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Why You Should Appreciate Michael Bourn's Defense

Michael Bourn is really, really, really, ridiculously good at playing defense.

Only seven players in Astros history have won Gold Gloves, since the award debuted back in 1957. Of those six, only four of them have won multiple awards.

Michael Bourn hopes to bring that second number up to five on Wednesday, when the 2010 Gold Glove Awards are announced. Bourn won last season and should win again. It's Tuesday as I write this, and I'm so confident he'll take home his second award, I'm going to act like he has.

You know why I'm so confident? Because Michael Bourn is a special defensive player. I don't really care all that much about the Gold Gloves, not when players like Rafael Palmeiro can win one despite only playing 15 games at the position. You shouldn't judge how good a player is defensively on how many awards he wins. Judge him on how good he is.

That's where Bourn becomes special. Unlike Adam Everett, a player who was equally excellent defensively and who never won a Gold Glove, Bourn has the inside track on another honor this winter. That's because it's much easier to win your second award than a first. But, as I said, it doesn't really matter what he wins or doesn't win this year. What matters is that you recognize how great Bourn is.

It may seem like I'm harping on that, but let's run through the numbers.

Bourn has the highest UZR of any center fielder in the major leagues and the third-highest among outfielders in the National League. According to FanGraphs, his UZR (Ultimate Zone Rating) is 17.6, which is higher than notables like Ichiro, Josh Hamilton, Franklin Gutierrez, Jason Heyward and miles above 2009 Gold Glovers Shane Victorino and Matt Kemp. Of course, when dealing with defensive stats, there are more questions than something like on-base percentage. UZR still has some year-to-year fluctuation, so many stat-heads aren't quite sure whether it's totally legitimate. That's why FanGraphs uses it, while Baseball-Reference uses an entirely different system.

In Baseball-Reference's system (Total Zone), Bourn had more runs than any other fielder in the National League...by 10 runs. What's really unique is looking at where BR rates Bourn so highly. He's clearly better in plays made in the outfield, but what's interesting is it lists him as being the fifth best fielder in outfield arm (baserunning kills, holding the runner). I don't really think of Bourn as having a cannon out there, but he's been very, very good at doing just that.

Okay, so you're not a big egghead and think those stats may be wrong. Let's talk about something simple. This year, Michael Bourn helped the Astros post below average numbers for doubles and triples hit up the middle. Those are pretty pedestrian stats, right? But let's take that a step further. In one of the biggest center fields in the majors, Bourn managed to allow slightly fewer extra-base hits despite having more room to roam. Anecdotally, how many times can you remember Bourn going back into that deep right-field corner by the bullpen and still coming down with the catch?

As with most players, it's hard to separate Bourn's defensive contributions from his hitting. When it's good, like in 2009, he can be the best player on the team. When he's bad, like in 2008, he can turn into a laughing stock of the league. That's a little unfair, though. Bourn is such an asset without ever hitting the ball that you can trot him out there and know he's going to save enough runs in the field to make up for sub-par batting. Same goes for his baserunning, which is a definite plus to his value. The trouble is that it's hard for fans to focus on those two things when his batting average dips down below .260 with little power and too many strikeouts.

That's why I wanted to emphasize why Bourn deserves to be lauded for his defense. He recently won the Fielding Bible Award for best center fielder and they do not differentiate between leagues. On a team with a better offense, Bourn would be a Cesar Geronimo-type star. On this team, he's unfairly burdened by carrying the weight of the offense, but I hope that doesn't lessen how good he really is in the minds of fans.

Images by eflon used in background images under a Creative Commons license. Thank you.