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Marlins unsung hero Justin Bour's evolving approach is keeping team in playoff race

While Justin Bour has mostly hit against right-handed pitching, his terrific performance is too hard to ignore.

Steve Mitchell-USA TODAY Sports

Justin Bour looks like a baseball player out of a movie. At 6’3", 265 pounds, Bour has the appearance of someone who can crush baseballs with his bare hands. More specifically, Bour crushes baseballs thrown out of the hands of right-handed pitchers.

Over the course of the 2016 season, the Marlins have used Bour selectively. As one might expect for a lefty power-hitting first baseman, he fares much better against right-handed pitching than he does against left. However, Bour has done so much damage against right-handed pitching that it cannot be ignored on a league-wide level. He has been a major cog on a Marlins team that has been battling to stay afloat halfway through the NL Wild Card chase.

The success he’s had could warrant a greater role in the future beyond that of a platoon player. To demonstrate the kind of first-rate production he’s put up, lets analyze a couple of blind resumes.

Player 1

Season

PA

HR

OBP

SLG

OPS

WOBA

WRC+

2016

242

15

0.347

0.526

0.873

0.364

127

Player 2

Season

PA

HR

OBP

SLG

OPS

wOBA

wRC+

2016

361

21

0.343

0.493

0.836

0.354

119

Player 1 is Justin Bour, who has been able to mash in the five-hole for the Marlins in a pitcher's park. Player 2 is Chris Davis, who is a few months removed from signing a new seven-year contract for $161 million (including some deferred money). Bour, a former Rule-Five pick plucked out of the Cubs system by Miami, has had his share of struggles. He’s been a below average defender his whole career. He struggles so much against lefties that Miami has decided that he simply won’t face them. What is so impressive, however, is that in Bour’s limited time he has absolutely mashed.

Of all the the first basemen in the Majors with at least 225 plate appearances, Bour’s 127 wRC+ is tied for 10th! He’s doing all of that with only the 26th highest BABIP on that list, so he’s not getting much help from bloopers and broken bats. What we’ve seen out of him has been hard hit and impressive.

Digging deeper, we’ve seen a 73-point increase in his OPS from .800 in 2015 to .873 in 2016. The OPS increase is even more impressive given that Bour has seen a 21-point drop in his BABIP from 2015 to this season! Beyond that, the changes have been dramatic across the board:

2015

2016

BB%

7.6

11.2

K%

22.6

19.0

Hard%

33.7

37.9

Soft%

19.1

16.0

He’s hitting the ball harder, walking more, and striking out less. All of this is happening while facing a slightly lower percentage of left-handers as he did last season. In 2015, 17 percent of his plate appearances came against lefties; that number has dropped to 9 percent in 2016.

One part of Bour’s game that also has vastly improved has been his ability to go the other way. He’s performed in a way that doesn’t make him an easy victim of the shift, especially rare in today’s game for a left-handed power hitter.

Pull%

Center%

Oppo%

2015

44.0

36.2

19.7

2016

42.6

29.6

27.8

It’s curious to see that while Bour is pulling the ball at about the same rate as last year, he has seen a substantial shift in the percentage of balls hit move from center field to left field. He’s giving himself more time to recognize pitches and is not trying to yank pitches into right field. This newfound patience has allowed him to drive balls into the opposite field. In 2015, Bour hit only four home runs to left or left-center field. In 2016, Bour has already hit five in half the plate appearances.


Source: FanGraphs

You can see that Bour has already plastered more balls to the opposite field in 2016 than he did in 2015. He’s hit two homers in almost exactly the same spot in 2016 (which is why it seems like there are only four dots). The ball is getting deeper on him, and he’s doing just what he needs to continue being a threat for the Marlins.

Moving forward, Bour is providing a middle-of-the-order presence that the Marlins have sorely needed, especially with the June struggles of Giancarlo Stanton. The team is built on the production of their position players, leaving very little room for error. As the rotation has struggled behind Jose Fernandez and Adam Conley, the position players have had to carry the load for a team battling to stay afloat against the likes of the defending NL Champs in New York and the Nationals in DC.

It gets only harder from here for Miami, as their rotation has produced a measly 1.2 WAR behind Jose Fernandez and Adam Conley. Even with Bour, Stanton, and Marcell Ozuna, the Marlins rank 28th in the Majors in home runs with only 76. Bour has just been placed on the 15-day disabled list with an ankle sprain, and he’ll be sorely missed as the team finishes up the first half in the midst of their first competitive summer since 2010.