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Finding a Harrison Bader Comp

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Which players compare best to Harrison Bader, and what does it tell us about his future?

Joe Puetz-USA TODAY Sports

Harrison Bader had quite a season in 2018. His premium defense and solid production at the plate led some very smart folks to consider him a Rookie of the Year candidate in a year full of monster rookies. His exciting play made him a fan favorite. He is undeniably a fun player to watch. His speed and defensive skills hearken back to the popular 80s Cardinal teams.

That said, there are some concerns. His .358 batting average on balls in play seems unsustainable, even for a player with his speed. His wOBA-xwOBA clocked in at .044, the 9th highest in baseball (min. 200 PA). The new toy at Baseball Prospectus, DRC+, has him at 90- ten percent below league average. That’s well below his wRC+ at Fangraphs (106), likely a byproduct of his plate discipline struggles. Speaking of which, that’s another concern. Bader’s 0.24 BB/K was 55th worst in the league amongst 355 players with 200+ plate appearances.

To establish a baseline for what to expect moving forward, it’s helpful to find other players like Bader. I’ll start with all players since 1970 with 200+ plate appearances through age 25. Since Bader just finished his age 24 season, we need the age limit. Tacking on an additional year (from Bader’s 24 to 25) should help expand our set a little bit. We’re starting with 1,878 players.

Our comps should have similar playing time to Bader’s 519 plate appearances thus far. I’ll include players between 250 and 1,000 plate appearances. Any comp for Bader must have speed and defense as key parts of their game. Fangraphs offers a few speed metrics. We’ll use BsR (baserunning runs). They have Def, or Defensive Runs Above Average, for defense. Both are counting stats, and rates are important in these small samples. I’ve translated it to BsR per plate appearance and Def per plate appearance. Finally, I gave a percentile to all of our original group. Bader’s BsR/PA is 99.76th percentile, and his Def is 89.05. That’s elite.

We’ll use the percentiles for BsR/PA and Def/PA to eliminate more. We want players within 15 percent of Bader. That means 74.05-100th percentile in Def/PA and 84.76th+ percentile in BsR/PA. Our list is down to 41 players other than Bader.

We need to include Bader’s hitting. We’ll start with Bader’s 99 wRC+ (league-adjusted weighted runs created). Let’s limit this to players with an 89-109 wRC+, a group that fell a handful of batted balls away from Bader. That takes us down to 17 players, plus Bader.

Let’s account for his extreme plate discipline- that nasty 0.24 BB/K. We’ll remove any player with a BB/K of 0.45 or higher. It leaves us with 10 other players (plus Bader) to evaluate. Of those 10, there are more we can eliminate. One is Blake Swihart, a catcher. Ozzie Albies is on the list and just turned 22. The age disparity takes him out of this comparison. Finally, David Fletcher’s performance for the Angels was eerily similar to Bader, but it was Fletcher’s first pass at the league. He has no future performance that can tell us about Bader. Here is the final group.

Harrison Bader Comps, 1970-Present

Player PA BB/K wRC+ Def/PA Pctile BsR/PA Pctile
Player PA BB/K wRC+ Def/PA Pctile BsR/PA Pctile
Marlon Byrd 589 0.44 106 75.95% 94.19%
Chase Utley 439 0.42 91 77.44% 92.52%
Jayson Werth 430 0.33 106 80.58% 95.34%
Drew Stubbs 779 0.32 104 75.95% 97.63%
Kevin Kiermaier 899 0.28 105 95.98% 92.52%
Peter Bourjos 940 0.25 95 99.01% 94.19%
Nate Schierholtz 506 0.25 89 82.37% 95.34%
Harrison Bader 519 0.24 99 89.05% 99.76%

Between Chase Utley, Jayon Werth, and Marlon Byrd, Bader apparently has the soul of an early 21st century Phillie. Other than the Phillie weirdness, it’s an intuitive list. Early in their careers, Drew Stubbs, Kevin Kiermaier, and Peter Bourjos were speedy defensive wizards with tempered optimism about their hitting. Jayson Werth’s career was so long that it’s easy to forget how much value he provided on the bases and with the glove. We have four centerfielders on our list (Byrd, Stubbs, Kiermaier, and Bourjos), with Werth and Schierholtz as athletic rightfielders during these years. Utley is the outlier (utlier?) at second base.

