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Arbitration Files: Justin Bour

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The Big Man’s got to make the donuts!

Atlanta Braves v Miami Marlins Photo by Mike Ehrmann/Getty Images

If you didn’t know, I am currently a law student at Florida State University College of Law. In January, I will be on a team of three members traveling to Tulane University, to compete in the 11th Annual MLB Arbitration Competition. As the name presents, the competition calls on teams from law schools across the nation to write briefs on behalf of real MLB players, eligible for arbitration this year.

As the competition chair of our school’s Entertainment and Sports Law Society, I had the privilege of selecting my two other team members for the competition. For most clubs, when selecting the team, there is either an oral tryout or a write-on; for our team, I elected to hold a write-on competition. Students interested in making the team had a week to write a 10 page-or-less brief explaining either a team’s case or a player’s case in an arbitration hearing. From there, my co-competition chair and I would judge the papers, and select the best ones for the team.

Because I had the power to make the prompt about whatever I wanted, I obviously picked one of my favorite players from the Marlins, Justin Bour. Coming into 2018, Justin Bour will be arbitration eligible for the first time. Bour made just $552,000 in 2017 while having a career year. After doing some preliminary research, I found on MLB Trade Rumors that Bour’s projected arbitration salary was $3.5 million. I then crafted the prompt around that information, making $3.5 million the midpoint. Students had two options. They could either:

A. Represent Justin Bour as his agent. In the hypothetical, Bour asks for $3.75 million from the Marlins. When the Marlins decline, the case goes to arbitration.

B. Represent the Marlins’ general counsel. In the hypothetical, Mr. Jeter tells you that he wants to cut the Marlins payroll down, and thus, instructs you to submit an offer of $3.25 million to Bour. Although Bour is grateful for the opportunity, he declines, and the case goes to arbitration.

The prompt was sent out last week, and today the submissions were collected. Meanwhile, in the interest of fairness, I wanted to take my own crack at the prompt. Doing mock arbitration cases (on a much less formal level) was an idea for articles that I wanted to save for later in the offseason. Instead of projecting on potential arbitration cases like I did for the prompt, I wanted to wait until January, when offers will be tendered and the disagreeing parties will actually submit their figures for arbitration. Anyway, I still wanted to share my attempt with you. I take the player’s side; role-playing as Justin Bour’s agent, I argue why he should receive an award above the midpoint — his request of $3.75 million. Enjoy! And feel free to submit your input in the comments — especially if you are a lawyer reading this...legal writing advice is always welcome.


I. Introduction and Request for Hearing Decision

Justin Bour (“Bour”) is a left-handed swinging, right-handed throwing first baseman, currently coming off of his third season with Miami Marlins (the “Club” or “Marlins”). Bour made his major league debut in 2014 with the Marlins. Prior to the 2016 season, the 6’3” twenty-nine year old fell just short of being arbitration eligible under the Super Two rule. Since his debut, he has played in 366 games; 108 in the 2017 season.

This year, having accrued more than three years of Major League Service, pursuant to ARTICLE VI.E.(1)(a) of the MLB Collective Bargaining agreement, Justin Bour is currently arbitration eligible. In December, Justin Bour received an contract offer for a one year salary of $3.25 million. Although he expressed his gratitude for the chance to play again for the Marlins, Bour implored us – his agency – represent him in arbitration.

It is our position that for the 2018 year, Justin Bour should earn a salary of $3.75 million. Despite having missed up to 54 games in the previous season, Bour proved his worth as a bona fide, power hitting, full-time first baseman. A number of reasons can be asserted to substantiate this conclusion: (1) Bour hit well against lefties in 2017, eliminating his stigma as a “platoon first baseman;” and (2) Despite his limited time, Bour accrued reputable offensive numbers among first basemen in 2017.

