We’re smack dab in the middle of prospect season. The Red Baron wrapped up his VEB Top Prospects list recently, and Cards fans around the internet are chewing them over. They’re also checking out Top Cardinal prospect lists from Baseball Prospectus, Baseball America, Fangraphs, MinorLeagueball.com and ESPN. Harrison Bader is one common theme among each list. He placed 3rd on the Baron’s list, as well as 8th, 7th, 11th, 3rd, and 5th respectively at the other outlets.
As an outfielder, there’s not really an open spot for Bader right now. The team signed Dexter Fowler to man center-field, and he’ll be flanked by Randal Grichuk and Stephen Piscotty in the corners. Fowler, Grichuk, and Piscotty have five, four, and five years each remaining under team control, so unless one of those three fall off hard, there’s not really an opening on the horizon either.
Of course, players need days off and injuries are always going to happen, and Bader will work himself into playing time that way. If he wants a permanent starting spot though, he’s going to have to out-perform one of the incumbents. Let’s see how Bader performed in 2016, which was his age 22 season:
Bader spent a majority of the year crushing Double-A pitching. He had an excessive amount of strikeouts, but made up for it by hitting for a ton of power and a strong rate of hits on balls in play. From there, Bader moved up to Triple-A, where he cut down on his strikeouts but had much worse results on contact. In the AFL, Bader cut down on his strikeouts further, but continued to have trouble finding the power he displayed in Double-A.
Those strikeout and walk numbers are what’s going to make or break Bader. Obviously, Major League pitchers are tougher than Double-A and Triple-A ones, and those strikeout and walk numbers don’t have to slip far to become unsustainable in the majors. How far should we expect them to slide, on average? That’s what I decided to try to find out.
I tracked down every time a 22 year old had over 100 plate appearances at Double-A, and then had 100 plate appearances in the majors the following season. That’s for 2006 on, which is when Fangraphs’ minor league data begins. I did the same for Triple-A. I didn’t do the same for the Arizona Fall League, it just seemed like too small of a sample. Same goes for a player’s ISO and BABIP, which take longer samples to stabilize. There’s also handedness to consider for those stats, as some minor league parks can be easier to hit in for righties or for lefties.
Next, I did both for each player’s age 24 season. From there, I found the average difference between their minor league and major league numbers, in terms of strikeouts and walks. Using that information, I made expected strikeout and expected walk numbers for Bader in the majors. From there, I calculated Bader’s expected non-contact wOBA, of which the league average is .200. Non-contact xwOBA is the main stat I was looking for. It is mostly dependent on strikeouts and walks (with a side order of hit by pitches), which is what we’re focusing on right now. Here’s the results:
You probably don’t need to see the non-contact xwOBA to know that those are some bad numbers. For some context, Randal Grichuk had the lowest non-contact wOBA among Cardinals last year, with a .125. He placed 334th among the 353 players with 100 plate appearances in 2016.
The problem of course, is that Bader is going to need strong results on contact to make up for such deficiencies. In terms of walks and strikeouts, he raised his stock at Triple-A, but not enough that it should ease your mind, especially considering the drop in power. Even taking his best forecast, Bader needs to be in the Top 20% in terms of results on contact in order to just be an average hitter in the majors:
For extra context, average on-contact wOBA is .367. Average total wOBA among non-pitchers was .323 in 2016. Bader’s results in non-contact plate appearances projects to be extremely bad in the majors, the bottom 10%. Since most plate appearances end in contact rather than non-contact, he “only” needs to be in the top 20% to make up for it. I put “only” in quotes there because it’s pretty hard to project a guy who hasn’t hit the majors and hasn’t quite destroyed every minor league level he’s seen to be in the top 20% in terms of quality of contact once he reaches the majors. That’s almost as good as Edwin Encarnacion last year, and a little better than Matt Carpenter.
If Bader were to take a step forward better than average, then that would obviously help. How likely is that to happen though? That’s what I wanted to find out next. Unfortunately, while Fangraphs calculates wOBA for minor leaguers, I don’t know the specific weights they use each year to make it work. Thus, I can’t reverse engineer a non-contact wOBA like I have for major leaguers. Instead, I developed a more general ratio that mirrors non-contact wOBA: walks/(walks + strikeouts). I calculated a score for each 22 year old Triple-A player and their corresponding 24 year old major leaguer. Of the 80 matches in which a 22 year old player took 100 plate appearances at Triple-A, and then had 100 plate appearances as a 24 year old, just 13 improved or held steady in this ratio.
If Bader was one of the 16% to take that big step forward, it would lower his margin for error on contact. He’d just have to be solidly above average to pull off being an average big leaguer. If he could sustain his current strikeout and walk numbers when moving to the big leagues, here’s how his non-contact stats stack up, and where he’d need to be in terms of on-contact production to make up for it.
The .172 non-contact xwOBA was still solidly below average (bottom fourth of the league), but it would be a much more manageable issue. He’d only have to be in about the top 40% in results on contact in order to pull off being an average hitter. Still, that’s if his game improves at a rate that only 16% of his peer group has pulled off. Chances are, Bader’s strikeout and walk game is going to drastically limit his chances of being at least an average major leaguer. At the very least, those short-sample size numbers in the AFL offer some optimism, even if his power was again down.Maybe his AFL numbers are sign that he already made some adjustment to cut down on strikeouts, rendering this analysis moot. If we do take the AFL numbers seriously though, it also means he spent time at two levels in a row where he put up underwhelming power numbers.
There could be worse news though. The Cardinals aren’t exactly depending on Bader. Perhaps his limitations were part of the reason the team was so willing to sign Dexter Fowler to a long-term deal in the first place.
This analysis actually mirrors pretty well how the prospects are evaluating him. Generally, Bader is either making the back end of Top 100 lists (Baseball America’s midseason list), the “Just Missed” portion (ESPN), or not on there at all (most other lists). According to the research by The Point of Pittsburgh, A back of the Top 100 hitting prospect has an average surplus value of $20.6M, so in general prospect evalutors are putting a value on Bader that implies about $20M or a little less Surplus Value. An average player would be worth $45-$50M just over their first three pre-arb years, and would continue to supply some Surplus Value in arbitration.
Maybe Bader can basically become a Randal Grichuk clone, but the odds are against that. At this stage, drastic change in his strikeout and walk profile is also unlikely. Maybe that’s OK though. As a third round pick, even if he’s only a fourth outfielder, he’s a success for the organization. And a good fourth outfielder may be all the team needs from Bader the next few years anyway. Add in some chance that Bader is one of the few that can either pull his strikeout and walk profile off in big leagues, or take an unexpected leap forward, and he’s not a bad piece to have. Just don’t expect him to be a league average or better player.