A brief break from pitcher WAR to talk about free agent center fielders Michael Bourn and BJ Upton, a pair of players some Phillies fans have their sights set on this off-season. Despite their needs in center field, I don’t think the Phils are likely to bring on either player. Just in case, though, I thought it might make sense to look at some of the differences between the two. The highlights:

  • Bourn is left-handed
  • Upton is right-handed
  • Bourn will turn 30 in December
  • Upton turned 28 in August
  • They are very different offensive players — Upton is a low average slugger while Bourn hits for a higher average with less power. Despite the differences in their offensive strengths, though, there is not a huge difference in the amount of offense they have produced over the last four years.
  • Bourn is an outstanding defensive player — in two of the last three seasons, he has been one of the best in the game. Upton is not.

Here’s are the lines for each of them over the last last four seasons, as well as their Baseball-Reference calculated WAR, oWAR and dWAR for each of those years:

Age PA AVG/OBP/SLG WAR oWAR dWAR
Bourn ’12 29 703 274/348/391 6.0 3.2 3.0
Bourn ’11 28 722 294/349/386 3.0 3.2 0.0
Bourn ’10 27 605 265/341/346 5.3 2.1 3.5
Bourn ’09 26 678 285/354/384 4.7 3.5 1.4
Bourn ’09-’12 2708 280/348/378 19.0 12.0 7.9
Upton ’12 27 633 246/298/454 2.6 3.1 -0.2
Upton ’11 26 640 243/331/429 2.8 3.6 -0.4
Upton ’10 25 610 237/322/424 1.0 3.0 -1.6
Upton ’09 24 626 241/313/373 0.8 0.8 0.3
Upton ’09-’12 2509 242/316/420 7.2 10.5 -1.9

Here’s some numbers for the two as calculated by FanGraphs:

Age PA FanGraphs WAR wOBA Innings in CF UZR/150 in CF
Bourn ’12 29 703 6.4 .326 1340.1 22.5
Bourn ’11 28 722 4.1 .325 1359.0 -6.2
Bourn ’10 27 605 4.7 .308 1189.1 20.6
Bourn ’09 26 678 4.9 .330 1326.0 9.9
Upton ’12 27 633 3.3 .323 1254.2 -3.2
Upton ’11 26 640 4.1 .333 1326.1 1.6
Upton ’10 25 610 4.1 .328 1301.2 1.9
Upton ’09 24 626 2.4 .306 1228.2 7.5

If you had asked me who walks more, Bourn or Upton, I would have said Bourn. But I would have been wrong. Upton has walked more over the past four years, walking in about 9.57% of his plate appearances compared to about 9.05% for Bourn. Over their careers, the difference has been even more dramatic. Bourn was walked in about 8.8% of his plate appearances while Upton has walked in about 10.6% of his.

Both of them have a pretty solid walk rate. Across both leagues, hitters walked in about 8.0% of their plate appearances in 2012.

Most people think of Upton as a low on-base percentage guy with good reason. He’s on-based .316 over 2,509 plate appearances over his last four years. It makes it easy to forget he excelled at getting on base earlier in his career — in 2007 and 2008 combined, he on-based .384 over 1,188 plate appearances.

Over the last four years, Bourn has hit for a higher average than Upton and walked less with less power. Bourn has 32 points of on-base percentage on Upton and Upton’s isolated power is eighty points higher than Bourn’s (.178 for Upton and .098 for Bourn).

Bourn’s total oWAR for the last four seasons is 12.0 in 2,708 plate appearances. If you adjust that to give him the same 2,509 plate appearances that Upton has, Bourn comes out at 11.12, a little higher than Upton’s 10.5.

There seems to be a case to be made that Upton has more offensive upside or potential for an explosive offensive season. His career best oWAR is 4.8 in 2007. Bourn has never been above 3.5 (2009). Upton is more than a year younger and has had five seasons with an oWAR better than three. Bourn has posted an oWAR better than three in three seasons.

By wOBA, the two are nearly tied over the past two years, with Bourn up .003 in 2012 and Upton up .008 in 2011. Upton’s wOBA for 2010 was .020 better than Bourn’s and Borun’s .330 in 2009 was .024 better than Upton’s. Over the past three years, two have been near ties and Upton has a sizeable advantage in the other.

But, if you compare their WAR as calculated by Baseball-Reference (bWAR) or FanGraphs (fWAR) over the last four years, it’s not close. Bourn has a huge advantage.

Year bWAR fWAR
2012 Bourn +3.4 Bourn +3.1
2011 Bourn +0.4 Tie
2010 Bourn +4.3 Bourn +0.6
2009 Bourn +3.9 Bourn +2.5

The difference is mostly about defense, not offense. While Bourn and Upton are very different offensive players, the amount of offense they are producing as measured by Baseball-Reference’s oWAR and wOBA are similar.

Bourn is an elite defensive player. Baseball-Reference and FanGraphs agree he was exceptional defensively in both 2010 and 2012. In 2012, his Baseball-Reference calculated dWAR was third-best across both leagues. In 2010 his dWAR of 3.5 was second.

Looking at the dWAR in the top table of the post, Bourn’s cumulative dWAR over the past four years is 7.9 and Upton’s is -1.9.

In 2012, Bourn’s UZR/150 was first among the 24 players who played at least 700 innings in center field. Upton’s was 18th of 24.

In 2010, Bourn’s 20.6 was second of 23 and Upton’s 1.9 was 13th.

Finally, while UZR/150 suggests that Bourn was an elite defender in 2012, Upton’s numbers suggest his defense has taken a dive over the past few years. From 2007 to 2009, Upton’s UZR/150 at center field ranged from 7.0 (2007) to 8.4 (’08). They have been below two every year since 2009, finally going negative in 2012 at -3.2. 2012 was also the third straight season in which Upton had posted a negative dWAR.