II. Player’s performance in the past season

In every sense of the word, Justin Bour had a breakout year in 2017. Though he essentially played in just half a season – 77 of his 108 games played were in the first half – Bour ultimately racked up full-season statistics that ranked high among those of other first basemen who received much more playing time.

Table 1: Justin Bour’s 2017 Stats

Player Games PA OBP SLG wOBA wRC+ Offensive Runs Above Average Defensive Runs Above Average Wins Above Replacement
Player Games PA OBP SLG wOBA wRC+ Offensive Runs Above Average Defensive Runs Above Average Wins Above Replacement
Justin Bour 108 429 0.366 0.536 0.374 133 13.5 -5.3 2.2
Average* 141.2 572.5 0.351 0.487 0.353 118.4 N/a N/a N/a
Rank* 33rd 33rd 9th 8th 9th 9th 18th 6th 18th
*average and rank taken from all first basemen with 400+ plate appearances (34)

Among the thirty-four first basemen who accrued 400 or more plate appearances, despite having played in 32 fewer games than average, Justin Bour amassed above-average numbers and cracked the top-ten in all but one significant offensive categories. Bour managed to get on-base more than average without sacrificing any of his power numbers. His 2017 totals for on-base percentage, slugging percentage, and home runs all constituted career bests, even beating his 2015 marks, when he played in 21 more games and hit two fewer home runs. Bour also eclipsed his previous career high Isolated Power Average – Slugging Percentage, without crediting value for singles – with an ISO of .247 in 2017.

Weighted on-base average (“wOBA”) is a newer statistic that functions much like slugging percentage; it takes mathematically precise values for all possible batting outcomes, multiplies the amount of times a player achieved said outcomes, divides that value by plate appearances to get an average, and then scales it down to a batting average scale, so that it can be evaluated similarly to batting average. Thus, it values every single event that a player has at the plate before averaging it down to an easily perceptible scale. Bour’s wOBA this year was another career-high: .374, good for over 20 points above the MLB average wOBA, and 3rd highest on the team, trailing just Giancarlo Stanton and Marcell Ozuna, (both of whom also had career years.)

Weighted Runs Created (“wRC”) uses the wOBA statistic, to show exactly how many runs a player created over the course of a season. In 2017, Bour created 72 runs, best for sixth on the Marlins. When wRC is adjusted for park factors and league factors, it becomes the incredibly useful statistic Weighted Runs Created Plus (“wRC+”). For wRC+, 100 is the average, and any value above or below stands for how much better (above 100) or worse (below 100) a player created runs, compared to their league average counterpart. Justin Bour’s wRC+ of 133 in 2017 signifies that Bour created runs for the Marlins 33% better than the National League Average hitter did. Amongst all 34 first basemen with at least 400 plate appearances in Major League Baseball, Bour’s wRC+ ranks 9th best. Among his team, his wRC+ ranked 3rd best, again behind only Stanton and Ozuna.

Ultimately, all of Bour’s collective hitting and base running events can be tallied up in order to derive his Total Offensive value; as shown in the chart, Bour was worth about 13.5 runs more to the Marlins than the MLB average hitter. Similarly, a first baseman’s defensive efforts, in light of his playmaking ability and adjusting for his position, can be collapsed into one value depicting how many runs he was worth on defense to the team, compared to a league average defender. Here, although Bour effectively cost the Marlins 5.3 runs with his defense, it’s worth noticing that among all MLB first basemen with 400+ plate appearances, Bour’s defensive value of -5.3 still ranks sixth best. Finally, after adding up his offensive and defensive contributions, sabermetricians can then calculate a player’s total value – his Wins Above Replacement (“WAR”). Bour’s WAR of 2.2 translates into the notion that if Bour were unable to play, and was replaced with the most minimally serviceable first baseman — one worth 0 WAR — the Marlins would have theoretically lost 2 extra games. Thus, Bour was worth 2 wins to the Marlins.

