Bourn to run: Outfielder defined by need for speed
By Meggie Zahneis
Let's play a little word association game.
I say, "Michael Bourn," you say ...
Speedster? Leadoff? Defense?
All of the above.
Bourn's speed, his ability to lead off, and his deft defensive skills are the key components to the 30-year-old center fielder's game.
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When asked if he had any advice for kids on stealing bases, Michael Bourn had this to say:
"For a kid trying to steal bases, you know, to be honest with you, [I'd just] tell them to try to get a good lead and to try to stay low," he said. :I feel when you're a kid, you just need to play the game, see what comes natural to you. That's the only advice I would give.
"I'm real adamant about [not] giving kids a lot of advice about baseball, because the same things they're teaching kids, they're teaching us [big-leaguers]. I think, as a kid, the game needs to be a game to enjoy. Because once you get to this level you got to do everything a certain kind of way. So when they're young, let them enjoy it."
Bourn would rather kids wait until they get older to learn specifics of their mechanics.
"You know, when you're young most of the things you're doing, you do it naturally," Bourn said. "You know, like natural speed or a natural hitter. Whatever it is that is natural to you. Once you learn the mechanics of it, then you can put that into play. You got a lot of time to learn the mechanics. When you're young, I think you just need to enjoy the game. Have fun. All the other stuff will come later."
Bourn, who at age 30 has two sons of his own, had some sage advice to impart on kids.
"Just enjoy your life and be a kid. I think that's very important," he said. "Being a kid is probably the best part of your life, even though [at the time] you don't know it. But you have no responsibilities, no time [you have] to wake up and go to work. Go to school and enjoy having fun and remember those memories.
"I got a couple of boys. So I know. I see them jumping around and having fun. And I'm like, 'Whoa, I remember those days.' You can't get them back, and you don't know it, but you get to do whatever you want as a kid. The older you get the more responsibility you got. That's just how it is."
-- Meggie Zahneis
"I was fast when I was a little boy, all the way growing up through middle school, high school," Bourn said. "I began to develop it as I got more strength in my body and in my legs. In college, I began lifting weights a lot. That helped me maintain my speed for a long period of time.
"When I turned about 23, I started working on the mechanics of running. I just used to run all wild, just fast. So I started to learn how to get the mechanics of running, and that helped me out."
Indeed, the years 2009 (when Bourn was 26) through '12 were Bourn's best, in terms of stolen bases.
While the mechanics behind Bourn's running are complex, his mindset when stealing a base is anything but.
"[My mindset is] to get to the next base," Bourn said. "It's that simple. I don't like to think too much when I'm stealing. I look at the pitcher to see his pickoff move, and how quick he is to the plate. And if I can get a good jump on him, I'm off and running."
Bourn said that in today's game, speed is value added to a player's contract.
"That's where my income comes from," he said. "When I got to the big leagues, I had to use my legs as my weapon until I could get everything else down. My defense [and] my offense got better as time went on. But my speed is what got everyone to notice me.
"I think that [having a speedy player on the basepaths] puts a lot of pressure on the defense. They have to come up with certain plays, certain throws to keep us from taking an extra base. We like to take an extra base on our team," said Bourn, pointing out that he shares a lineup with fellow speedsters Drew Stubbs, Asdrubal Cabrera and Jason Kipnis.
Bourn has been a mainstay as a leadoff hitter -- on the Astros, Phillies, Braves and now Indians -- but it wasn't always that way.
"I batted third, I was a power man [when I was younger]," Bourn said with a chuckle. "I do like leading off. It's something I've grown accustomed to. I've been doing it since I was in college, though. So I had years of experience there.
"[Batting leadoff in the big leagues] was kind of new to me, because I was around a bunch of veterans when I first come up. You have a lot of veterans in the lineup and you're leading off, they're depending on you. Once I grew accustomed to it, I was fine."
And as far as defense is concerned, it doesn't get much better than Bourn. Whether you're using game highlights or UZR (Ultimate Zone Rating; a sabermetric statistic that FanGraphs.com says measures "defensive contribution in theoretical runs above or below an average fielder at his position in that player's league and year") as your measurement, Bourn is one of the best. In fact, in terms of UZR, Bourn ranked as the best defensive outfielder in baseball last year.
"When I was in the Minor Leagues, I used to shag a lot," Bourn recalled. "I used to take two groups [of BP] out when I was in Class A and Double-A, just to work on the angles of the ball: which way to go to the ball, coming in, going back.
"It's something I just try to work on. Even though I'm 30, I want to get better at it."
Bourn may have been referring to his defensive prowess, but the same could be said of his game on the whole.
Meggie Zahneis, winner of the 2011 Breaking Barriers essay contest, earned the job of youth correspondent for MLB.com in the fall of '11. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.