Bear with us for a couple of paragraphs, and we’ll get where you want us to go. It seems to us, then, that there are three levels of fandom when it comes to individual players. The first, often atavistic one, is by virtue of those players’ affiliation with a favorite team. Thus, for example: we grew up near New York City, and happened to attain baseball consciousness at exactly the time that the Yankees were the only game in town—Dodgers and Giants gone, Mets yet unborn. We are accordingly lifelong Yankee fans. We recognize the pathetic, Seinfeldian rooting-for-laundry dimension of this. But we were with them throughout the years in the wilderness with Horace Clarke and the decades with the repellent George Steinbrenner in charge, so we’re not getting off the bus now, when they are a good team run and populated mostly by people who appear to be mature, sane, intelligent, and self-effacing.
Then, of course, there is fandom born of an individual’s sublime or commanding on-field performance, or his outstanding human decency, or occasionally both, regardless of what team he’s on. We’re no particular fans of the Braves, but we used to watch their games just to admire Dave Justice’s swing, which would be in the Baseball Louvre if there were such a thing. And we’ve rooted for Bartolo Colon continuously for nigh unto 20 years, ever since his one-hit, 11-strikeout shutout of our beloved Yankees on September 18, 2000—the single most dominating pitching performance we’ve ever witnessed. And we will root for Curtis Granderson no matter what team he’s on.
Finally, there is Fantasy fandom—the affection one feels for a player when his stats help you succeed at Fantasy baseball, and especially when it’s someone you like that no one else does, and especially, as we can attest, when you envision the player’s success before it happens and tell the world about it. As we’ve mentioned before, we think the only sane way to play competitive fantasy baseball is to regard the players—for this purpose only—as packages of stats with proper names affixed to them. If you are, say, a Red Sox fan who categorically refuses to draft Yankees, or someone who just can’t stand, for example—to name a guy that nobody can’t stand in order to avoid controversy—Mike Trout, and therefore won’t draft him with the first pick, you probably won’t do well.
Which brings us to the package of stats affixed to the name Justin Bour. We’re not fans of any of the teams he’s played or will play for. We wouldn’t know him if he walked in our front door. He has looked like a generic plodding left-handed slugger the few times we’ve seen him play. (He does seem like a good enough guy from what little we’ve read about him.) But we’ve liked Bour, or Bour’s stats, since we wrote about him four years ago, on the occasion of his taking over the Marlins’ first base job. And we like him, or them, again this season.
We concede that there are many reasons not to like Bour now. After three pretty good seasons with the Marlins in 2015-2017, he had a 2018 that, by comparison, makes Maroon Five at the Super Bowl look like a triumph. He hit .227/.347/.412, which includes a catastrophic .190/.275/.362 second half, which in turn includes an awful sojourn with the Phillies after being traded in August for a minor leaguer you’ve never heard of. That awfulness in Philadelphia—which should have been a home run paradise for Bour–is only partly attributable to an oblique injury he suffered in late August, and the Phillies thought so little of him that they didn’t tender him a contract and put him on waivers after the season. His average fly ball distance has declined for two consecutive years. He turns 31 in May—an age at which many slow-moving sluggers move swiftly towards the exit. Moreover, you have to wonder whether his power has been neutralized somewhat by the shift. He entered the league as a dead pull hitter, and now he’s one of the more shifted-against batters in MLB. It looks like the league has taken to pitching him outside and daring him to hit to the opposite field. Plus, he may not play. He signed with the Angels in the off-season. If Shohei Otani comes back—we’re not so sure he will any time soon—he’ll be the full-time DH, and Bour will have to share first base with white elephant Albert Pujols, who may not cotton to being the short side of a platoon.
But we’re still card-carrying members of the Bour fan club. First of all, the guy is a legitimate power hitter. Marlins Park is a very tough place to hit home runs in, and over the years Bour has hit way more than anyone else. He’s hit 45 home runs in 738 at bats—a 16.4 AB/HR rate that would put him in the MLB top 20 most years. Last year, despite his other misfortunes, he was still good at in Miami: 11 home runs in 184 at bats. By comparison, other left-handed AL East power hitters look like wimps in Miami: Bryce Harper, 26.7 AB/HR; Freddie Freeman, 28.9 AB/HR. Christian Yelich, who played for Miami for five seasons and who we now know has plenty of power himself, managed only 66.3 HR/AB.
