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Is Harrison Bader Broken?

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Bader’s increasing struggle against breaking balls

League Championship Series - St Louis Cardinals v Washington Nationals - Game Four Photo by Will Newton/Getty Images

Editor’s note: Jason has officially joined the VEB staff! He brings to us a load of experience from other Cardinals blogs and a lifetime of baseball fandom. Enjoy a note from Jason before taking in his first post. - J.C.

I blame Edgar Renteria. It was Christmas Break 1998 when I booted up my dad’s Dell tower PC and dialed up what passed for the internet in those days, looking to catch up on hot stove Cardinals news. I made my way over to the Post-Dispatch page, but there was nothing new. Bored, I decided to enter their baseball chat room. At the top of the forum was a surprising fan post – “Edgar Renteria Traded to Cardinals.” Intrigued, I clicked on it, and, well, that was how it started. Here was a group of fans who had information about the club well before the morning newspapers and they had interesting things to say about it, too! I was hooked.

By profession, I pastor a friendly little church in the sleepy town of Cape Girardeau, MO. I’ll graduate with a doctorate soon. By hobby, I write. My subjects vary, but I have enjoyed writing about the Cardinals in online blogs and forums for over 20 years. During that time, I’ve learned the value of taking an analytical approach to the game. I try to do that while not stealing baseball of its inherent charm. After all, this game is supposed to be fun! I’m looking forward to engaging with you here at Viva El Birdos. I’ll also provide content and reaction to Cardinals and baseball news on my new baseball-only Twitter account. If you like what I write, then thank you for reading. If you don’t… blame Edgar Renteria. And thank you for reading all the same!

Your official sponsor of Larry Bigbie,

J. P. Hill (aka CardsnOK, Fat Strat)

~

In July of 2018, the Cardinals traded away the highly productive, if somewhat volatile, Tommy Pham to clear space for a young centerfielder whose dynamic play was forcing his way into the Cardinals’ future plans. While it’s difficult to justify the Pham trade, it was easy to see what the Cardinals envisioned with Harrison Bader: a young prospect with an elite glove in centerfield, power, speed, and even some of that uniform-dirtying scrappiness that Cardinals fans seem to love. Oh yeah, he also had long blond hair, a winning smile, and was capable of highlight reel catches every time a ball found the OF.

MLB: SEP 03 Giants at Cardinals Photo by Keith Gillett/Icon Sportswire via Getty Images

Defense really is the starting point in understanding the hype surrounding Bader’s rookie campaign. In just 615 innings in center in 2018, Bader produced a 9.1 UZR and 11 DRS. That UZR was good for 2nd in the league among centerfielders with at least 500 innings, ahead of Gold Glove caliber players with nearly twice as much playing time.

Bader held his own at the plate, too. Buoyed by his incredible defensive production at a demanding position, Bader only needed to be a little over average (107 wRC+) with the bat to be a significant overall producer. A .264/.334/.422 slash line with double digit home runs and stolen bases in just over 400 plate appearances was good enough to produce a 3.6 WAR. Project that over 600 plate appearances, and he’s well into All-Star territory.

The Cardinals wasted no time in promoting Bader as a potential star. They plastered his image on Twitter feeds and TV spots. His highlight reel catches made the social media rounds. The rest of MLB even got into the act, with promos like this one that only built the hype surrounding the 24-year-old burgeoning star.

Then 2019 happened. Bader started April well – .224/.387/.429 in 63 PA’s – before a hamstring injury landed him on the IL for two weeks. When he returned, Dexter Fowler had assumed control of CF and Bader found himself relegated to bench duties. He never really recovered.

For his next 210 plate appearances – spread over 77 games – Bader hit an abysmal .198/.300/.335. He managed only a .267 BABIP during that stretch. A month in the minors seemed to set Bader right. He came back in August with an OPS of nearly 1.000 before collapsing again.

If fans entered the season hoping Bader would emerge as a star, they’re exiting the season wondering if Bader can even survive as a major league player.

So, is Harrison Bader broken? If he is, is he fixable? The incomparable Baseball Savant site from MLB lays it out well. For the first 519 PA’s of Bader’s career across 2017-2018, he saw the same types of pitches in about the same ratios. Pitchers threw Bader fastballs about 60% of the time. He absolutely crushed them, producing a wOBA against fastballs of .396 in 2018.

Fastballs weren’t Bader’s problem in 2019. Despite the terrible overall stats, Bader’s performance against fastballs was slightly up over 2018. There is no way to disguise Bader’s .399 wOBA against fastballs as anything other than excellent.

The problem is that pitchers don’t just throw fastballs. In 2017-18, breaking pitches accounted for 31% of Bader’s fare. In both seasons, he managed a batting average under .200 and a wOBA of .255/.241 respectively against non-fastballs. That’s about as bad as it can get.

Or so I thought.

With the proliferation of sabermetrics throughout the league, team staffs have access to the same types of stats included at Baseball Savant and even better proprietary ones. With over 500 PA’s of gathered data, Bader’s weakness to breaking pitches was fully exposed and in baseball there is no mercy. 2019 brought a 6% increase in breaking pitches, all of them coming at the expense of fastballs.

The decrease in fastballs and increase in breaking balls snowballed on Bader. This season, Bader only managed a .141 average against breaking pitches, good for a shockingly low .164 wOBA. Yikes. He wasn’t much better against offspeed pitches: .201 wOBA on 10.8% of pitches.

A 6% change in pitch-types faced might not seem like a big deal, but the stats say otherwise. Bader’s ratio of fastballs to non-fastballs is now among the most extreme in the league. Of hitters who had more than 400 PA’s in 2019, Bader saw the 18th highest rate of sliders and 8th highest rate of curves. He saw the 7th lowest number of fastballs.

Bader is now only seeing fastballs about 50% of the time, and while he crushes those he sees, his pitch ratio is so out of whack with league norms that its essentially impossible for him to hit fastballs well enough to offset his abysmal showing against breaking pitches. If Bader can’t improve on a sub-.200 wOBA against non-fastballs, then he’s going to have to find a way to hit about .450 against fastballs to return to his 2018 offensive levels. To put that in context, Christian Yelich led the league in wOBA last year at .446.

Thankfully, Bader’s game goes beyond the bat, which does give him some wiggle room. Bader never allowed his frustrations with breaking pitches to spill over into the field. His defensive production in 2019 remained almost identical to 2018. His 12.9 UZR in over 900 innings was good for tops in the league by a significant margin. Bader also managed to increase his BB rate from 7.3% to 11.3%, mostly by laying off fastballs out of the zone. That’s a significant jump for a second-year player to make, and it bodes well. Bader demonstrated the ability to make an adjustment that turned an offensive weakness (BB rate against fastballs) into a strength.

The league adjusted to Bader after 2018. Now’s it his turn. Bader has to improve to just being bad against breaking pitches (a .250-.300 wOBA) and continue his torrid hitting against fastballs to justify not only a place in the lineup but a spot on the roster. Can he do it? Time will tell. Maybe in this winter’s promo videos, the team can just show Bader in a batting cage hitting slider after slider. I’d watch.