Today, 1 point of WAR costs approximately $8-9 million. In the ascribed 2017 season, Bour was contracted to a one-year, pre-arbitration contract with a base salary of $552,000. Using the conservative end of said dollars-per-war metric at $8 million, Justin Bour had a salaried obligation to produce a WAR of .07 for the Marlins. Because he attained a WAR of 2.2, at the price of his contract, Bour was worth about $17,048,000 in surplus value, thanks to the extra WAR that he accrued. While it is concededly outlandish to assert that a pre-arbitration player such as Bour should make $17 million in a season, it is impossible to ignore the conclusion that Bour more than greatly exceeded his obligations to the team, and thus, should be compensated accordingly with his next contract.

III. Bour’s Performance Against Left-Handed Pitchers in 2017

Throughout his career, Justin Bour has been limited in his exposure to left-handed pitching. As a left-handed hitter, it has been posited in the past that Bour hits at a deficit against left-handed pitchers compared to right-handed pitchers. As such, given right-handed hitting first base options such as Tyler Moore, Chris Johnson, Miguel Rojas, Mike Morse, and Casey McGehee, Marlins manager historically have been hesitant to put Bour in the lineup at the cost of a matchup disadvantage. In 2015, his second-busiest season, Bour saw 371 plate appearances against righties and 75 against lefties; a ratio of almost 5:1. However, in 2017, his exposure to lefties was increased; appearing 331 times before righties, and 98 times against lefties at a ratio closer to 3.5:1. In 2017, Bour was given the challenge of taking an increased workload against lefties; by almost all metrics, Bour rose to that challenge.

Table 2: Justin Bour’s Splits from the 2015 and 2017 Seasons

Matchup PA OBP SLG OPS ISO wOBA wRC+
Matchup PA OBP SLG OPS ISO wOBA wRC+
2015 v. RHP 371 0.326 0.519 0.845 0.249 0.359 131
2015 v. LHP 75 0.293 0.279 0.573 0.059 0.261 63
2017 v. RHP 290 0.378 0.552 0.929 0.252 0.384 139
2017 v. LHP 98 0.327 0.483 0.809 0.230 0.342 112

An inescapable conclusion is that in the past, Bour did struggle with hitting against lefties. However, it is now evident that Bour has adapted to hitting lefties, and is more than apt to be a serviceable, full-time first baseman, rather than a platoon option.

In 2017, whereas Bour amassed a .300 batting average against righties, he only batted .253 against lefties. However, Bour’s batting average splits are not truly indicative of his improvement against lefties; more comprehensive stats better show said trend.

Bour’s on-base percentage of .327 against left-handed pitching was better than league average in 2017 (.324). Bour’s slugging percentage of .483 against left-handed pitching was much better than league average in 2017 (.426).

Bour’s numbers against lefties in 2017 also eclipsed league averages in ISO (.171), wOBA (.321), and wRC+ (97). Recall that wRC+ gives us a league and park factored statistic that indicates batting performance relative to the average hitter. In 2015, Justin Bour certainly suffered a massive disadvantage against left-handed pitching; his wRC+ of 63 signifies that he created runs against left-handed pitching at a rate of 37% worse than the average hitter. In 2015, managers may have been justified in platooning Bour with a right-handed hitter.

However, Bour’s wRC+ of 112 relates that in 2017, Bour actually produced runs at a rate of 12% better than average. Clearly, Bour made the necessary adjustments in 2017 to allow him to hit against both types of pitchers: righties and lefties. Although he clearly still favors right-handed pitching, all players today favor one side over the other. The bottom line is that because Bour is no longer a total liability against lefties, he demands a heavier workload as a full-time, everyday player, and further, he deserves the salary of a full-time player to accompany said workload.

IV. Bour’s First-Half Performance

As previously mentioned, Bour’s breakout year in 2017 was unfortunately severely hampered by an injury in the second half of the season. Just after the All-Star Game, Bour suffered an oblique injury that knocked him out of most of the second half. However, before the All-Star break, Justin Bour had already set his sights on a career year.

