FanPost

Fleeter Peter Bourjos: The Next Ray Lankford?

When I ran some (mostly depressing!) comps for Mark Trumbo the other week, I fully expected to focus next on the most intriguing free agent on the market this winter, Prince Fielder. But popular demand in the comments, as well as my own curiosity, turned me toward arguably the Angels' best position player in 2011, Peter Bourjos. How do super-fast guys with gap power and bad K/BB rates develop? Is he also, like Trumbo, a prime candidate for regression? Read on and see!

Using my usual starting point for comparison (center fielders through their age 24 season, +/- 25% of Bourjos' plate appearances, +/- 10 points of OPS+) produces a list of 32 players, many of them good, ranging from a high Wins Above Replacement total of ... well, lookee that! Peter Bourjos, with 6.3 (a whopping 2.9 of which is on defense), to both Joses Cruzes (3.3/1.5 for Jr./Sr., respectively, believe it or not) to Mickey Rivers (2.3) ... bottomed out by Preston Wilson with -0.3 (he really couldn't play centerfield). Winnowing the list down to dudes who were really fast, along with a mix of league-average batting and decent extra-base pop, and you get this group of 10, which I have ranked in order of my eyeballed assessment of their similarity to Fleet Pete: Bourjos, Ray Lankford, Jim Landis, Vince DiMaggio, Kevin McReynolds (!), Mike Cameron, Tony Gonzales, Adolfo Phillips, Bill Virdon, and Gee Walker. Here are their career totals through age 24:
NM   G   PA  AB  R   H  2B 3B HR RBI SB/CS  BB  SO  AVG  OBP  SLG OPS+ oWAR dWAR  WAR  Rk
PB: 198 745 683  91 173 32 15 18  58 32/12  38 164 .253 .303 .423 103   3.5  2.9  6.3 ---
RL: 190 754 692  95 178 33 16 12  81 52/22  54 141 .257 .311 .403  99   2.5 -0.6  1.9  49
JL: 238 917 797 110 203 34 10 17  80 33/11  97 141 .255 .343 .386 101   3.7  0.4  4.1  88
VD: 132 539 493  56 126 18  4 13  69  8/?   39 111 .256 .311 .387  96   1.0  1.0  2.0 114
KM: 186 726 665  83 177 29  7 24  89  5/7   46  98 .266 .308 .439 109   3.8  2.3  6.1  45
MC: 155 502 428  68 106 20  3 15  57 23/3   59 123 .248 .342 .414 100   1.8  2.4  4.2 ---
TG: 243 845 766  95 211 38 14 21 105 18/7   64 140 .275 .338 .444 110   4.1 -1.9  2.2  82
AP: 172 586 519  87 132 33  1 19  41 35/18  51 172 .254 .335 .432 112   2.9  0.0  2.9 n/a 
BV: 144 586 534  58 150 18  6 17  68  2/4   36  64 .281 .322 .433 100   1.7  0.0  1.7  96
GW: 186 705 669  91 211 49  8  9 106 40/13  27  59 .315 .345 .453 103   2.4 -0.3  2.1  92

The "Rk" indicates the slot ranked at his position by The New Bill James Historical Baseball Abstract, which came out in 2001 (Mike Cameron would probably now rank around #30). Rankings for McReynolds and Gee Walker are for left field. So if you judge Peter Bourjos by centerfielders who accomplished much the same as he has through his age-24 season, he will likely be a top-100 player at his position. Good news, eh?

