Much has been made of late regarding Peter Bourjos’ defense and how much ground he covers in center field. When the Rays met the Angels at a game at Tropicana Field, I made the comment to another writer that I would seriously entertain the thought of Bourjos and Mike Trout manning the gaps and playing a fifth infielder against certain hitters given how much range both guys have. Bourjos’ defense has been on display since he was promoted last season, but the bat has taken some time to get there. Last season, Bourjos struck out 40 times in just 193 plate appearances while walking just six times. The .237 OBP limited his stolen-base opportunities, yet the speedster still swiped 10 bases in 13 attempts. Even with the disappointing callup, Bourjos was a popular speed target in AL-only drafts; he went for $15 in AL Tout Wars, but was not popular enough to escape dollar days in the mixed-league draft.
Bourjos was as fast out of the gate as he is on the field, as he hit .300 with an 851 OPS in the opening month of the season while scoring 10 runs. Unfortunately, he only stole two bases, and a .415 BABIP did not leave much hope for sustainability. In May, it all fell apart as he hit just .176 and saw his OPS drop 320 points, to 531. Owners frustrated with his numbers at the plate likely overlooked the fact Bourjos doubled his stolen-base total, made more contact, and walked more frequently than he had in the previous month. He rewarded those that stuck with him with a .329 average and a 765 OPS in June, but even with a.365 OBP, again stole just two bases. On July 1, the outfielder saw his batting average at just .263, and his OPS below 700 with just eight steals, 30 runs, and 16 runs driven in over 266 at-bats. But since July began, Bourjos has taken on a new identity, one a lot of fantasy players are enjoying.
Heading into Sunday night’s game against the Rangers, Bourjos was hitting .313 since July 1 with a 560 slugging percentage, 10 steals, 27 runs, and 17 runs driven in over just 134 at-bats. Over the past 30 days, Bourjos has the 12th-highest slugging percentage in baseball at .606, which is six points higher than Albert Pujols’ .600 slugging percentage, and 10 points higher than what Matt Kemp has done over the same period of time. Bourjos is a big reason for the Angels’ resurgence in the AL West. However, outside of the changes in his batting average on balls in play, the change in performance does not show up in his peripheral stats.
Last season, Bourjos’ BABIP was a deflated .223 as he struggled to recognize major-league pitching. This year, he enjoys a .345 BABIP. That rate has not been lower than .358 this season except in May, when it was .243. So far, he has doubled his paltry three percent walk rate from last season but is making less contact; 23 percent of his plate appearances result in a strikeout, compared to his 21 percent rate from last season. Bourjos’ strikeout-to-walk ratio is still just 0.24, and that will have to improve if he wants to take full advantage of his speed on the basepaths, as he currently has more walks (30) than stolen bases (28) at the major-league level. As fast as he is, getting on base more often would do his stolen-base totals wonders. In High-A in 2008, Bourjos stole 50 bases despite walking just 19 times, but even as his walk total grew slightly, his stolen-base totals dropped to 32 in 2009 and 27 last season at the minor-league level. That said, he has made improvements within this season; he was striking out 27 percent of the time through the first three months of the season, but has struck out just 21 percent of the time since.
Bourjos’ batted-ball rates over the last two seasons have changed a bit; his line-drive rate is 16 percent this year compared to an unsightly nine percent in 2010, but his overall ground-ball to fly-ball ratio is nearly identical. Yet he is on a power surge in the month of August, as he has hit six of his nine home runs this month. In June and July, not one of Bourjos’ fly balls found its way over the fence; this month, six of the 27 fly balls he has hit have become homers. It has taken him just 92 at-bats to knock his six dingers this month; last year, he hit six jacks in 181 at-bats.
This year, Bourjos has a .277 batting average, 57 runs scored, nine home runs, 33 RBI, and 18 stolen bases in 404 at-bats. Those numbers are less than inspiring, and his recent success may cloud future expectations as owners put the mothballs on their 2011 fantasy season and start looking at 2012. What this hot month could do is help his chances with the crowded 2012 Angels roster.
Kendrys Morales could be back next season if the Angels offer him arbitration as he comes off a serious knee injury. Missing the season should all but guarantee that Morales won’t receive more than $3.5 milion in arbitration, but the Angels would have a roster problem if Morales does return. Mark Trumbo has emerged in his absence, hitting 23 home runs and driving in 71 runs despite hitting just .256. Like Bourjos, Trumbo has not been terribly patient at the plate; his walk-to-strikeout ratio is just 0.23, but his power has been a welcome addition to the offense.
The Angels have three outfielders next year in various declining stages of production. There’s Torii Hunter’s guaranteed contract, Vernon Wells’ bloated deal, and Bobby Abreu’s option, which vested earlier this year. All three have prohibitive salaries, meaning any trade Tony Reagins wants to entertain will involve the Halos eating a large portion of the player’s salary. If the team doesn’t make a move in the outfield, then Bourjos and top prospect Mike Trout are going to struggle to find at-bats in 2012.
As it stands now, the Angels have seven players to fill the three outfield spots, first base, and designated hitter role. Abreu would almost certainly have to return as the DH given his issues in the field, giving the Angels a four-man outfield of Hunter, Wells, and Bourjos. Trout could return to the minors to start the year, and if the Angels retain Morales, Trumbo could also be out in the cold.
Bourjos’ defense is the difference-maker here, as he provides a talent none of the Angels’ other major-league outfielders can provide. However, his offensive production has to become more consistent for him to become someone AL-only owners pay double-digits for, or for larger mixed leagues to entertain drafting in the later rounds. Additionally, what Reagins does or does not do with the roster in the offseason will have an effect on the playing time Bourjos gets next season.