.”
For a change, the Atlanta Braves have a very good offense. For an even bigger change, they have a terrific leadoff hitter. We’ll get around to Michael Bourn’s non-numerical contributions in a bit — not to be confused with BABIP, one of those categories stat geeks love — but first a little fun with numbers.
If you’re a sabermetrician, you believe WAR is good for absolutely everything. (Say it again!) It stands for “wins above replacement.” It’s a complicated measure that fuses offense and defense and purports to reflect how many wins Player X is worth when measured against a garden-variety big-leaguer. There are two recognized WAR formulae — one by Baseball-Reference.com, the other by FanGraphs – and if you go by the former, the Braves’ leadoff hitter has been the best everyday WARrior in the National League.
Entering Monday night’s game, Bourn had achieved a WAR of 2.3. Among non-pitchers, only Josh Hamilton of Texas has a higher rating (3.1).
It should be noted that Bourn’s eyes didn’t exactly glaze over when informed of his statistical status, but neither did they dance with untrammeled delight. “I don’t focus on something like that,” he said. “I just go out and play the game.”
Some less exotic figures: Bourn was ninth in the National League in batting at .336, 11th in on-base percentage at .399, tied for fourth in stolen bases with 11, tied for first in hits with 51. “The numbers say a lot,” teammate Jason Heyward said. “He’s hitting over .300 in the leadoff spot. He’s on base one or two times a game. That’s huge.”
When Bourn was acquired just ahead of the 2011 trading deadline, it was thought/hoped he would have a catalytic effect on a pedestrian batting order. Alas, the flailing Braves were too far gone. Bourn hit .273 in 53 games and barely seemed to register amid the Epic Collapse. He registers now. (He went 1-for-5 in the Braves’ loss Monday, scoring their only run after a triple.)
Said manager Fredi Gonzalez: “People were saying we didn’t add anybody [over the winter]. We were thinking, ‘We’re getting a whole year of Michael Bourn.’ ”
The Braves awoke Monday leading the NL in runs scored; they were third in team batting, fourth in on-base percentage. Lots of folks have had a hand in the awakening — a rejuvenated Heyward, a thumping Freddie Freeman, a robust-at-40 Jones, new hitting coaches Greg Walker and Scott Fletcher — but lineups feed (or don’t feed) off the guy who bats first.
Said Gonzalez, speaking of Bourn: “He goes, we go. I think everyone has taken advantage of him being in the lineup and being on base.”
Said Bourn: “I’m on a pretty good team. We play together. We pick each other up.”
This is boilerplate Bourn. He’s relentlessly cheerful, and not just because his WAR is through the roof. As good as he has been on the field, he’s that good in the clubhouse.
“You know the numbers,” Gonzalez said, “but you appreciate the human being. What a great guy to have. He’s the same guy every day. He brings energy. He cares about winning and losing. He’s a pleasure to manage.”
He’s also a realist. “I’ve done OK so far,” Bourn said, “but there’s a long way to go. The thing about baseball is that you’ve got to get ready to play every day. We just got through with a good team [sweeping the Cardinals in St. Louis]. Now we’ve got the Reds.”
On Monday the Braves were scheduled to face Cincinnati pitcher Homer Bailey. Tuesday’s starter is the superb Johnny Cueto, whose WAR rating — yep, pitchers have them, too — is likewise 2.3. What happens when opponents of equal statistical measure go to WAR? Mutually assured destruction?
OK, enough stat chat. The nice thing about baseball is that you can have it all: You can love numbers more than the game itself, or you can just watch a guy play. Either way, Michael Bourn passes the test. He’s really good, and he has helped make his team really good, too. The only bad part is that he’ll be a free agent at season’s end, and he’s a Scott Boras client. Ouch, babe.
By Mark Bradley