Harrison Bader is a productive member of the 2019 Cardinals. Let’s get that out of the way first. He hasn’t had consistent playing time, what with the constant surplus of outfielders on the team and the obsession with playing Yairo Munoz in the outfield, at-bats and innings have been hard to come by. Marcell Ozuna’s recent downturn provided Bader a chance to play every day, but Tyler O’Neill’s subsequent breakout has closed the door again.
That curtailed playing time hasn’t affected Bader’s defense, of course. He’s still the quicksilver fielder we’ve come to expect, combining excellent instincts with blazing top-end speed to produce innumerable highlight grabs. In a small sample, his defense this year grades out even better than last year’s, and he was Gold Glove caliber last year. By Statcast’s advanced defensive metrics, he has the highest Catch Percentage Added among all outfielders -- a measure of how much more likely than average a given defender is to turn a batted ball into an out.
If Bader’s defense is as tremendous as ever, why isn’t he getting more playing time? After all, the team traded Tommy Pham, potentially its best player, to open up more at-bats for Bader. Well, defense is only half of the equation, and Bader’s offense has fallen off a cliff this year. Last year had its ups and downs, but he still managed to produce a 106 wRC+, 6% better than the league average batter. That didn’t look likely to repeat itself, driven as it was by an outrageous .358 BABIP, but it’s not as though there wasn’t potential there. ZiPS projected him to bat .242/.307/.399, and Steamer wasn’t far off, seeing a .246/.309/.399 line. Those would be below-average, something like a .307 wOBA and 92 wRC+, but entirely playable.
Projection systems have almost exclusively missed low this year, because they didn’t see the 2019 power surge coming. Instead, they missed high on Bader -- his .204/.315/.359 triple slash line works out to a .290 wOBA and 78 wRC+, a level of offensive production that would be bottom-10 in baseball if he had enough plate appearances to qualify. Some of that, of course, is driven by BABIP. His .267 mark this year is wildly lower than last year’s .358, a reminder that luck and randomness are never far away in baseball. Even that loss, however, is partially down to contact quality -- Statcast expects a player with average speed and Bader’s contact quality to post a .338 BABIP given his 2018 contact, and a .315 BABIP with his 2019 results. Bader’s getting unlucky, in other words, but he’s also not hitting the ball in a way that should produce that much average.
If you look a little deeper, though, there are encouraging trends going on in Bader’s game. First, he’s cleaned up his act at the plate, striking out less often and reaching base via unintentional walk or HBP more often this year. His barrel rate has ticked up marginally, from 6.9% to 8.5%. His xwOBA on contact has ticked up this year, though that’s largely down to the new ball -- all of baseball is doing more damage on balls in play.
Let’s unpack the plate discipline data first, because that’s the thing I’m most optimistic about. My hesitation around Bader’s offensive game has always been a matter of batting eye and contact. Batters can succeed with one or the other, but rarely without either of them. In 2018, Bader was a little worse than average when it came to recognizing balls and strikes (he swung at an average amount of balls and a below-average amount of strikes), but he didn’t make enough contact to make up for it. For a hitter without a ton of power but with blazing speed, a high contact rate is a godsend, and Bader just didn’t have it. This year, he’s overhauled things, and it looks good. His contact rate is up 3%, his chase rate is down 2%, and his swinging strike rate has declined from 11.6% to 9.6% as a result.
If all of that is good, and his expected BABIP hasn’t declined *that* much, what’s wrong with Bader’s offense? Well, offense has two components: batting and baserunning. Bader was a tremendously valuable baserunner last year -- nearly 8 runs above average, per FanGraphs. He took extra bases aggressively, never grounded into double plays, and stole 15 bases while only being caught 3 times. In all, he was the sixth-best baserunner in the big leagues. It was easy to see Bader speeding his way around the bases for years to come, basically Brett Gardner with A-level defense.
This year… woof. Nothing has gone right for Bader on the basepaths this year. Though the team as a whole has been far more successful stealing bases, he hasn’t -- he’s already been caught three times, with only five steals to show for it. He’s grounded into two double plays this year, which isn’t many, but he only grounded into one all of last year in twice the opportunities. He’s actually been below average advancing on balls in play this year, though some of that comes down to being thrown out at the plate once. Most shockingly, he’s been on second base four times when a batter has hit a single and only scored once. Last year, he scored 15 of the 22 times that situation came up.
I’m inclined to believe that most of this will come back. Harrison Bader isn’t a bad baserunner, even if his results are bad this year. He’s still adept at going first-to-third, still has enviable straight-line speed, and still doesn’t make boneheaded plays on the bases very often. He’s just off this year, and that off-ness matters more than you’d think baserunning might. Pro-rate last year’s baserunning to 2019, and Bader would be worth an extra half-a-win already.
In all honesty, I’m not really sure what else to say. If you just look at the slash line (uh, a .204 batting average, to start), it seems like Bader’s down season at the plate might be killing his value. If you look at WAR, well, same thing! His offensive value is almost as negative, relative to average, as his defensive value is positive. That sounds bad!
Look a level down, though, and basically none of those things are true. Bader’s defense probably isn’t quite as good as UZR thinks it is (UZR thinks his 2019 is one of the top ten defensive seasons, per inning played, of the 21st century). His true baserunning talent is almost certainly better than it looks. His batting line was full of hidden danger signs last year and was above-average. This year, it’s full of hidden upsides but looks quite bad. Good luck making sense of all that.
At the end of all of this, I keep coming back to the fact that the Cardinals are built oddly. They have four outfielders that they should be playing when healthy -- Ozuna, Fowler, O’Neill, and Bader all deserve starter-level playing time given what they’ve shown in 2019. That’s not even counting Jose Martinez, a club favorite who has soaked up 278 plate appearances this year despite replacement-level production. As I marveled above, Yairo Munoz keeps getting in the picture as well, despite hitting as poorly as Bader (and that despite a .346 BABIP) and playing defense at a level as shockingly bad as Bader’s is shockingly good.
The total picture of the outfield is going to have to resolve itself, and I honestly have no idea how that’s going to happen. Ozuna has been the team’s best hitter this year. He needs his time. O’Neill has *actually* been the team’s best hitter, just in a small sample size. Even if his results have been in a crazy-small sample, he’s probably the best chance the Cardinals have for a breakout superstar outfielder. He needs to play. Meanwhile, Fowler has produced a totally acceptable line -- a 105 wRC+ and passable outfield defense. He’s also a beloved veteran, and has probably earned his playing time on the merits. Bader should play, too -- he’s an ace defender who hits enough to be above-average.
What will the resolution be? I don’t see it being a trade, because O’Neill is the only player of the group who seems likely to be traded, and he’s hitting so well in recent weeks that he’s keeping the team in contention. Most likely, the team is just going to do what it’s always done -- play the hot hand, jam whoever the best defender on the field is into center, and hope it works out for the best. There’s almost no way that one of Bader and O’Neill, and quite possibly both, don’t get squeezed a little bit when Ozuna returns.
If I had my druthers, I’d be playing Fowler, Bader, and O’Neill every day right now, then put them in a strict four-man rotation with Ozuna when he returned. While that won’t happen, I really hope it does, because if Harrison Bader’s 2019 has shown us anything, it’s that he can have an uncharacteristically poor (and likely unsustainably poor) offensive season and still be valuable. Give the kids a chance!