Table 3: Justin Bour’s First-Half Stats

Player All-Star? PA OBP SLG OPS HR wOBA wRC+ Offensive Runs Above Average WAR
Player All-Star? PA OBP SLG OPS HR wOBA wRC+ Offensive Runs Above Average WAR
Justin Bour No* 305 0.367 0.556 0.923 20 0.382 138 11.6 1.8
Justin Smoak Yes* 333 0.360 0.575 0.935 23 0.390 145 16.5 2.3
Yonder Alonso Yes 298 0.372 0.562 0.934 20 0.388 146 15.7 1.9
Ryan Zimmerman Yes 324 0.373 0.596 0.969 19 0.402 148 21 2.3
Paul Goldschmidt Yes 381 0.428 0.577 1.005 16 0.417 153 27.9 3.6
Joey Votto Yes 384 0.427 0.631 1.058 26 0.432 167 27.9 3.7
*Selected for All-Star Game Final Vote competition    

As apparent from the table, Justin Bour arguably had an all-star caliber first half in 2017. Although it is concededly more difficult to compare him to the likes of Ryan Zimmerman, Paul Goldschmidt, and Joey Votto, Bour did have very similar numbers to both AL All-Star first basemen Yonder Alonso and Justin Smoak. Bour was not necessarily a snub from the game; he was given a chance to make the roster via the Final Vote. However, Bour’s numbers in the first-half were certainly comparable to those of some of the best first basemen in the game

Bour hit 20 home runs in the first-half; once again, only Giancarlo Stanton and Marcell Ozuna hit more for the Marlins in the same time. With that said, Stanton went on to hit 59 home runs, while Ozuna reached 37. Because of his injury-riddled second half, Bour only went on to hit 5 more home runs. However, it is reasonable to believe that a healthy Bour may have hit anywhere from 30-40 home runs by the end of 2017 as well.

Out of 31 first basemen with 250 or more plate appearances, Bour’s wRC+ of 138 ranked 10th best in the first-half over names such as Anthony Rizzo, Jose Abreu, Eric Hosmer, Yulieski Gurriel, and Wil Myers. On the Marlins, Bour’s first-half wRC+ trailed Marcell Ozuna by just 2 points, and Giancarlo Stanton by just 7. That means that All-Stars Giancarlo Stanton and Marcell Ozuna only created 7% and 2% more runs, respectively, than Justin Bour in the first-half of 2017.

Injuries are part of the sport for every player, and perhaps especially so for 6’3”, 265 pound first basemen like Bour. However, Bour will be entering his third full season in 2018. He has notched more than 100 games in a season twice now, and has learned how to maintain his body over the course of a season. To say that the possibility of injuries is a bygone would be unreasonable; however, assuming that he could stay healthy for a full season, Bour could pose a serious threat as a middle of the order bat for the Marlins. As we have repeatedly asserted, despite the fact that he missed out on 30-40 additional starts in 2017, Bour still managed to set a number of career bests. Bour showed what he was in the first half – it’s not hard to imagine what Bour could have been over the course of the rest of the season. Because he showed that he has what it takes to hit with the best in the game, he deserves compensation based on the merits of his potential to be a legitimate, middle of the order, power threat and run producer.

V. Player Comparisons

1. Justin Bour v. Ike Davis (1B, NYM/OAK)

Justin Bour v. Ike Davis

Player Platform Year Platform Year Age Subsequent Salary G PA OBP SLG OPS 2B HR wOBA wRC+ OFF DEF WAR
Player Platform Year Platform Year Age Subsequent Salary G PA OBP SLG OPS 2B HR wOBA wRC+ OFF DEF WAR
Ike Davis 2014 27 (2015) $3.8 million 143 427 0.344 0.378 0.722 19 11 0.324 109 1.9 -10.6 0.4
MLST: 4.155 Pre-Platform (2010-2013) 442 1711 0.342 0.445 0.787 81 67 0.342 117.8 18.8 -23.2 5
Justin Bour 2017 29 (2018) Asking for $3.75 million 108 429 0.366 0.536 0.902 18 25 0.374 133 13.5 -5.3 2.2
MLST: 3.064 Pre-Platform (2014-2016) 258 850 0.344 0.440 0.784 35 39 0.337 114.3 9.1 -17 1.9

