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The Michael Bourn Dilemma, as viewed through the Buster Olney Rule

January 28, 2013

So, like many other Mets fans recently, I’ve been contemplating the ramifications of the Mets (hypothetically) signing Michael Bourn to a $15M contract. Some pros and cons …

At first I was against it because he’s 30 and I was under the impression that speed guys age badly because guys age 30 or older are rarely ranked towards the top of stolen base leaders. However, I found evidence compiled by Jeff Zimmerman sayingthat the WAR of speed guys actually retains good value post-30: So I was thinking, “Maybe signing this guy isn’t that bad an idea.”

I made a full swing in favor of it after seeing that Fangraphs says he’s been worth ~$22M/yr for the last four years and even in the worst of those years (2010 & 2011) he was still worth over $18M.

However, I think I’ve finally settled on giving a thumbs-down to the possibility because of what I call the “Buster Olney Rule.” Last winter, while Olney was answering a mailbag question, I stumbled across this:

From the mailbag

Note: I wrote the other day that, generally speaking, spending 15 percent of your payroll on one player is probably something teams would shy away from.

Q: The 15% rule is a good one, Buster, but it’s not enough. The real rules are: no one player more than 15%; no two more than 25%, no three more than 33%, no four more than 40% and no six more than 50%. It’s how you go about constructing a roster.

Greg, L.A.

A: Greg: Generally speaking, I’d bet there are a whole lot of general managers who agree with you.

So let’s take a look at a hypothetical roster using math that conforms to ~$112M payroll, the average 2012 playoff payroll (via Cot’s):

player #1 $16.80 1 only $16.80 15.00% $112.00
player #2 $11.20 1 to 2 $28.00 25.00% $112.00
player #3 $9.33 1 to 3 $37.33 33.33% $112.00
player #4 $7.47 1 to 4 $44.80 40.00% $112.00
player #5 $5.60 1 to 5 $50.40 skip skip
player #6 $5.60 1 to 6 $56.00 50.00% $112.00

Now let’s also take a look at a hypothetical payroll using math that stays at the $189M luxury tax threshold:

player #1 $28.35 1 only $28.35 15.00% $189.00
player #2 $18.90 1 to 2 $47.25 25.00% $189.00
player #3 $15.75 1 to 3 $63.00 33.33% $189.00
player #4 $12.60 1 to 4 $75.60 40.00% $189.00
player #5 $9.45 1 to 5 $85.05 skip skip
player #6 $9.45 1 to 6 $94.50 50.00% $189.00

Under either scenario, that puts a $15M player as one of the top two or three best-paid players on any roster you could devise using the Olney Rule. And whether he’s worth it or not, I don’t believe that a player who brings so little to the table offensively deserves to be such a centerpiece of your organization. I have to imagine that an all-glove/no-hit center fielder could be had for millions less than what Bourn is asking for. Final Verdict: Please Do Not Sign Michael Bourn, Mr. Alderson.

EXCITING POST-SCRIPT (Jan 31, 2013 @ 9:54pm):

The more I thought about it, I wasn’t getting on board with how the math worked on the Olney Rule so I crunched a bunch of numbers myself. Using all 2012 payrolls from Cot’s, I found that the average MLB payroll of $98.1M has 63% of its payroll allotted to its six top-paid players, which would be about $13M more for those guys combined than the Olney Rule allows for. So I was right to think that the math didn’t add up. I don’t quite have the time to draw many concrete conclusions yet but at first glance I can still say this: all signs I see point to only having two or three guys on your payroll making $15M or more. So if Bourn’s asking price is still $15M then I’m still not a fan of having him tie up a top-3 payroll spot. You can see the math I’ve worked out so far here:


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  1. Fink permalink

    wouldn’t bourn be the 3rd guy? i believe only wright and johan are making over $15.

  2. These calculations are all great and useful but it’s a bit of empty math. Everything has to be taken within context, based on a team’s needs. If your roster is filled with great young players who are under team control (ala 2009 Rays for example) then you can afford to have several non-cornerstone guys earning a higher percentage of the payroll – if that fills out your team nicely.

    If you’re building a fantasy league team or a team with nothing but free agents, this strategy is perfect. Otherwise, you have to evaluate the players on your current roster, your most glaring needs, and your payroll flexibility. In the Mets’ case, a good defensive center fielder, a leadoff hitter, and a legitimate stolen base threat are 3 things that the Mets don’t have and desperately need. So, in that context, Bourne is a perfect fit (ofcourse at a reasonable length and dollars).

    • True, but your example is rare. The Rays had ten straight years of picking 8th overall or better, including getting to pick Longoria and Price 1st overall in back-to-back years. Most teams, the Mets included, never get to stockpile their minors for such a long stretch. Also keep in mind that over the course of a certain number of years, your lower players will move up the scale. Ike Davis will probably be making ~$15M in 2016 and Wright will be making $20M. So if Bourn signs even a 4-year deal but at ~$15M, there’s no room on the payroll for another middle-of-the-order bat or an ace free-agent pitcher. So the real question is this: is Michael Bourn so good and such a safe bet that he’ll be more useful in 2016 than a power hitter or stud pitcher? I’m leaning towards “no” but I’m not drawing a line in the sand over it.

  3. Garrett permalink

    Or, you know, we can hope that by 2016 the Mets are capable of spending money like a New York team should be capable of doing, and floating right up along that 189 million mark.

    • Good point. However, even those teams only dish out $15M+ contracts to five players at most. If you had a blank slate that allowed you to have David Wright, Ike Davis, and even three more (for argument’s sake) $15M+ players, do you take Bourn? A speed-and-defense player with poor plate discipline on the wrong side of 30 gets one of your coveted spots? I’d lean towards no, myself, and use that spot for a more sure bet.

  4. cpins permalink

    Defensive runs prevented are no less valuable than offensive runs created. Plus Bourn is not a terrible offensive player. His 2012 wOBA of .326 and RC+ of 104 would have been 3rd in both categories among 2012 Mets with 400+ PA’s. Behind Wright & Ike but ahead of Murphy, Duda, Tejada & Torres. Of course Murphy & Duda gave back a substantial amount of their offensive value when playing the field. I’m not suggesting Bourn is the right move but panning him because of his offense/defense balance seems misguided and is not really based in facts – he was a slightly above average hitter last season.

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