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Harrison Bader should be the starting right fielder

Bader has out-hit every outfielder not named Tommy Pham, but where he really sets himself apart is with his speed and defense.

MLB: Chicago Cubs at St. Louis Cardinals Jeff Curry-USA TODAY Sports

Happy Alex Reyes day, everyone.

As excited as I am to see Mr. Reyes retake the mound, there’s a less-heralded piece of the Cardinals youth movement that has caught my eye of late: Harrison Bader.

After debuting in 90 plate appearances last season which were, you know, fine, Bader came into this season having lost a bit of his prospect luster. Baseball America ranked four Cardinals in their Top 100, none of whom were Bader, and included fellow outfielder Tyler O’Neill. Bader was edged out for a spot on the Opening Day roster by Yairo Munoz.

But since rejoining the big league club, Bader has posted some eye-popping statistics, mostly courtesy of StatCast.

That is obviously some elite company Bader finds himself in. But our traditional defensive metrics can fluctuate, so what about these Statcast metrics? I reached out via Twitter to ask MLB.com’s Mike Petrielo how soon he would buy into Bader as an elite defender... and he said that he already does.

One reason Bader has been such an exceptional defender is his speed. By Statcast’s Sprint Speed, Bader is in the Top 10 of all baseball.

The great thing about some of these Statcast metrics is they come closer to measuring the raw tools. So once we see a guy can run 29.7 feet per second, we know that’s a tool he has. We don’t have to wait for various rate statistics to stabilize.

We know right now that Harrison Bader is a plus runner, and it looks like he may very well be an elite, plus-plus defender. Friends, that’s about enough for a starting job on its own. But Bader has been swinging a more confident bat this season as well, posting an overall hitting line above league average. It’s easy to imagine Bader continuing to grow as a hitter, and while he never be an elite hitter, with his defense and baserunning, he can still be an extremely valuable player.

The other half of the equation, if the Cardinals were to plug Bader in as their regular right fielder, is whether or not he is better than the man who has held that job: Dexter Fowler.

I really love Dexter Fowler as a personality, and it’s hard for me to believe his skills have truly fallen off to quite the level we’ve seen this year. But he’s been bad. Really, really bad.

Whereas Bader has posted positive value in hitting, base running and defense, Fowler is underwater on all three. His sprint speed has dropped a full foot/second from last season, sitting now at 27.1... which is almost exactly league average. For an aging player, that’s not a measure we can expect will ever move back in the other direction.

Last year, Fowler’s -9 Outs Above Average was 7th worst among 268 qualified outfielders. His move to right field was intended to mitigate his defensive shortcomings, but he already sits at -3 this season. Defensively, Fowler’s ceiling is probably at-best a tick below average, and he’s certainly not in the same class as Bader.

Fowler’s bat has completely fallen off this year as well, to the tune of a 62 wRC+. That’s terrible, but it’s also the aspect of his game I’m most confident will rebound. But how much will it rebound? And even if he brings his offense back up to something like the Dexter Fowler we’ve seen before, can he be more valuable than the multi-talented Bader?

Fowler’s WAR sits at an abysmal -0.9. He’s been the offensive equivalent of Greg Holland. Clearly, he needs to get healthy, or fix his mechanics, or do something to get back on track. And I expect that he will, to some extent.

But I’ve reached the tipping point where I believe Bader should be the primary right fielder not just now, but likely for the remainder of the season.