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How did everyone miss on Harrison Bader’s defense?

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Judging by prospect reports when Bader was blazing his way through the minors, you’d have no idea his defense was this good.

MLB: St. Louis Cardinals at Pittsburgh Pirates Charles LeClaire-USA TODAY Sports

It must be said that when Harrison Bader was coming up through the minor league system, I was not a particularly big fan. Drafted in the 3rd round in the 2015 draft, he exploded onto the scene, mashing the ball in just 7 games in State College, which was enough evidence to the Cards to promote him to Peoria right away. He mashed there too, which caused the Cards to allow him to skip Palm Beach straight to Springfield to begin 2016.

Now, when I say I wasn’t a big fan of him, I don’t mean I wasn’t at this point. I do not remember forming any thoughts on Bader at this point. I wrote for the site, but as a recapper exclusively, and while I kind of followed the minor leagues, I certainly didn’t follow the lower levels closely. My first thoughts on Bader were probably formed in 2016 while he was at Springfield and given his stats there, I doubt they were negative then either. He got to Memphis midseason and this is where he first started to feel the effects of getting promoted so quickly.

Playing at Memphis for 49 games, Bader was a well below average hitter. There’s not really anything in his game that stands out as particularly bad to be honest. His BB rate is below average but certainly one you can live with. His K rate was below average, but again, plenty of hitters have worse. His isolated power was below average, but wasn’t outright bad. He even had a .292 BABIP. Still taken together, this translated to a quite bad 74 wRC+.

What had me doubting his major league bonafides was that his 2017 season in AAA, when I first started to doubt Bader, wasn’t that great either. His K rate and BB rate stayed the same, and his power had a little boost, but a far cry from what he was doing before reaching Memphis, and his BABIP jumped up to .345. It translated to a 111 wRC+. That’s above average. Besides his power, which I expected to be greater, he didn’t really improve as a hitter that much though. I mentally translated those stats to the MLB level and they didn’t look good - slightly worse walk rate, more strikeouts, and less power - and I didn’t see anything better than a 4th outfielder.

A rather large reason for my opinion, however, is because absolutely nothing I read about the guy indicated he was going to be an elite defender. If I was under the impression that we may be getting Kevin Pillar defense from him, I surely would have been more optimistic about his future. But that’s not at all what was written about him.

Here’s John Sickels writing a pre-draft blurb of Bader, about a month before the Cardinals actually drafted him:

Junior, hits right, another multi-talent, hit .289/.390/.544 with 14 homers, 30/49 BB/K in 228 at-bats, runs well and a good fielder but might be something of a tweener in pro ball, will still go early due to paucity of proven bats this year. TT: Second round.

Here’s our own resident VEB prospect guru A.E. Schafer on Bader after the Cardinals drafted him.

Outside of the bat, Bader is an above-average runner, and shows solid defensive skills in the outfield. He might be a center fielder, or he might not. If not, he could probably play right with his arm strength.

We see some evidence of his future defense when Sickels wrote a pre-season top Cardinals prospect list before the 2016 season, after Bader had played for about half a season with both State College and Peoria. As mentioned above, he was hitting the hell out of the ball at both levels. Sickels ranked him 6th in the system, so he was a believer.

..third round pick was bargain out of University of Florida, all physical tools average to slightly above but he uses them very well, especially sound as a baserunner and fielding was better than expected, certainly had no trouble getting to his power either. Grade may actually be too conservative.

Sickels already notices that his defense is better than expected, though better than a tweener outfielder doesn’t necessarily mean he was suddenly thinking he could become Ender Inciarte-lite. Jonathan Mayo of MLB.com was even more of a believer in Bader, putting him 3rd overall in the Cards top prospects. He also mentions better than expected fielding, but gives him a grade of 50 on fielding and 55 on speed, which means he graded him as an average defender with above average speed.

Baseball Prospectus liked Bader too, but again absolutely zero indication his defense was anything too special in its writeup of him.

There’s no plus tool, but there’s no 45 tool, either. He’s a smart, assertive hitter who is willing to use the whole field, and there’s solid-average power in his right-handed bat. He’s even better with the glove, as his above-average speed makes him a weapon in the corner and capable of handling center.

