- Buster Olney, Senior Writer, ESPN Insider
It was as if Michael Bourn had been staring at the same math equation for months, knowing that the answer was right there in front of him. His batting average at the All-Star break in 2008 was .218, and he was more perplexed than overwhelmed. Bourn was clearly seeing all the two-seam fastballs being thrown to him. He knew exactly what he wanted to do with them, exactly what he should do with them, as a left-handed hitter -- smack them to left field, or through the middle.
But Bourn kept topping the ball to the right side of the infield, kept making outs. "I didn't know what it was that was making me do that," Bourn said Friday afternoon, remembering the worst days of his career.
He would find his solution, however, by quilting together pieces of advice and by making a commitment that was unusual for a major league player, and this week, Bourn was rewarded for his problem-solving.
He was one of three National League outfielders awarded Gold Gloves. History will tell you that position players almost never win this honor unless they can become at least passable hitters, and in 2009 Bourn was more than that, accumulating 42 extra-base hits and 131 singles, stealing 61 bases and scoring 97 runs. He became what Houston general manager Ed Wade envisioned he would be when he traded Brad Lidge for Bourn after the 2007 season.
Success like that seemed far off in the summer of 2008, however. Bourn was a childhood friend of Carl Crawford, and as Little Leaguers they had chatted about playing major league baseball, about playing in the World Series. They shared that dream, and an ambitious work ethic. In the middle of the 2008 season, Bourn raised the idea of playing winter ball with the Astros, because he felt he just needed more at-bats, more reps, to work through the problem he was feeling in his swing.
"I just hadn't had a chance to play that much," Bourn said. "I was a backup with the Phillies [in 2007], and I hadn't had a lot of at-bats."
Before joining Aguilas in winter ball, in the Dominican Republic, he started to unravel the puzzle of his swing. Besides pulling ground balls to the right side of the infield, Bourn also was hitting the ball off the end of his bat a lot -- clues, he felt, that told him his swing was too quick, and that his bat wasn't in the hitting zone long enough. He liked to watch Lance Berkman and Carlos Lee take batting practice, and he admired how their level swings seem to be pulled through the plate for so long, giving them a greater chance for better contact. Bourn's swing, on the other hand, was just too quick, which is why he kept hitting harmless grounders to second base.
Late in the 2008 season, Astros coach Dave Clark gave Bourn a suggestion -- Bourn should try hitting with his weight shifted forward at the outset of his swing, rather than with his weight back, on his left hip. Ultimately, Clark said, Bourn would need to get back to hitting with his weight back -- but this change would allow Bourn to focus on how he used his hands in his swing path.
Imagine swinging a Wiffle ball bat with your hands only, and without shifting your weight from your back hip to your front hip; this is what Clark did in September of 2008. And he could feel, in his swing, a solution evolving. He began to hit the ball to the left side of the infield, or through the middle.
The progress continued in winter ball, and in spring training, Berkman suggested to him that he should work off a tee daily, develop a routine in which he practiced his level swing path, using his hands and the shift of his weight in concert.
And in spring training, Bourn noticed the foul balls he was hitting were going into the stands along the third-base line. A good thing, he felt.
"What this told me was that I was doing better at letting the ball get deeper in the strike zone," Bourn said. "I was a little behind the ball, and all I needed to do was to be a little quicker."
This was one of the first signs of progress Bourn would see in 2009, the early indication that his numbers would go up dramatically. His OPS would rise from .588 in 2008 to .738 last season, and he will continue to work this winter.
After the Gold Glove announcement was made, Bourn got a congratulatory text message from another Gold Glover, a former teammate -- Jimmy Rollins. Carl Crawford called him without knowing about the award, and Bourn gave him the news. "That's tight right there," Crawford said, happily. "That's tremendous."
Bourn epitomizes the story of a hometown kid who made good, writes Jerome Solomon.
More on the Astros: There appears to be an excellent chance that Jason Castro will be the Astros' every-day catcher at some point next season. Some observations from one talent evaluator: "He's pretty clean defensively. I think he's going to be a lot like [A.J.] Pierzynski -- he's aggressive at the plate, and he'll hit .280 with 15-20 homers. He's really gotten better."
