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Harrison Bader: The right-handed Lefty

Harrison Bader has demonstrated a platoon split, but it’s not as bad as you may have been made to believe.

St Louis Cardinals v Atlanta Braves Photo by Mike Zarrilli/Getty Images

Read just about any offseason article about Harrison Bader and what you’re likely to see is this: He has exceptional speed and defense. Offensively, he has some power, but strikes out more than you’d like and needs to overcome his dramatic platoon splits.

What I’m here to tell you is this: The platoon splits are not as bad as you may have been lead to believe. Even if the numbers look big, as an overall value proposition, Harrison Bader is an extremely valuable player whether facing a righty or a lefty.

Here’s what the splits look like. I’m using OPS because it’s a number available by split for his minor league career, and for illustration, it’s good enough.

So yes, the difference in those splits is pretty big. But here’s a couple things to remember:

  1. A big part of that difference comes from the fact that Bader MURDERS lefties. Pre-meditated, first-degree, Capital Murder.
  2. While his numbers against righties are much lower, they are only slightly below average.

Last season, Bader’s wRC+ against lefties was 138, or 38% better than league average. His wRC+ against righties was 90, or 10% below average. Overall, that produced a wRC+ of 106. And here’s the thing, friends: For a player with the elite defense and baserunning of Harrison Bader, that is more than good enough.

Over the last three years, the average right-handed NL Center Fielder has posted a 96 wRC+ against right-handed pitching. So among his positional peers, Bader’s numbers vs. righties are only 6% below average. But he more than makes up for that deficit once you factor in the damage he does against lefties, and again, that’s before you add the defending and baserunning on top of it.

Bader’s positional splits may stand out when you look just at those numbers, but when you put them into context and factor in all the value he brings across the board, they’re not especially worrisome.

As a matter of fact, it’s not even something we would notice if Bader were left-handed. Lefties run consistently higher platoon splits than Righties. Last year, the average NL lefty hit for a .678 OPS vs lefties, .739 against righties. So Bader actually did slightly better on the worse side of his platoon than the average lefty, and he mashed the strong side of his platoon considerably more.

Of course, because around 23 of pitchers are right-handed, a righty with platoon splits will face the “bad” side of their platoon more often than a lefty. But again, even the numbers on Bader’s bad side are just a bit below average - nowhere near the levels of players who are only playable in favorable platoons.

Let’s take Matt Adams as an example. Last season, Matt Adams posted a 114 wRC+ vs. righties and a 64 wRC+ vs. lefties. You could take that 64 with a grain of salt because he only had 43 PAs vs. lefties, but of course the reason he only had 43 PAs was because he hits like a guy with a 64 wRC+ vs. lefties. That is what a guy with truly crippling platoon splits looks like.

So, what does this mean going forward?

There could certainly be a point where, if Bader’s overall offensive production dipped across the board, those splits could become dangerous. But Bader has a pretty big cushion. In 2016, Jason Heyward was still an elite defender, roughly on-par with where Bader is now. His overall offensive line was a putrid 73 wRC+, but that was still enough for him to remain a valuable player to the tune of 1.0 WAR over 592 PAs.

You’d like every player on your team to be an above-average offensive player, but that’s not the only profile for a valuable player. Bader, like Kolten Wong, could remain a very valuable player even if his offensive value dips below average.

Looking at Bader’s numbers from last season compared to his minor league track record, if anything, his huge numbers against lefties were down. His numbers against righties were more-or-less where they were throughout his professional career.

On one hand, that suggests that Bader may not be particularly likely to improve his numbers against right-handed pitching. But it also suggests they’re not especially likely to crater into Matt Adams split territory.

As a player just off his rookie season, there’s a lot of volatility in what we can expect from Harrison Bader. Big League pitchers and coaches have seen him and they will make adjustments. Until a player has established a consistent track record, over a few seasons, great improvement and great decline are both distinct possibilities.

But in terms of his platoon splits, while they are large, they don’t especially worry me. They are an element of Harrison Bader’s profile, but when you consider them in the context of the overall value of his profile, they aren’t a big deal.