In 2014, Ike Davis started the season with the New York Mets before being traded to the Oakland Athletics. Davis had a reputable platform year with both teams, with average-to-above-average numbers in on-base percentage, wOBA, and wRC+. Davis also proved his value in his pre-platform years, when he exhibited impressive power numbers and increased consistency at the plate. Pre-platform, Davis slugged .445, averaging 15-20 home runs per season.

Despite the drop-off in performance from pre-platform to 2014, Davis nonetheless avoided arbitration and was awarded a 1-year, $3.8 million contract. The contract demand that we are making for our client, Bour, is almost identical to that of Davis’ contract for the 2015 season. Yet, Bour’s numbers in his platform year are vastly more impressive than Davis’ were in his. In his platform year, Bour played in 35 fewer games than Davis, but still beat him in every significant statistic except for doubles. An argument can definitely be made for Davis – as well as many other first basemen mentioned in this brief – that his longer career and consistent track-record play a role in meriting his pay, even taking into account his rather lackluster platform numbers. Still, it is our opinion that whatever concerns about durability exist can be overcome by Bour’s drastic outperformance of Davis in order to justify him receiving a contract similar to that of Davis.

2. Justin Bour v. Justin Smoak (1B/DH, TOR)

Justin Bour v. Justin Smoak

Player Platform Year Platform Year Age Subsequent Salary G PA OBP SLG OPS 2B HR wOBA wRC+ OFF DEF WAR
Player Platform Year Platform Year Age Subsequent Salary G PA OBP SLG OPS 2B HR wOBA wRC+ OFF DEF WAR
Justin Smoak 2015 28 (2016) $3.9 million 132 328 0.299 0.470 0.769 16 18 0.331 108 -0.7 -4.1 0.6
MLST: 5.077 Pre-Platform (2011-2014) 566 2218 0.306 0.376 0.682 84 64 0.303 91.8 -35.9 -41.6 -0.3
Justin Bour 2017 29 (2018) Asking for $3.75 million 108 429 0.366 0.536 0.902 18 25 0.374 133 13.5 -5.3 2.2
MLST: 3.064 Pre-Platform (2014-2016) 258 850 0.344 0.440 0.784 35 39 0.337 114.3 9.1 -17 1.9

Justin Smoak represents a more severe case of the same issue identified in Ike Davis’ comparison. Smoak, a journeyman first baseman who started his career with the Texas Rangers, accrued an MLB service time of 5.077 years before reaching his platform years. While it could be said that Davis maintained a modicum of success and consistency in his pre-platform years, it is harder to say the same for Justin Smoak; from 2011-2014, Smoak hit and fielded at a deficit, ultimately yielding a negative WAR (-0.3). His wRC+ for those years show that he created offense at a rate close to 10% worse than average hitters.

Unlike Davis, Smoak revitalized his career in his platform year, improving across the board in all offensive metrics, and making it into the black in WAR. As a result, the following year with Toronto, Smoak managed to avoid arbitration, and accepted a 1-year offer worth $3.9 million.

With that said, Smoak’s platform numbers still come nowhere close to Bour’s platform statistics. Once again, Bour wins this comparison in platform years in every significant offensive metric. The only comparison that we would concede to draw between Smoak and Bour is a potential career path. Although Smoak greatly underperformed in 2016, he broke out in his age 30 season in 2017, setting all new offensive high-watermarks and making it into the All-Star Game. Although, as aforementioned, Bour has already had a breakout season, we do not believe that Bour has “jumped the shark” yet. We are confident that given a full season’s work, Bour can produce another All-Star caliber season, just as Smoak did in 2017.

