CINCINNATI, OH: Michael Bourn #24 of the Atlanta Braves is congratulated by Martin Prado #14 after hitting a home run during the game against the Cincinnati Reds at Great American Ball Park in Cincinnati, Ohio. (Photo by Andy Lyons/Getty Images)
Free-agent-to-be Michael Bourn might be in the middle of adding something to his skill set. Which means Josh Hamilton might not be the only pending free-agent outfielder of unusual interest.
As I write this, the Braves are playing the Yankees on Monday night, and Michael Bourn is leading off. In the event that Bourn hits another home run, some of the numbers below will be a little outdated, and Michael Bourn going deep is not something I've ever had to worry about before. The same could be said for opposing major-league pitchers. These times, man. These are weird times.
As you read this, it's June 12. Or it could be later than June 12, if you're finding this well after publishing, but if that's the case you might want to look for something more fresh. Assuming it's June 12, then precisely one month ago, Michael Bourn hit his first home run of the 2012 season. That was the Braves' 34th game of the year, but for Bourn, that didn't make for a home-run slump. In 2011, he didn't go deep until his team's 50th game of the year. In 2010, he didn't go deep until his team's 77th game of the year. It didn't matter if Bourn hit zero home runs or five home runs - you weren't looking for Michael Bourn to provide home runs. He contributed with all of the other parts of his game.
After homering on May 12, Bourn didn't homer again for more than a week. Nothing out of the ordinary. Then he homered twice. Very out of the ordinary. Two days later, he homered again. Five days later, he homered again. Nine days later, he homered again.
On June 7, Bourn took Dan Jennings out to right field in Miami, and the dinger was Bourn's sixth of the season. That is already a career high.
Perhaps you aren't very familiar with Michael Bourn, or perhaps you're having trouble appreciating this outburst. Are you familiar with isolated slugging percentage? It's just slugging percentage minus batting average. Simple. Measure of power. Between 2006-2011, Albert Pujols posted the highest isolated slugging percentage in baseball. Stat checks out, then. Michael Bourn posted the 354th-highest isolated slugging percentage in baseball, tied with Alcides Escobar. Names of some players around him on the leaderboard: Brendan Ryan, Matt Treanor, Alexi Casilla, Craig Counsell, Ichiro. Michael Bourn didn't hit for power. He was still good, but not on account of his thump in any way.
Here are some names of players around Bourn's isolated slugging percentage in 2012: Alex Rodriguez, Jesus Montero, B.J. Upton, Adrian Gonzalez. I'm cheating by including Gonzalez, because your brain hasn't yet adjusted to the fact that he's mired in a slump, but as I write this, Adrian Gonzalez has fewer home runs than Michael Bourn. It is the middle of June.
It wasn't all that long ago that Jose Bautista turned into a baseball player worth knowing about. All of a sudden, practically out of nowhere, Bautista started slugging home runs. Prior to 2010, Bautista hit home runs on 7.7 percent of his balls hit in the air. Since 2010, that rate has jumped up to 16.6 percent. That's more than double.
Prior to 2012, Bourn hit home runs on 1.7 percent of his balls hit into the air. In 2012, that rate has skyrocketed to 6.2 percent. That's nearly quadruple.
Obviously, I'm not in any way trying to compare Michael Bourn to Jose Bautista, and obviously, I'm basing the Bourn numbers off of six home runs in a month. As sample sizes go, six is insufficient for pretty much anything. But those rates are included to help you understand just how different Michael Bourn has been from the way he used to be. Take, say, a 12-strikeout game by a starting pitcher. It is very difficult to fluke your way to a 12-strikeout game, because strikeouts rely mostly on skill. It's similarly difficult to imagine Bourn as we knew him fluking his way to a six-dinger month. I'm not going to calculate the odds, but the odds would be slim he would do that by chance.
It makes you wonder what's going on with Michael Bourn. I created the image below without knowing what I was going to do with it, and I still don't know what I'm doing with it, but I made it so I'm including it anyway:
These are all the pitches Bourn has hit for home runs in 2012. All of them appear to be inside, excepting perhaps the one in the middle on the bottom. It's over the inner half, but it's not over the inner edge.
Bourn has lightning-fast hands, and he's been able to turn on and punish inside fastballs. His average home run has left the bat at 104.5 miles per hour, while the league-average home run has left the bat at 103.5 miles per hour, so the strength has certainly been there.
Nothing else about Bourn's game has really changed. He's still a ground-ball hitter, as he's always been. He's still swinging at the same rate of balls as he always has, and he's still swinging at the same rate of strikes as he always has. He's still making the same amount of contact that he always has, he's still running, and he's still playing outstanding defense in center field.
But suddenly there might be some power, where before there wasn't power. And as I was curious to see if there were any potential indicators, I found a home run that Bourn hit in Houston on April 25, 2009. MLB.com doesn't provide a highlight clip, but it does host a condensed game. Here's where the ball just about landed in the right-center stands:
For that dinger, the Home Run Tracker calculated a distance of 457 feet. As one comparison example, over the Home Run Tracker era that dates back to 2006, Ichiro hasn't hit a home run longer than 429 feet, and that homer gained seven feet from environmental conditions. This is another thing that's hard to fluke -- Bourn has demonstrated that he can hit a baseball nearly 460 feet, because he's done it, if only once. And that hints at some power potential.
Some power potential that might now be revealing itself. I'm not going to sit here and claim that Bourn is suddenly able to hit for decent power because he's slugged six dingers in a month. We'll see if he's still out-homering Adrian Gonzalez at the end of September. We could be looking at a power spike or a power escarpment, and the only way to know is to check back later on. But for as much as has been written about Josh Hamilton's tricky free-agent negotiations, one notes that Bourn is due to enter the market as well. He'll be 29 years old, he does almost everything well, and now he might be a double-digit homer guy, too.
Bourn is making things confusing for baseball fans now, and he could make things confusing for front offices come November. If Bourn ends up with 10 or 15 homers, they'll have to determine whether that can continue. And if Bourn ends up with 10 or 15 homers, we'll have to determine whether we should change the way we think about Michael Bourn.
Bourn's long been an underrated player because he's contributed so much in the field and so little with power. If he's adding power, he's going to remain underrated, but the rating he'll deserve will be among the highest in the game.