Continuing our 2016 evaluation series, today we have first baseman Justin Bour. Much like the circumstances that lead to J.T. Realmuto taking over at catcher, Bour took over the full-time gig at first base in 2015 after injury and ineffectiveness brought about an unceremonious end to the Mike Morse era.
Bour showed a good amount of pop in 2015, blasting 23 home runs (with a robust ISO of .218) in 446 plate appearances to go along with a .262/.321/.479 slash line. He graded out rather poorly on the defensive side with a DEF of -12.9, dragging his overall fWAR down to a mere .4 above replacement level. The offense was good enough to convince the Marlins to give him the lion’s share of reps at first base in 2016, with the hope that another season working with vaunted infield coach Perry Hill would have a positive impact on his glove and footwork.
The Marlins convinced themselves based upon 80 relatively poor plate appearances between ‘14-’15 and Bour’s minor league history that he would need a right-handed platoon partner in 2016, so they went out and got Chris Johnson for the role. Bour did nothing to dissuade that notion in the small sample size of 30 appearances against left-handed pitchers this past season.
The front office must’ve been pleased with the initial results from Bour. Between April 5th and July 2nd, Bour would put up a .268/.347/.526 slash line, bashing 15 home runs with a .258 ISO. His walk rate of 11.2% (11.8 by season’s end) and K rate of 19.0% (17.4 by season’s end) were marked improvements over the 2015 numbers (7.6% walk rate and 22.6%, respectively). He was getting on base more, striking out less, and appeared on his way to a classic 30 home run first baseman type season.
That, as we now know, was not to be.
On July 2nd, Justin Bour would injure his left ankle after fielding a grounder and running toward the bag, slipping awkwardly just before tapping the base. What many of us at the time thought would be a short, 15 day DL stint with a mild ankle injury turned into a 60 day DL stay with the dreaded high ankle sprain diagnosis that saw Bour miss 57 games. He would log 79 further plate appearances between his return on September 6th and the end of the season on October 2nd, not really appearing entirely comfortable up at the plate as he didn’t hit a single home run after coming off the DL. He would finish his season with 1.3 fWAR, an improvement over the previous season (taking into considersation, of course, the 100 or so less plate appearances).
There is no doubt that the team missed Bour’s presence in the lineup immensely. His primary replacements, Chris Johnson, and later, Xavier Scruggs, would both fail to contribute a wRC+ of above 64 (100 is league average, so in essence, each was almost 40% below the offensive output of what you would expect of an average contributor). We wont even bother to go over Don Kelly’s numbers. For reference, Justin Bour’s final wRC+ was 116. The team went 26-33 in his absence, which also coincided with Giancarlo Stanton’s own lengthy DL stay. If one is compiling reasons as to why the Marlins failed to reach the playoffs last year, missing those two during this stretch would be chief amongst them.
Looking at the defensive side of things for Bour is an interesting case study on first basemen in general. Only two first basemen with at least 300 PA last season logged a positive DEF (Travis Shaw and David Freese); Justin Bour was third on the list with the first negative contribution, -3.3 DEF. The two gold glove winners, Mitch Moreland and Anthony Rizzo, came up with -3.4 and -5.8, respectively. This should tell you two things: Voters are still reliant on errors and fielding percentage to make their choices, and organizations are not prioritizing a still evolving understanding of first base defense over the ability to smash a baseball.
First base has long been a position where organizations look to place either an aging player or a perceived defensive liability who they’d like to keep in the lineup because of his bat. I don’t believe Bour is either of those, necessarily, but it’s clear that the Marlins will keep handing him a paycheck for his ability to smack bombs moreso than incremental improvement in the field. That being said, I think the Marlins have to be pleased as there is, at a minimum, a suggestion in the raw numbers that Bour’s work with Hill is paying off.
The ability of Justin Bour to stay on the field in 2017 will be critical to the Marlins success going forward. If he can manage to log 500+ PA, we might be able to expect both good things from him and the Fish.