Will the St. Louis Cardinals' Bet on Peter Bourjos Pay Off?

Bob Levey

The St. Louis Cardinals' decision to acquire Peter Bourjos is a gamble that the speedster will be able to stay healthy long enough for his tools to make him a productive big-league regular.

After news broke that the St. Louis Cardinals had acquired outfielders Peter Bourjos and Randal Grichuk from the Los Angeles Angels of Anaheim in exchange for third baseman David Freese and righthanded reliever Fernando Salas, the consensus that emerged from baseball pundits was that the Redbirds won the trade. It's an understandable conclusion, but one that I think misses the reality that both the Cards and Halos are betting on the players they received performing better moving forward than they did in 2013. This is particularly true with the Cardinals and Bourjos.

Bourjos is probably as close as the Cardinals will ever get to having an Ozzie Smith-type of defender in the outfield. The MLB.com videos of his defensive gems are easy to get lost in. Doing so allows you to easily relate to this blurb from the 2012 Baseball Prospectus:

Bourjos covered so much ground as a center fielder that it sometimes backfired early in the season. His corner outfielders, unaccustomed to flanking a player with such range, sometimes weren't giving way to Bourjos, while other times they flinched or back away at his mere approach. The turf war ended around June, when Torii Hunter and Vernon Wells learned what we all learned: When Peter Bourjos is chasing a ball, it's more fun to just watch.

Defensive skill that comes along once in a generation is extremely valuable. Ozzie Smith built a Hall-of-Fame career on such elite defense. Smith's batting improved to the point where he put up multiple seasons well above the league average in run creation. In those seasons, such as 1987, he was an MVP candidate.

Could Bourjos be another wizardly type of talent?

PETER BOURJOS CAREER

Years

G

PA

HR

SB

BA

OBP

SLG

OPS

ISO

wOBA

wRC+

fWAR

4

354

1136

24

41

.251

.306

.398

.704

.146

.310

96

9.0

Like many Whiteyball-era Cardinals, Bourjos possesses a skill set that skews toward speed and defense. In parts of four seasons, Bourjos has amassed 9.0 Fangraphs WAR (fWAR), the bulk of which came from his skill at taking away runs from the other team with his glove as opposed to creating them for his club with his bat. For his career, Bourjos has been a slightly below average batter.

Looking at Bourjos's Fangraphs page also reveals that he has not played a full season since 2010. That year, Bourjos only dug into the batter's box 552 times over 147 games. Bourjos posted an impressive 4.2 fWAR in that time period, but then managed just 195 and 196 PAs in 2012 and 2013 respectively. Part of the problem for Bourjos was the fact that the outfield picture was crowded. The more concerning factor, however, is health.

According to Baseball Prospectus's injury history for Bourjos, the outfielder experienced three separate disabled-list stints in 2012 and 2013 combined. Between the DL and being listed as "day-to-day," Bourjos missed 126 games. Bourjos has twice landed on the 15-day DL due to hamstring problems. Given the speedster's reliance on his legs for much of his value, this gives one pause. However, most worrisome are Bourjos's two wrist injuries, each of which occurred when he was hit by a pitch.

In September 2012, Bourjos was struck on the right wrist by a pitch and then hit the DL due to wrist "soreness." In August 2013, Bourjos again took a pitch off his right wrist. This time, however, the damage was more severe. The pitch fractured Bourjos's wrist. Bourjos had initially hoped to play through the wrist fracture; however, the injury ultimately required surgery. In an MLB.com article on the likelihood of wrist surgery, Bourjos explained why it was necessary:

"I don't feel like I can do what I do at the plate," Bourjos finally admitted. "The strength isn't there. I'm not able to take the swing I want to without pain. I can take a bad swing without pain. That's not very productive."

Wrist injuries are a nasty lot for ballplayers. They can sap power, leaving players shadows of their former slugging selves. In Bourjos's case, his wrist injury may further accelerate his falling power as represented by Isolated Power (ISO). Bourjos posted a .177 in 2010; .167 in 2011; .095 in 2012; and .103 last season. The falloff in pop correlates nicely with a rise in grounders off Bourjos's bat. He is the flip side of the Duncan pitching democrat coin.

Last April, Derrick Goold wrote an article in the St. Louis Post-Dispatch on the Cardinals' use of high fastballs to induce swings-and-misses. Goold contrasted this approach with that of former pitching coach Dave Duncan, which included the following anecdote:

During spring training in 2010 as the Cardinals tried to indoctrinate fastball jockey Brad Penny into the organization's philosophy of sink, pitching coach Dave Duncan and his staff kept a running tally for Penny's benefit on a markerboard in the coaches' office.

In one column, the pitching coach counted every fly ball allowed during spring, and in another all of the groundballs. Beside each was the number of extra-base hits in the air or on the ground. That number, so much higher by the fly ball totals, showed that when it came to pitches put in the air "extra bases are everywhere," a coach said. Duncan wanted to prove to Penny, who had the game's hottest fastball for several years and an eagerness to flex it high in the zone, the benefit of staying down, down, down.

"Hell," Penny said later, "why haven't I been trying to get ground balls all the time?"

The Sports Illustrated cover story from early in the 2013 season contained a similar passage on Duncan's philosophy:

Duncan had come to believe that in a game gone power crazy--the eight homer-heaviest seasons in league history were played between '98 and 2006--most pitchers only stood a chance by keeping their offerings down in the strike zone to induce grounders. "When a guy hits a ground ball, where does he have to hit it to get an extra-base hit?" the 67-year-old Duncan asks, as he has during hundreds of sessions. "Down the first base line, down the third base line. However, if the ball is hit in the air, you have all kinds of opportunities to get extra-base hits."

The MLB average groundball rate is typically around 44 to 45%. Bourjos has never posted a GB% of less than 46.8%. Not surprisingly, that was in 2011, his best year. Every other season, Bourjos has batted grounders at rate over 50%. In 2013, Bourjos's GB rate was 58.7%. For his career, it's 50.5%. It's as if someone told Bourjos that, with his speed, he ought to be hitting the ball on the ground and legging out hits and made him do 20 push-ups whenever he hit the ball in the air. To borrow from the Duncan anecdotes, Bourjos's batted-ball profile is one in which there are not many opportunities to get extra-base hits.

This groundball-centric, low-power batting profile is not unique amongst Cardinals outfielders. In fact, Bourjos's competition for the role of primary center fielder is another punchless groundball hitter. Jon Jay has posted a career groundball rate of 53.4% to go along with a .108 ISO.

After a season of Jay's punchless batting, mediocre defense, and average baserunning, the Cardinals have elected to add Bourjos. The Cardinals are apparently betting that Bourjos is healthy enough to bat at a rate about league-average, which will afford him the opportunity to leverage his elite speed in the field and on the basepaths into a very valuable multi-tool player.

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