On Friday, I posted an item from Brent Mayne in which he mentioned a situation years ago when he caught a pitcher without giving signs. This story prompted an e-mail from Mayne's former teammate, Dave Howard.
"Just read your Mayne segment of the article about signs. The whole time I'm reading it, I'm thinking about the time I was playing SS and he was catching and the pitchers just threw whatever they wanted with NO SIGNS! Then I get to the end of the segment and he mentions it.
"It was unreal when he did it!! They lit our pitcher up for like four or five runs in the first and we thought we heard some whistling from their dugout. So Brent tells the pitcher "throw whatever and I'll catch it! The pitcher does and doesn't give up another hit for the next four innings, and Brent doesn't miss a ball and really never even flinched on one! ... Our pitcher was Doug Linton, who had like five different pitches, making what Brent did even more impressive."
So I e-mailed Mayne for more details, and he sent along a link to a blog he had written about the full story.
"It was 1994 if I'm not mistaken, the year Jacobs Field opened in Cleveland. Anyway, I was with the Royals and we're playing the first game of a three game series. It's the bottom of the first and before you know it, we're down like 8 zip ... and we only have one out. I remember Doug Linton was pitching and taking a beating. Our manager, Bob Boone, had been out to the mound a couple times, baffled by the fact (as we all were) that the Indians were coming out of their shoes on every single pitch thrown -- like they knew what was coming.
"They obviously had the signs, but how? Was the first or third base coaches picking them from me or Linton? Was the on-deck hitter relaying them to the hitter? Were the runners on base seeing something? We were baffled, and nothing we tried remedied the predicament. It was to the point where I needed to put some cotton in my ears to muffle the deafening crack of the bat as the Indians came unglued.
"So somehow we limp out of the inning and make it back to the dugout. Boone's going nuts and the pitching coach is going nuts ... basically the ship has taken on some serious water and nobody has a clue how to plug the hole. At this point it occurs to me that the game, even though we're only in the top of the second, is basically over. With that in mind, I approached Linton (who surprisingly is still pitching) and tell him just to throw whatever he wants. No signs. What do we have to lose? You throw it and I'll try to deal and catch it.
"And you know what happened? The Indians didn't score another run the rest of the game! We had about 6 different pitchers throw that game, and we didn't use a sign the whole time. They threw it and I tried to catch it. The weird thing was, it really wasn't that hard. Not to pat myself on the back too much (well, alright, maybe I am bragging a bit) but I caught just about everything cleanly.
"I found it much harder to catch a pitch when you've been crossed up. Things can get a little dicey when you're expecting the ball to move a certain way and it goes the opposite, like when you call a curve and the pitcher throws a heater. I wouldn't have wanted to do it every game, but just seeing the ball out of the pitcher's hand and reacting worked for that particular day and effectively stopped the Indians from getting the signs.
"What were they doing? I don't think we'll ever know for sure, but if you want my opinion, I think they had a camera somewhere."
Dings and dents
Brandon Webb is staying full-time in Arizona this offseason and working out at Chase Field, and he threw from 60 feet this week for the first time since his shoulder surgery.
Moves, deals and decisions
1. Heard this: The Angels' last offer to John Lackey was for a $72 million package. The Red Sox are among the teams that have checked on Lackey's availability. The Mets will be serious bidders for Lackey, writes David Lennon.
2. I heard all summer that the Brewers thought Braden Looper did a nice job for them, but let's face it: There are going to be a lot of experienced pitchers available at Looper's price tag, so the Brewers can afford to step back, create some payroll flexibility by declining his option, and leave themselves more room in the immediate future to pursue options like John Lackey. If I were to set an early handicap on the upcoming Lackey sweepstakes, I'd throw out an educated guess on the rankings, from top to bottom, that looks like this:
11dJeff Banister, Special to ESPN.com
12dBrayan Pena, Special to ESPN.com
15dMatt Buschmann, Special to ESPN.com
16dA.J. Ellis, Special for ESPN.com