It's eerie how much some of these guys even look like Peter Bourjos. Check out Jim Landis' picture, for example; note that he was the same height (6'1"), virtually the same weight (180 vs. 185), batted and threw right, put up a rookie year OPS+ of 72 in 324 PAs (vs. Bourjos's 69 in 193), followed by a first full season of 116 (115).... Through their age-24 seasons they had indistinguishable 2B/3B/HR lines (34/10/17 vs. 32/15/18), batting averages (.255/.253), OPS+s (103/101), SB/CS (33/11 vs. 32/12), baserunning runs above average (4/5), and Offensive Wins Above Replacement (3.7/3.5). These similarities are backed by eerily similar descriptions. Baseball Reference's "Bullpen" feature describes Landis as "one of the greatest defensive outfielders in big league history." In the Abstract, James quotes Sport Magazine about Landis from 1963:

Exceptional on defense. Very fast. Has strong arm. No player better going from first to third on hit. Has home-run power, but lacks consistency. Tends to swing at bad balls.

Now who does THAT sound like?

How did Jim Landis do after age 24? Very well initially -- he finished 7th in the MVP voting at age 25 in 1959, helping lead the Chicago White Sox to the World Series, then the next five years he won five Gold Gloves. But his offense (which featured more walks and less power that Pete's) inexplicably collapsed at age 28. From 24-27 Landis had averaged .272/.362/.419 (OPS+ of 113), with 13 homers and 20 stolen bases, but in the subsequent four years he cratered: .226/.328/.339 (OPS+ of 87), with 8 HRs and 10 SB. Much of this overlapped with the early-'60s collapse of baseball offenses, and I've long noticed a tendency among certain players to decline much faster than the declining context they play in (suggesting that some are particularly sensitive to certain types of drastic changes of environment), but it should also be noted that Landis began his prime-age slide in 1962, before Dead Ball 2.0 really kicked in.

As much as Landis seems to resemble Bourjos the most physically and anecdotally, you can't escape the crazy similarities between PB's numbers and Ray Lankford's. Through their age-24 seasons they were within 10 in games, plate appearances, at bats, runs, hits, doubles, triples, home runs, batting average points, OBP, and OPS+ ... with the main difference being Peter's superior home run power, Lankford's higher walk rate, and of course Petey's D. Both led their leagues in 3Bs their first years as regulars, though overall Bourjous had a much better season (OPS+ of 115, compared to 94). Lankford, who was stockier (5'11", 180), blossomed almost immediately into a power threat with a good batting eye, hitting 40 2Bs and 20 HRs while drawing 72 walks at age 25, good enough for an 18th place finish in the MVP vote. If you normalize his stats from age 27 to 34 (i.e., adjust each strike-shortened season to 162 games, and each inflated offensive year for the National League to a neutral 4.42 runs per game), then you get a super-solid line of .271/.366/.500, with 31 2Bs, 24 HRs, 19 SBs and 72 BBs per year. I don't think Bourjos is destined to hit that well, but it's worth noting that the guy whose stats look exactly like his ended up being one of the National League's better players in the 1990s.

Oh, the other thing Bourjos has in common with Lankford but not the other people on this comp list? He absolutely exploded in the 2nd half of his age-24 season:

NM    PA  AVG  OBP  SLG  OPS
RL1: 285 .241 .285 .331 .616  
RL2: 330 .260 .315 .447 .762

PB1: 313 .272 .323 .397 .720
PB2: 239 .270 .332 .493 .825

Who else? Vince DiMaggio was kind of an Italian Pete -- baseball in his bloodlines, "excellent" range in CF, strikeouts up the wazoo (he led the league in Ks 6 times, including his rookie season at age 24). Though the same weight as Pete (183), he was two inches shorter, probably built more like Lankford. As such, he was a more potent power hitter than Bourjos has any reason to be, finishing in the top 10 in home runs 6 different seasons despite maxing out at 21 (it was the WWII era, and the balls were mushy). He was good if a bit average-challenged (.228) at age 25, the Yankees acquired and suppressed him at 26, then from 27-32 he made two All-Star teams, got MVP votes in two other years, and was regularly among the league leaders in homers, RBIs, and stolen bases. Good player.