And now Bour has found his way to a ballpark that plays directly to his strength. There is a high right-field wall in Angels Stadium, and last season, in a wiffle-ballish move, the Angels lowered the home-run line from the top of the wall—in other words, a home run as the civilized world understands the term—to 10 feet below the top of the wall. With a single paint stripe, they thus transformed the stadium from a park that suppresses left-handed power (by about 10% from 2015 to 2017, according to Bill James) to one that enhances it—by about 34%, says James, the most in the majors. In other words, if you’re a left-handed power hitter, you’d rather be there than Coors, Yankee Stadium, Great American, Miller Park, or anywhere else.
To see what the effect of Anaheim might be on Bour, let’s take a look at what it did for another left-handed power hitter. That would be Kole Calhoun, Angels’ right fielder since 2013. Like Bour, he frequently faces the shift. Superficially, it doesn’t look like Anaheim did much for Calhoun. In 2017, he hit 8 home runs in 279 at bats at Anaheim. In 2018, it was 9 home runs in 253 at bats. But when you unpack those numbers a bit, they get more interesting: 3 for 128 in the first half, 6 for 125 in the second. And when you look at them against the shift, they get more interesting still. In the first half of the season at home against the shift, Calhoun pulled the ball 37% of the time and hit a fly ball 27.2% of the time, producing a beyond-anemic Isolated Power rate of .025. In the second half, his pull rate was 51.3%, his fly ball rate was 36.8%, and his Isolated Power was .118. That ISO number still sounds kind of anemic, but it’s comparable to those of Freeman, Mookie Betts, and Rhys Hoskins against the shift over the same time. There’s a reason these guys don’t like the shift.
We hear Calhoun’s numbers telling us a story, and the story they’re telling is: if you’re a left-handed power hitter in Anaheim and you’re shifted against, don’t worry overmuch about beating it. Swing for the fences, and be confident you’ll hit them fairly often. It took Calhoun half a season to figure that out, and now Bour presumably knows it from the git-go.
We admit that there’s a leak in our argument: Bour didn’t do any better hitting home runs on the road than he did in Miami, and in parks that favor left-handed power, he did rather worse. Nonetheless, we’re aware of no idiosyncracy of design or anemology in Marlins Park that would explain how Bour managed to out-homer Harper, Freeman, and the rest of the left-handed world there for four seasons. So we are proceeding on the assumption that, for Bour, there’s no place like home, and Anaheim is home for him now.
So if we’re right, what might you get from Bour? Ariel Cohen’s ATC projections have him batting .250 with 19 home runs in 368 AB/427 PA; for THE BAT, it’s .251/22/364/418. The batting average seems about right, and the home runs are about right if you don’t buy what we’re selling. We wonder if the plate appearances might be a little low, considering the iffiness of Ohtani’s shoulder and the problems with using Pujos at first base (his glove makes Bour afield look like Keith Hernandez). Bour could easily get 400 at bats, and a guy who hit as many home runs in Miami as Bour did could hit 25 or even 30 playing for the Angels if that’s what he’s trying to do most of the time. Plus, if he bats cleanup, which is where Roster Resource has him, he’ll have Mike Trout and Justin Upton batting ahead of him, so the RBIs should come. All in all, a guy we’d be happy to get for $1 at auction, or to draft long before his NFBC Average Draft Position of 434 suggests we should.
The Birchwood Brothers are two guys with the improbable surname of Smirlock. Michael, the younger brother, brings his skills as a former Professor of Economics to bear on baseball statistics. Dan, the older brother, brings his skills as a former college English professor and recently-retired lawyer to bear on his brother's delphic mutterings. They seek to delight and instruct. They tweet when the spirit moves them @birchwoodbroth2.