This writeup has not aged particularly well even though the writer was a fan, as it’s pretty clear Bader can handle center and does have a plus tool: speed and defense. Fangraphs in its preseason post about the Cardinals prospects said “He is at least an average fielder and an above-average base-runner, making his bat the likely determining factor in his ultimate role as a big leaguer.”

Bader made his way to AAA by the time the next round of prospect rankings came before the 2017 season. Mayo said “He’s a better defender than people gave him credit for, with the chance to stay in center field long term.” Keith Law, always a favorite punching bag for people looking to say “YOU’RE WRONG” to prospect evaluators, was not a Bader fan before the 2017 season. He literally didn’t even say a word about his defense, and ranked him as the 13th prospect. Fangraphs didn’t have him much higher at 11th, with this to say about his defense.

It’s more of a 40/45 hit/power profile which doesn’t play everyday in a corner, but Bader was an above-average runner for me in the Fall League and plus during the season for some scouts with whom I spoke, so some orgs think he can moonlight in center field.

VEB was probably the highest on Bader overall with Schafer ranking him 3rd overall on the Cardinals top prospects, but his comments on his defense still don’t really indicate what I’ve seen so far.

In the field, Bader has the chops defensively to handle center field, I think. I don’t know that he’s going to be a plus defender out there, but I think he can play it as well as Randal Grichuk. (That’s also not the only similarity to Grichuk you may note in Bader’s profile.) He has the arm to play right, and if moved to a corner outfield spot I think he could be a plus.

Before the 2018 season, Sickels said this about Bader’s defense: “broad package of skills and tools; plus speed/power combination, solid outfielder with ability to play all three spots.” Again, nobody was really saying anything bad about his defense, but I think there’s a difference between being able to play CF and... being at the top of leaderboards in Statcast defensive stats as a centerfielder.

So how the hell did everybody miss that he’s a great defender?

Well, first and foremost, scouting defense is very hard. Most people following the minor leagues and compiling these lists do not watch anywhere near every game. The national guys are probably lucky if they see 10 games of the same player over a full season. You have to form quick opinions over a very small sample size. It’s not an easy thing to do. Bader also flew up the ladder really quickly so it’s unlikely anybody really got a good sample of games to judge his defense.

Secondly, clearly people didn’t realize just how fast he was. There are mentions of above average speed, but he’s one of the fastest players in the league. I’m sure speed is an important evaluator in judging outfield defense and by and large, people just underrated his speed. I’m not exactly sure how nobody seemed to notice his speed, but my best guesses are two-fold. 1) He didn’t have the obvious base stealing skills to show how fast he was. He stole 45 bases and got caught 28 times, which is really not a good success rate. 2) The type of hitter he was typically isn’t that fast.

That brings me to my third best guess as to how his defense was overlooked: his bat. He was so good up until Springfield that his defense was kind of an afterthought. Great defenders are usually like Delvin Perez. You kind of hope the bat is good enough. Usually great defenders do not mash in the minor leagues. I think people penalized his defense, subconsciously, because his bat was so front and center.

I think the biggest strike against Bader’s defense, however, was that we had an obvious Bader comp already on the major league team: Randal Grichuk. Seriously, almost everything about Bader was the exact same as Grichuk, with the overaggressive plate approach to the big power. Coming up, his defense was described almost exactly the same too.

In fact, Grichuk’s defensive numbers to this point of his MLB career was probably considered an optimistic projection for what Bader would become defensively. Grichuk has been a +9 fielder at the corners and exactly average at center. Now taken collectively, he has a good sample of innings to judge his defense, but no great sample at any individual position. Based off the information I have available to me, I have him as a +7.5 fielder on the corners and +2.5 at CF. Again, that seems like what the more optimistic prospect evaluators thought Bader would become defensively.

Prospect evaluators are good at their job. But it’s hard to see what players will become and this is an example of that difficulty. Bader was ranked in the Cardinals top prospects, for the most part, for his bat. That he could probably play centerfield no doubt factored into the equation. But his bat was his calling card. Now that he’s made the majors, it’s looking like anything he does with the bat will seem superfluous. I, for one, welcome our new defensive overlord.