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Justin Bour: Building Block

The big lefty should be a part of the Marlins roster for the long haul.

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MLB: Pittsburgh Pirates at Miami Marlins Jasen Vinlove-USA TODAY Sports

*All stats updated entering May 22

When Derek Jeter and company transitioned into the front office, one thing was clear: the Marlins were going to rebuild. The roster purge began last winter. Giancarlo Stanton? Gone. Marcell Ozuna? Adiós. Christian Yelich? See ya later.

Another loss Monday night dropped the team’s current record to 17-30, 9 12 games back of the nearest National League postseason spot. There are no delusions about contending in 2018, so it’s time to start considering which of the remaining veterans might draw interest at the upcoming trade deadline.

One of those candidates to be traded this summer is first baseman Justin Bour.

On the surface, Bour’s 2018 numbers to date are impressive with a slash line of .243/.398/.471 and team-leading run production (9 HR and 23 RBI). But a deep dive into the numbers and the adjustments responsible for them demonstrate why the Marlins would be wise to hold onto Bour going forward.

Miami Marlins v Chicago Cubs Photo by Jon Durr/Getty Images

Bour primarily bats from the cleanup spot in the lineup, ideal for knocking in runs. But here’s the thing about him in 2018: he’s also drawing walks, and a lot of them.

Last week, Bour explained his new approach (h/t Matthew DeFranks, Sun Sentinel):

“You have to go out there with your approach and have a plan every day,” Bour said. “If that means you walk one day, and you don’t the next day, that’s just the way it goes. It’s not like I’m going to go out there looking to walk or looking to not walk.”

So if Bour’s not “looking to walk” more often, then why is his walk rate up to a staggering 20.5 percent? On a team that is without the services of aforementioned stars Stanton, Ozuna and Yelich, wouldn’t we expect a dip in production?

Manager Don Mattingly offered up a hypothesis:

“He’s the one truly, truly dangerous guy that you feel can hit the ball out of the ballpark at any moment,” Mattingly said. “With Andy behind him this year, they’re probably going to make Andy swing the bat. I think he’s been up to that challenge of driving in runs. So I think you’ll probably see it a little bit less.”

To Mattingly, it seems that opposing pitchers are making rookie Brian Anderson—a good hitter, but not a significant threat to leave the yard at this point in his career—drive in runners. Bour is being pitched around and not trying to do too much.

Fortunately, thanks to FanGraphs, we can quantify this trend:

Justin Bour Plate Discipline, 2014-2018

Year Plate Appearances O-Swing % Z-Swing % Swing % O-Contact % Z-Contact % Contact %
Year Plate Appearances O-Swing % Z-Swing % Swing % O-Contact % Z-Contact % Contact %
2014 83 31.9 % 79.5 % 50.2 % 64.6 % 82.2 % 75.3 %
2015 446 33.7 % 65.8 % 45.5 % 68.1 % 81.6 % 75.3 %
2016 321 31.1 % 63.4 % 44.1 % 66.2 % 85.9 % 77.6 %
2017 429 32.4 % 62.0 % 44.7 % 60.9 % 83.6 % 74.0 %
2018 171 22.8 % 53.0 % 34.9 % 63.3 % 85.4 % 76.7 %
Courtesy of Fangraphs

A quick breakdown of the terminology: O-Swing % and O-Contact % are the percentage of pitches a batter swings at outside the strike zone and the percentage of pitches a batter makes contact with outside the strike zone when swinging. On the contrary, Z-Swing % and Z-Contact % are the percentage of pitches a batter swings at inside the strike zone and the percentage of pitches a batter makes contact with when swinging inside the zone.

In 2018, Bour is swinging at pitches that are out of the strike zone way less frequently than he has in his career to date. His overall swing percentage is down significantly, too (34.9 Swing % this season compared to career 43.9 Swing % ). This has been a key to Bour getting on base at a higher clip, creating opportunities for teammates to hit with runners on base. Even when the Marlins don’t convert, he is forcing pitchers into high-stress situations, which is exactly what you want your best players to do.

Bour’s improved ability to draw walks has him in elite company:

When actually getting something to hit, Bour often sends the ball over the fence. Through 47 Marlins games, he has nine home runs. Extrapolating that rate over the course of the entire season, he would finish with 30-plus bombs for the first time in his career.

Moving on to the business side of this equation, Bour is in his first arbitration year and making a modest $3.4 million this season. He’ll have two more arbitration years in 2019 and 2020 before becoming a free agent if the Marlins do not extend his contract. Turning 30 next week, Bour would be set to hit free agency at 32 years old, not exactly the ideal scenario for an offense-only first baseman.

Meanwhile, the Marlins don’t have an obvious replacement lined up. MLB Pipeline’s Top 30 prospect list for their farm system includes a grand total of zero first basemen. Names like Sean Reynolds, Lazaro Alonso, John Silviano, and Eric Gutierrez all come with age- or performance-related concerns. It would be premature to speculate on who the free-agent alternatives might be that winter.

Big leaguers are hitting more home runs than ever before, depressing the market value for somebody with Bour’s limited skill set. I mean, Logan Morrison hit 38 home runs last year and had to settle for a $6.5 million contract that only maxes out at $16 million over two seasons if he meets certain incentives. It’s a frustrating time to be a one-dimensional slugger.

Potential landing spots for Bour this July like the Rockies, Mets, Dodgers and Brewers probably consider him a fallback option behind Jose Abreu of the White Sox. Would the Marlins be satisfied with a couple of top 30 organizational prospects and a lottery ticket or two as the return package?

Don’t discount Bour’s intangibles, either. Regardless of what happens at the plate on any given day, he connects with fans off the field, as this AP report describes (h/t FOX Sports Florida):

Marlins fans respond to Bour. At no point was that more evident than last Friday, when Miami invited the baseball and softball teams from Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School, site of the Feb. 14 school shooting in nearby Parkland, to Roger Dean Stadium.

The high school players swarmed Bour, who did his best to accommodate any request.

Bour appeared on live Snapchat posts with the baseball players. He gave away one of his gloves. He hosted an impromptu trivia contest, rewarding high schoolers who answer his questions correctly with bats.

“That’s the family of baseball,” Bour said. “We’re all here for each other. It doesn’t matter what level, we’re always going to take care of each other.”

Miami should retain Bour’s services, both for 2018 and for the long term. Things can change if a trade market were to develop and intensify, but not only is Bour a good great ball player and building block, but he’s a glimmer of hope in the Marlins community for these rebuild years. If that’s not enough, look at this stroke...

Fish Stripes original GIF