It would be impossible to miss the fact that Yairo Munoz has started three straight games as an outfielder. I generally think I’m higher on Munoz than most who read VEB and even I find that perplexing. He has been a below average hitter this year. He has managed a .300 average, but without much power and a seeming distaste for walking. Myself, I think he’ll have a bit more power and definitely walk more than he has, but he also has a .358 BABIP, so it’s hard to expect him to be better offensively than he has (94 wRC+). He also is not really an outfielder and is not especially fast, so the optimistic version of Munoz’s defense is firmly in the slightly below average department.
Excluding Munoz, the Cardinals have five options for the outfield. Rangel Ravelo has started 147 games in the outfield in his professional career, which is nearly three times as many starts as Munoz has. He’s also likely not good, so we can probably remove him from this conversation. The other four are Tyler O’Neill, Jose Martinez, Dexter Fowler, and Harrison Bader. Yesterday, O’Neill sat in favor of Munoz, but the main victim of Munoz’s outfield playing time has so far been Bader and will likely be going forward if he continues to start.
Let’s talk about Bader. Bader was a hitting prospect who “could maybe play CF” and has turned into a centerfielder “who could maybe hit” which is one of the more bizarre prospect to regular stories the Cardinals have had. Without knowing that he was a potentially elite defender at center, I was never a believer in Bader. Because I didn’t believe in his bat.
He rose through the system about as quickly as you can, but once he reached AAA, his stats suffered. His overall AAA stats are poor, though most of that is due to his 74 wRC+ in just 161 PAs at the end of 2016. His stats improved at the beginning of 2017, though not in a way where I ever bought into him. He had average patience, struck out more than you’d like, and needed a .345 BABIP for his 111 wRC+, which got him a promotion to the big league club, where he had 92 unimpressive PAs.
Then last year happened. Much like Michael Wacha and his hot start to his big league career, I suspect Bader’s first year is going to warp what people will expect of Bader offensively. Bader did essentially the exact same thing he did in AAA in his first year, walking at around an average rate, striking out too much, showing moderate but not great power, and relying heavily on a very high BABIP to produce a slightly above average line.
Believe it or not, Bader has made strides to become an improved hitter from 2018. This is probably where I lose some of the anti-advanced stats people, but Bader has improved in areas of his offensive game that could help him long-term if those changes stick. Bader has shown previously unforeseen patience, walking in 11% of his plate appearances, a massive improvement from last season. He has also cut down on his strikeouts, though it’s not a huge difference. But being able to improve your walk rate by 4 percentage points while not striking out more is something few hitters are able to accomplish, unless your name rhymes with Saul McClung.
ZiPS has essentially bought into the walk rate. He carried a projected 6.7 BB% going into the season and has a rest of season projection of 8%, a higher walk rate than he showed at any level in his professional career so far. His power has also not dropped off at all from 2018 either. He had a .158 ISO last season and carries a .149 ISO. That’s a negligible drop. So you must be wondering if he’s so improved as a hitter, why has he sucked so far?
That’s it. He had a .358 BABIP last year. He has a .262 BABIP this year. If he has a .262 BABIP in 2018, he’s a worse hitter than he is now. Now there’s no question that his quality of contact has decreased. But he was never a .358 BABIP hitter. Hardly anybody in the major leagues is. Joey Votto managed it for a good while. It’s about the top end of a modern day ballplayer’s BABIP over an extended period of time. Harrison Bader, whatever optimism you have for him, is certainly not elite in the contact department.
Here’s something even more bizarre about his 2019. Bader, while rising through the system, was mediocre at best against right-handed pitching. He completely relied on absolutely destroying left-handed pitchers. For example, in Springfield in 2016 before he made it to Memphis, Bader hit .249/.319/.377 against RHP, which is a .697 OPS which is not very good. He had about 280 PAs against RHP and nearly 70 against LHP. He had a 143 wRC+ in Springfield. That’s because he hit .426/.485/1.000 for a 1.485 OPS against LHP.
This was the story of his minor league career. This carried to his first two years in the big leagues. He had a 147 wRC+ in 158 PAs against left-handed pitchers and a 78 wRC+ against right-handed pitchers. That number is weighed down by his 2017 MLB appearances, because he managed a 90 wRC+ against right-handed pitchers last year. Underlying peripherals told the same story though. 8 BB% to 6.9%, 25.4 K% to 31.1%, .225 ISO to .127 ISO. He was an above average hitter completely due to how much he dominated left-handed pitching.
This year he has an 89 wRC+ against RHP. Pretty much the same as last year. He has bewilderingly been completely awful against LHP. He has walked less than he’s walked against right-handed pitchers, struck out the same, and carried a .102 ISO with a .203 BABIP. This is all at odds with his previous minor league career completely.
Here’s the reason for optimism though. His BABIP for his 90 wRC+ last year was .354, so essentially as unsustainable as his overall hitting line. His BABIP for his 89 wRC+ this year is .306. He has to date been a much better hitter against RHP than we could have reasonably expected based off his abysmal numbers against RHP throughout his minor league career. Seriously, his OPS against RHP in the minors was .783 (A-), .736 (A), .697 (AA), and .681 (AAA). See the declining trend? You would expect it to go down in the majors.
Other good news: he’s had 70 total plate appearances against LHP in 2019. In all likelihood, this is a fluke. That is a very small sample. Put it this way. Let’s say he gets the next start against a lefty and goes 3-3 with a HR and a 2B. His line improves from .148/.229/.359 to .194/.260/.448, which yes that is still bad, but one game nearly catches him up with his right-handed splits in value, because the sample is just that small.
Other, other good news. Bader’s still been valuable, because he’s just that good in center. We are still a far way off from having a good sample of defensive innings to “trust” UZR, but so far, so very good. In 1,331 career innings in CF, he has been a +20.2 defender per 150 games played. He needs about 2,000 more innings for a good sample, but his 2019 numbers are even better than his numbers last year. And come on, the eye test supports the numbers on this one.
Now, again I will stress the sample size here, because the best CF of the past ten years defensively has been Kevin Kiermaier, who is a +15. Bader is a career +20 so far and his numbers are +28 this year. This does mean he’s a +28 fielder, but that is reflected in his WAR, which shows him as a 1 WAR player so far. So in all likelihood he’s somewhere between a replacement level player and less than a 1 WAR player this year. But he’s hovering around being an average to slightly below average player per 600 PAs even with how bad his offense has been. And I personally think he’ll be better offensively going forward.
What is the point of this post? Start Bader. Endure the struggles offensively for now, and hope he can turn it around. What do we have to lose? Jose Martinez is a below average player. Yairo Munoz in the outfield is certainly a below average player. Marcell Ozuna is currently hurt. Start O’Neill-Bader-Fowler until Ozuna comes back, then you can reformulate. But to take plate appearances away from Bader and give them to Jose and Munoz seems counterproductive to me. After all, his bad offensive line could literally just be a fluky 70 PAs against a group of pitchers who he has usually crushed. We certainly aren’t giving up on any successful hitter based off 70 PAs in any other context, so why give up on Bader?