3. Justin Bour v. Yonder Alonso (1B/DH, OAK/SEA)

Justin Bour v. Yonder Alonso

Player Platform Year Platform Year Age Subsequent Salary G PA OBP SLG OPS 2B HR wOBA wRC+ OFF DEF WAR
Player Platform Year Platform Year Age Subsequent Salary G PA OBP SLG OPS 2B HR wOBA wRC+ OFF DEF WAR
Yonder Alonso 2016 29 $4 million 156 532 0.316 0.367 0.683 34 7 0.299 87 -11.5 -11 -0.5
MLST: 4.116 Pre-Platform (2010-2015) 508 1811 0.323 0.393 0.716 93 32 0.314 98.8 2.9 -22.6 3.8
Justin Bour 2017 29 (2018) Asking for $3.75 million 108 429 0.366 0.536 0.902 18 25 0.374 133 13.5 -5.3 2.2
MLST: 3.064 Pre-Platform (2014-2016) 258 850 0.344 0.440 0.784 35 39 0.337 114.3 9.1 -17 1.9

Yonder Alonso represents perhaps the best case why Justin Bour would be justified in receiving his desired $3.75 million for 1-year. Relative to Bour, Alonso is almost the same age, and has played for approximately one year longer. Alonso lacks the track record that Ike Davis and Justin Smoak boasted. Despite having six pre-platform seasons to draw upon, Alonso played in less than 50 games in two seasons, and less than 105 in three others; hence the lack of service time.

Coming into 2015, Alonso avoided arbitration and accepted a 1-year deal worth $1.65 million with the San Diego Padres. He had one of his best years ever, tying his career-high for WAR, and producing offensively (.361 OBP, .381 SLG, .327 wOBA, 110 wRC+). The Padres would go on to trade Alonso to the Oakland Athletics in December. As a reward for his above-average year, Alonso again avoided arbitration, and received a 1-year deal worth $2.65 million for 2016.

In 2016, Alonso would go on to have one of his worst seasons ever. Although he hit a lot of doubles, his wRC+ plummeted to 13% below average, and he ended up costing his team 11.5 runs on offense. He finished with a WAR of -0.5. As his platform year, how would that affect his contract for 2017? Alonso was again rewarded with a raise, up to $4 million. Comparing Bour and Alonso’s platform years here is an exercise in logic. Despite the fact that, according to wRC+, Bour in his platform year created runs at an incredible rate or 46% better than Alonso did in his, we are still asking for $250,000 less than what Alonso made after his platform year. Once again, the only comparison that we would hang our hat on is that Alonso luckily had a career year in 2017, setting offensive career-bests, and in hindsight justifying his worth. If such a gamble can be made on such an unimpressive platform as Alonso’s, a fraction of the same gamble can justifiably be made on Justin Bour’s far more proven foundation.

VI. Concluding remarks

In his short time in the Major Leagues, Justin Bour has shown his extremely high ceiling. Whereas the mammoth first-baseman may have once had a number of holes in his game, he has made efficient adjustments and has adapted to the Major League level in both hitting and fielding. In the past, his compensation may have been justified based on perceived notions of inconsistency, such as his ability to stay healthy, or his serviceability as a full-time first baseman. Certainly, Bour has his shortcomings, just like many other players. However, given his value when compared to his peers, his ability to hit both righties and lefties, and what we have seen Bour do in a limited sample like his 2017 season, there is reason to believe that Bour has not hit his high ceiling yet. His compensation should both evince his potential, and reward him for his contributions; an award above the midpoint would do just that.


Statistics courtesy of Fangraphs.com and Baseball-Reference.com

Contract information courtesy of Spotrac.com and Cot’s Contracts by Baseball Prospectus