Other guys on this list: Kevin McReynolds was actually a very gifted outfielder, and his hitting stats were close to Pete's even if his physical body type and speed weren't quite there. Mike Cameron has a bigger take on Pete's Daddy Longlegs vibe, but with more walks. Tony Gonzales was a lousy centerfielder and more of a batting average guy, but he had excellent speed and gap power. Adolfo Phillips was an interesting power/speed/strikeouts guy (he once whiffed 9 consecutive times), who weirdly broke down at age 27. Billy Virdon and Gee Walker, white guys with good speed, were more average-dependent contact hitters.

So how did this lot do at age 25? With the exception of Cameron, McReynolds, and Walker, all of whom stumbled momentarily on the way to fine careers, they flat-out punished. Since they all played in significantly different eras, I'll use Baseball Reference's great neutralizing tool to put their performances in the same run-environment and season-length context.

NM   G   PA  AB  R   H  2B 3B HR RBI SB/CS  BB  SO  AVG  OBP  SLG OPS+ oWAR dWAR  WAR K/BB
RL: 153 706 616 102 193 44  7 22 101 46/26  79 147 .313 .394 .515 143  5.5  -1.2  4.3 1.86
JL: 156 639 540  83 148 27  7  5  64 21/9   82  71 .274 .372 .378 108  3.7   2.6  6.3 0.87
VD: 159 658 582  85 140 32  3 16  73 13/?   74 142 .241 .328 .388  96  1.2   1.1  2.3 1.92
KM: 152 623 571  67 139 25  4 16  82  4/0   45  81 .243 .300 .385  85  1.1   0.7  1.8 1.80
MC: 141 439 394  50  81 16  5  8  41 26/11  36 101 .206 .280 .332  63  0.0   1.3  1.3 2.81
TG: 118 489 438  77 133 16  4 20  64 17/8   40  82 .304 .372 .495 134  4.0   0.5  4.5 2.05
AP: 144 548 455  72 127 21  7 18  77 25/10  85  93 .279 .398 .475 120  5.2   1.1  6.3 1.09
BV: 164 663 616  86 203 25 11 11  52  7/8   42  74 .330 .373 .459 118  3.8  -0.6  3.2 1.76
GW: 135 521 504  63 133 29  7  9  60 26/9   15  52 .264 .288 .403  90  0.3  -0.2  0.1 3.47

That'll do, Pete.

You know what really stands out on this list, in addition to just the great numbers (consider that Bill Virdon's .330/.373/.459 line with 25/11/11 extra bases only amounts to the fourth best offensive season here)? The remarkable improvement these 25-year-olds showed in plate discipline. Lankford went from a having a very Bourjosesque age-24 K/BB line (114/41 vs. 124/32) to establishing himself as a consistent top-10 walks guy. Jim Landis and Vince DiMaggio improved their K/BB rates by more than one-third. And Adolfo Phillips made just a stunning leap from a 3.37 K/BB ratio to just 1.09. This suggests to me that there's unusual room to grow in plate discipline if you're a fast up-the-middle guy who just had a pretty good season at age 24.

And in fact Bourjos has been making steady progress along this front, though he is still by far the most K/BB-challenged on his comp list. If you divide his career up into rough thirds (his 2010 callup, the first three months of 2011, the last three months of 2011), you see this progression:

PAs  K/BB 
193: 6.67
290: 4.56
262: 3.19

Basically, Bourjos doubled his walk rate in 2011, while cutting back on strikeouts the last three months, even as he was slugging .493. He'll certainly need to start walking more, but it seems within his grasp.

That said, as we saw in the Trumbo exercise, big mashing 25-year-olds with bad strike-zone judgment tend to develop poorly. Since Bourjos had by far the worst K/BB rate on his comp list (4.32 to Phillips' 3.37), it behooves us to investigate whether a Hatchertastic approach at the plate places a ceiling on the progress of 24-year-old speedsters. So I conducted a new search, this time of players who accomplished the following in their age-24 season: Qualify for the batting title and put up an OPS+ of between 105 and 125 while playing an up-the-middle defensive position. Then, of the 80 players listed there (from Willie Davis' 7.4 WAR to Preston Wilson's 0.4), I sorted out a bottom 10 for worst K/BB ratio.