As for prospect prestige, Werth and Byrd were Baseball America Top 100, with Werth peaking at #48 and Byrd at #26. Bourjos (#97), Stubbs (#88), and Utley (#81) appeared in the back of the top 100. Like Bader, Kiermaier and Schierholtz never formally appeared on a top 100.

The Future

What happens to players like Bader at age 26-28? In full disclosure, my inclusion of players up to age 25 in the sample may have helped grab more comps, but it complicates things. All seven comps required their age 25 season to meet the Bader thresholds. When you see their “before” numbers in the graph below, that includes their age 25 season. Only Bourjos and Kiermaier had established themselves as regular or semi-regulars at age 24. All others were under 200 plate appearances during their age 24 season.

Here’s the change for our Bader comps in various categories. On the left is their production through age 25, and the right is their next three seasons (ages 26-28). I’ve placed Bader’s name in red to illustrate how he compares to these players. And yes, his BsR/600 is literally off the chart, just a tick above 10.0.

Comps are a Horshack test, and this one is no different.

Best Case Scenario: Kiermaier and Werth

These two carried their value into the next phase of their career, with only a slight downturn. Most importantly for Kiermaier, he held his supreme defensive value while improving his plate discipline and baserunning. It’s not in the graph, but his BABIP slipped a little and it’s probably the difference between his 4.74 WAR/600 through 25 and the 4.39 after.

Werth’s defense and plate discipline improved, and his isolated slugging and BABIP exploded. His baserunning slipped, but the overall value (like Kiermaier’s) was basically the same.

The Diminished but Useful Scenario: Schierholtz and Stubbs

Schierholtz’s platoon splits prevented him from becoming a regular, but he carved out a decent career as a semi-regular and bench option. His plate discipline improved, his speed and defense cratered, and he was overall only slightly below his early career level. It would be disappointing if Bader followed this path, but it would still have use. Plus, Bader has more pop than Schierholtz.

Stubbs always had an extreme profile. He improved his baserunning value and his defense slipped a little, but his real problem isn’t in the graph. His isolated slugging collapsed (.184 before, .122 after). Combined with a decline in an already poor BB/K, it took him from an exciting young player to a mediocre regular. He still had value, albeit less than his early career.

Worst Case Scenario: Byrd and Bourjos

Cardinal Nation knows the Bourjos story all too well. His plate discipline marginally improved while his defense and baserunning value disappeared. Never a good hitter to begin with, he couldn’t compensate. His career since his Baderian debut has been on par with a fourth or fifth outfielder.

Byrd couldn’t find regular playing time in the three years following his early seasons. When he did play, he didn’t produce. Like Bourjos, his baserunning and defense evaporated. His BABIP-driven production from earlier in his career failed him. It took several years to recoup his value.

Pie in the Sky: Utley

With all due respect to Harrison Bader, this is wildly unlikely. Utley improved every aspect of his game en route to a borderline Hall of Fame career. I’m not holding my breath for that.

Conclusion

If you’re looking for one comp, Kiermaier is the closest. It’s especially true when you include their prospect (non-)status, arrival as semi-regulars at age 24, and similar power numbers/ISO in those years. Bader has the edge on Kiermaier as a baserunner but lags a little behind defensively.

His power/ISO is what makes Bader a little different from Werth, Utley, and Stubbs. While he had a nasty platoon split last year and in the minors, it’s not enough to make him a platoon player like Schierholtz.

Bourjos is the boogeyman. Bader and Bourjos are too close for comfort, with only Bader’s baserunning separating their early careers. That brings me to my final point. Bader’s offense is probably always going to be prone to batted ball luck. With Jeff Albert as hitting coach, there’s hope that improved plate discipline can soften the BABIP risk. Bader’s calling card, though, will be the soft stuff.

The difference between Bader being Kiermaier or Bourjos (or something in-between) will come down to his ability to replicate his early success with the glove and on the bases.