Fantasy owners tend to give good hitters on bad teams short shrift, and that was certainly the case for Justin Bour this spring. Even though he was coming off a breakout season in which he batted .289 with 25 home runs and 83 RBI in 429 plate appearances, Bour fell to the late rounds in many leagues, lagging behind the less accomplished Greg Bird and Josh Bell in ADP.
Two-and-a-half months into the season, the Marlins first baseman seems to be validating owners’ fears. He ranks 29th in a largely-disappointing pool of first basemen in terms of Roto value (per ESPN’s Player Rater). Bour is batting just .242, and despite posting a .375 OBP, he has scored just 24 runs. With 10 home runs and 27 RBI in 253 plate appearances, he is well behind last season’s pace for both stats. It’s little wonder he is widely available in 12-team mixed leagues.
The Marlins rank dead last in wOBA (.288), and they have scored only twice more than the Orioles, who rank last in runs. The narrative that the Marlins are to blame for Bour’s woes is perfectly neat and convenient. With a lackluster lineup around him, he does not seem to have the same opportunity to produce runs. Last season, he typically batted fifth, right behind Giancarlo Stanton, Christian Yelich and Marcell Ozuna. With all of them gone, it would seem unlikely that Bour could drive in runs anywhere near last season’s pace. Pitchers also don’t appear to have much of an incentive to give him anything good to hit.
The problem with this narrative is that the data don’t bear it out. Even though Bour is seeing a slightly lower proportion of pitches in the strike zone (39.2 percent, as compared to 41.6 percent in 2017), his batted ball profile is nearly identical to the one he assembled last year. His flyball and pull rates have remained steady, and he is hitting flyballs nearly as far as he did last season, as his average flyball distance has dipped only from 335 to 333 feet. His average exit velocity on flies and liners has actually ticked upward from 95.3 to 96.1 mph.
Given that Bour is hitting with as much power as he did a year ago and making contact at a similar rate, it’s no surprise that his xwOBA of .378 nearly matches last season’s mark of .380 (per Statcast). There is no shortage of reasons to distrust his .346 wOBA, which falls 28 points short of his 2017 mark.
It is even more enticing to blame Bour’s sagging RBI total on his teammates, but that explanation doesn’t hold up either. While the Marlins are a bottom-rung team offensively, the batters he has hit behind are not bad at getting on base. Bour typically bats in the cleanup spot, and the Marlins’ No. 2 hitters (revolving mostly between J.T. Realmuto, Derek Dietrich, Martin Prado and Miguel Rojas) collectively rank 16th in OBP among all major league teams, and in his 46 games as the No. 3 hitter, Starlin Castro has a respectable .338 OBP.
A better explanation lies in Bour’s .148 batting average (8 for 54) with runners in scoring position. One would figure he should at least match his overall batting average in those situations, but over the prior three seasons, Bour was notably better when there were runners in scoring position than not. Between 2015 and 2017, he hit .272 overall, but with runners in scoring position, he batted .302. The graph below includes all batters that are qualified for 2015 through 2018, and of those 74 hitters, none has seen a larger negative discrepancy between his batting average with runners in scoring position and his overall batting average so far in 2018.
It’s more than reasonable to expect that, even if Bour does not improve his overall batting average, he should hit much better with runners in scoring position going forward. It would be an upset, then, if he does not pick up his RBI pace.
The two things that are most noticeably different for Bour this year are his popup and swing rates. In 2017, just 12.2 percent of his batted balls were popups (per xStats.org), but so far in 2018, that rate is up to 17.1 percent. That provides at least a partial explanation for why his batting average is down. Bour has been far more selective at the plate with a 37.7 percent swing rate that is down seven percentage points from last year. He has been taking more pitches both in and out of the strike zone. If Bour does not cut down on popups, he may not approach his 2017 batting average, but barring some regression in his plate discipline, he should continue to compensate for that with a higher walk rate and possibly a higher OBP.
A bad team can have an impact on a good player, but sometimes the impact can be overblown. (Remember the Great Freddie Freeman Panic of 2016?) Bour may be as available as he is in fantasy leagues because of the stigma of being a Marlin. If he is on waivers in any mixed league with at least 12 teams, you could benefit from changing that. If he is owned in your league, now is a good time to make an offer.
Note: All Statcast data are from Baseball Savant.
Al Melchior has been writing about Fantasy baseball and sim games since 2000, and his work has appeared at CBSSports.com, BaseballHQ, Ron Shandler's Baseball Forecaster and FanRagSports. He has also participated in Tout Wars' mixed auction league since 2013. You can follow Al on Twitter @almelchiorbb and find more of his work at almelchior.com.