The bad news: Peter Bourjos is second on the list of worst strikeout/walk ratio among up-the-middle defenders who achieved an OPS+ of between 105-125 at age 24. The good news? The bottom 10 is filled with good and great players. In order of K/BB, they are: Adam Jones, Peter Bourjos, Andre Dawson, Preston Wilson, Juan Uribe, Joe Birmingham, Willie Davis, Matt Kemp, Al Oliver, and Garry Templeton. Here are their raw stats at age 24:

NM   G   PA  AB  R   H  2B 3B HR RBI SB/CS  BB  SO  AVG  OBP  SLG OPS+ oWAR dWAR  WAR K/BB
AJ: 149 621 581  76 165 25  5 19  69  7/7   23 119 .284 .325 .442 108   2.7  0.6  3.3 5.17
PB: 147 552 502  72 136 26 11 12  43 22/9   32 124 .271 .327 .438 115   3.6  1.4  5.0 4.32
AD: 155 684 639  90 176 24 12 25  92 35/10  27 115 .275 .309 .468 111   2.8  0.4  3.2 4.26
PW: 149 543 482  67 135 21  4 26  71 11/4   46 156 .280 .350 .502 119   2.5 -2.1  0.4 3.39
JU: 134 553 502  82 142 31  6 23  74  9/11  32  96 .283 .327 .506 111   3.2  0.5  3.7 3.00
JB: 100 370 343  29  99 10  5  1  38 12/?   19  57 .289 .333 .356 114   1.3  0.0  1.3 3.00
WD: 157 652 613  91 180 23  7 12  77 42/13  22  59 .294 .316 .413 110   4.8  2.8  7.6 2.68
MK: 159 667 606  97 180 25  7 26 101 34/8   52 139 .297 .352 .490 124   5.2  0.6  5.8 2.67
AO: 143 573 529  69 149 31  7 14  64  4/3   27  72 .282 .317 .446 113   2.7  0.2  2.9 2.67
GT: 118 524 504  83 161 19  9  4  43 31/15  18  43 .319 .342 .417 108   3.5  0.8  4.3 2.39

These are fine players, not the kind of development horror stories we found in the Mark Trumbo exercise. Adam Jones hit .280 with 25 HRs this year. Andre Dawson is in the Hall of Fame. Preston Wilson averaged 28 homers and 100 RBI from ages 25-28, but was ultimately done in by injuries. Juan Uribe and ancient Cleveland Naps centerfielder Dode Birmingham are a little WTFy, but even Uribe was a solid player for the Giants from 29-30. Willie Davis was Bill James' #27 all-time CFer. Matt Kemp deserves the NL MVP award this year. Al Oliver finished with 2743 hits and a .303 batting average. Yes, Garry Templeton disappointed, but with all that cocaine and wasted potential he still played 16 seasons and banged out 2096 hits.

Yes, some guys on the broader comp list of 80 who controlled the strike zone better ended up having better careers -- Joe Gordon, Lou Boudreau, Richie Ashburn, Duke Snider, Charlie Gehringer, Carl Yastrzemski, and Cal Ripken are in the Hall of Fame, for example, and Bobby Grich and Barry Larkin deserve to be. But Peter is a respectable 17th on that list in age-24 Wins Above Replacement, and I see no strong reason to suspect anything other than he's going to be a terrific player and fan favorite for the next half-decade at least.

Two other players that randomly remind me a lot of Bourjos but didn't turn up in any of these comp-searches: Garry Maddox and Devon White. Pete would have been a whole lotta fun playing 1970s artificial turf baseball....

This Fan-Post is authored by an independent fan. Tell us what you think and how you feel.

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