During the 2014-2015 offseason, I had the opportunity to contribute to the 2015 Baseball Prospectus Annual and, as such, spent a huge amount of time studying the Miami Marlins. My research led me to an interesting pair of players: Justin Bour and Mark Canha. Both of these players were guys on the very fringes of prospectdom — first basemen who were too old to really be considered prospects, and guys who'd not had runaway success in the minors.
With the Marlins bringing in Michael Morse in the offseason, it seemed a remote possibility that both of these players would be held on the 40-man roster coming into 2015. The Marlins were going to have to choose between the two, as at most one would be part of the team's plan going forward. Sure enough, Canha was left unprotected in the Rule 5 Draft, and snapped up by Oakland through Colorado. At least one of Bour and Canha looked likely to see playing time in the big leagues in 2015.
It turned out that Michael Morse was a bit of a disaster in Miami, so Justin Bour stepped into the starting first baseman role early in the season. Canha, meanwhile, saw regular time in Oakland for a good but also not-good Athletics team.
Now, we're getting stories about how Bour is one of the few bright spots on a disappointing Marlins team. Meanwhile, Canha has been mostly forgotten as the season's rolled on.
Coming into this week's action, here are their respective lines:
data from FanGraphs
So what's your initial thought? First, it's probably that I'm a dolt. That's fair. Bour has out-performed Canha with the lumber, and rather decisively. While Canha's gotten more chances, and looked epic at the beginning of the season, Bour has come on strong to finish the season. Where I was skeptical that Bour's game-power would emerge, he's already passed his season-high for professional homers ... and against the toughest pitchers on the planet. He's proven over a reasonably large sample that he can hit MLB pitching.
Canha has done the same, just on a smaller level. Instead of being solidly above-average, like Bour, he's been merely about average. Of course, about average is not what you look for from a first baseman / corner outfielder. In 2015, first basemen have an wRC+ of 116, about 16% better than the league average. Left fielders (the other position Canha has split time at) have run a 101 wRC+. Either way, Canha has hardly been a disappointment — if you're free, it's tough to be too disappointing — but he hasn't exactly set the world on fire either.
So if you were going to make one player your starting first baseman in 2016, which would you choose? You'd choose the guy who has proven his offensive capability first, right? Right.
Except ... maybe not.
Justin Bour has had unmistakably better hitting performance so far, but here's another quick table for you.
data from FanGraphs, Baseball-Reference, and Baseball Prospectus
So yeah, there's the anagram salad for you. We've got that wRC+ -- the offensive measure -- but now we're tossing in baserunning (BsR), defense (UZR and DRS), and three flavors of wins above replacement. What does that tell us?
Well, for starters, it tells us that Justin Bour is a terrible baserunner. Per the BsR metric, Bour has cost himself and his team about half a win ... just by being slow / bad. Canha, on the other hand, he's not so bad. He's actually been a positive contributor on the base paths. All told, it adds up to about a seven-run swing between the two players.
Defense is a little trickier. It's well-established that defensive range metrics like UZR and DRS aren't the most reliable in one-year samples, but this is the best information we've got. Neither Bour nor Canha have stellar defensive reputations, but the data we have shows that Bour is a bad defensive first baseman, while Canha is about an average fielder at both first and in left field. Oh, and he also did emergency duty at third base for a couple innings, which gave him a little UZR padding.
After taking into account various hitting, running, defense, and positional adjustment metrics, the three major flavors of WARP tell us that there's between half a win and a win difference between Canha and Bour ... and it leans in favor of the less-effective hitter. Bour may have been the better hitter in 2015, but Canha was, probably, the more valuable player. Now, of course, the different versions of WAR have error bars, and Canha's been a bit of an outlier in 2015. Justin Bour has struggled a bit in very limited action against lefties in 2015. His 68 wRC+ tells us that he, like many left-handers, may have some trouble with southpaws. Canha, on the other hand, has shown a rare reverse platoon split this season. Like Bour, he's struggled against lefties and hit the stuffing out of right-handers ... and he's done it in 308 PA. Canha hasn't gotten the same benefit Bour has in hitting the preferred pitchers.
The reverse split doesn't necessarily mean anything other than it's something that could be a good sign if he were to get a regular job. Canha may not need to be a platoon player ... perhaps he's capable of being a full-timer. If his reverse platoon split is real, which it almost certainly isn't, he could be the type of rare bird that throws off opposing managers. If not, he's already a pretty decent player who can do the little things that offset his inferior overall hitting profile.
So the million dollar question is this: did the Marlins make the right decision in placing their bets on Bour over Canha? Well, right now it's hard to tell. We need more time to think about it. If Canha and Bour proceed along this path, perhaps the Marlins did themselves a slight disservice in abandoning the more versatile, broader talent base for the more powerful hitter. Me, I'd probably still prefer Canha to Bour. The one decision that we can pass judgement on today though: Either would have been a better choice than adding Michael Morse.
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Bryan Grosnick is the Lead Writer for Beyond the Box Score and a columnist for Baseball Prospectus - Boston. Here are the comments for the two players from the 2015 Baseball Prospectus Annual:
"Not to be confused with Justin Bohn, Justin Bour is a low-ceiling first base prospect without much power. He is unlikely to make an impact with the big-league Marlins."
"Too old to be a prospect, and without loud tools, the only thing that Mark Canha brings to the table is consistent above-average performance as a hitter at every minor-league stop. That was enough to get him to Oakland in the Rule 5 draft."