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Is Harrison Bader a Liability at the Plate?

MLB: NLDS-St. Louis Cardinals at Atlanta Braves Dale Zanine-USA TODAY Sports

Harrison Bader had a bad year at the plate this season. An 81 wRC+ and .293 wOBA is simply not good. This is the reason why Mike Shildt will not start him in the playoffs. However, for a player that generates so much defensive value, if he could even be a league average hitter he would be one of the better players on the team. This was seen in his rookie season (2018) when Bader finished with a 107 wRC+, helping him generate 3.6 WAR in just 427 plate appearances. On the other hand, his poor production at the plate in a comparable amount of plate appearances has cut his WAR in half (1.8 WAR in 2019) this season. The question is, what kind of a hitter is Harrison Bader and has he really been as bad as his numbers might suggest?

Much of this season’s struggles for Bader has been a result of poor batted ball luck. His BABIP of .268 is definitely a candidate for positive regression next season, similar to how his .358 BABIP last season could be expected to decline this season. Statcast gives a more promising outlook of what Bader’s stats should have looked like. His expected batting average of .214 is not great and puts him in just the 3rd percentile, but it is still nine points better than the .205 batting average that he posted this season. His .391 expected slugging is also much better than his .366 slugging. This has created a large discrepancy between his .296 wOBA and .315 xWOBA. If Bader had finished the season with a .315 xWOBA, the perception of his season would change dramatically. Last season, the league average wOBA was .315, and this season it was .320. A close to league-average hitting Bader would have created a significant increase in value for the Cardinals.

Bader actually made promising strides with his approach at the plate this season that were overshadowed by his lack of batted ball luck. The 25-year-old still strikes out too much, but he trimmed his strikeout rate by 0.5 percent (29.3 to 28.8) while increasing his walk rate by a solid 4 percent (7.3 to 11.3). Some of this increase is likely due to Bader’s position in the lineup. As the eight-hole hitter, pitchers tend to be less aggressive against him in certain situations because the pitcher is on-deck. This has certainly helped him walk more, but it does not tell the whole story.

Bader has become better at identifying pitches and generally more patient. His O-Swing percentage dropped from 30.6 to 28.2 while his Z-Swing percentage dropped from 64.6 percent to 58.3 percent. As his swing rates have declined, his contact rates have increased. His overall contact rate has risen from 74.1 percent to 75.6 percent. As a result of this, his swinging strike percentage has declined from 11.6 percent to 10 percent. All of these changes demonstrate a positive development in Bader’s approach at the plate. However, it is possible that the decrease in Bader’s Z-Swing percentage is actually making him a worse hitter.

According to Baseball Savant, Harrison Bader has a -5 Run Value. Baseball Savant divides the plate into four regions: heart, shadow, chase, and waste. Bader has actually posted a run positive 20 run value in the chase and waste regions. This is because he has been very good at laying off of these pitches. He has swung at pitches in the chase zone seven percent less than average as well as one percent less than average in the waste zone. By taking so many of these pitches he has created value. Every time he takes a pitch for a ball, the team’s expected runs total changes marginally, so by taking much more of these pitches than average he has actually created a value of 20 runs.

The problem for him is when pitches are over the plate or on the edge of it. In the heart zone he has a -6 run value. This run value is created by summing the total of his swing runs and his take runs. In this zone he has added a positive five swing runs, but has created a negative 11 take runs which is equal to a negative six overall for this zone. This makes sense because Bader swings at just 59 percent of pitches in the heart of the zone, whereas the rest of the league averages a 73 percent swing rate. He could create a significant amount of extra value simply by swinging more often at pitches in the heart of the plate. This is the best area for a batter to swing at a pitch, so by doing this he would be able to improve his swing runs total and his take runs total at the same time.

While swinging at more pitches over the heart of the plate should be a relatively simple change for Bader, his lack of success on pitches in the shadow of the plate is more concerning. This zone is defined as pitches that cross the edge of the plate or just miss the edge of the plate. Essentially, these are pitches that are called a strike 50 percent of the time. Bader has accumulated -18 swing runs and -1 take runs in this region. He swings at these pitches 51 percent of the time and take them 49 percent of the time which is in line with the league average (53 and 47). He simply needs to hit the ball better in this region.

He could take more of these pitches, especially if he is in a hitter’s count in order to potentially see a better pitch later in the at-bat. However, at some point he is going to need to be able to swing at these pitches and be able to make solid contact on them in order to improve as a hitter. The goal of a pitcher is to live on the edge of the plate, so this is the zone that they will target. Bader needs to be able to make solid contact on these pitches or else he will struggle to hit in pitcher’s counts, which is when pitchers can try to dance around the edge of the plate.

Bader made improvements in his quality of contact this season. He had a 9.9 barrel percentage, a three-point increase from last season, as well as a 0.6 mph increase in average exit velocity (86.6 mph). However, in order to take the next step at the plate he will need to improve on his approach in order to swing at better pitches and hit the 50/50 pitches.

If Bader can experience some positivities in these offensive trends to pair with his speed and defense, it will not be a surprise to see the young outfielder be a bright star in the league.