The 2019 season has not been what Harrison Bader probably expected. Definitely not what he wanted, which probably goes without saying.
Last year, Bader emerged as one of the most exciting young outfielders in baseball. His sprint speed was elite. His four- and five-star catch rates were elite. Defensive runs saved, Ultimate Zone Rating, catch probability added, every stat you could throw at Harrison Bader’s season came back with the same answer: this guy is awesome. It was a lot like the last time an incredible center fielder was discovered by the internet baseball community, in fact. That time it was Kevin Kiermaier. Before that there was Juan Lagares. Years before that there was Franklin Gutierrez and Peter Bourjos. Every few years one of these guys pops up, with the crazy defensive metrics and the adoration of the sabr wonks, and we all have the same discussions about the value of a run saved vs a run earned and blah, blah, blah.
The thing about these guys is, they’re fun. Bader at least as much as any of the others, if not more so. Defense is the easily-overlooked secret value of baseball, it often seems, but when one witnesses true excellence on that side of the ball it stands out in a striking way. At some positions, even the greatest defense is difficult to notice. Throwing out runners is exciting, but the day to day grinding that makes catcher defense so valuable is honestly hard to see most of the time. First basemen scoop throws and save errors, but the impressive part of the play is almost always the off-balance, acrobatic throw that necessitated the scoop in the first place. When it comes to defense that makes itself outrageously obvious to view, though, center field has shortstop as its only real peer. The balletic contortions of shortstop and the impossibly long ranged sprints of center are not only easy to notice, they are impossible to ignore. Center field is drama measured by distance, by the desperate striving of pumping legs and the exactly-measured length of an outstretched glove.
By that standard, Bader measures up as well if not better than he does by any statistical measure. There is pleasure to be found in the measure of his excellence, but there is joy to be found in the viewing. The flowing, flying hair certainly doesn’t hurt the impression, but even without it he brings a sort of energetic doggedness to the position. Harrison Bader does not glide, he pursues. There are outfielders who call to mind gazelles; Bader calls to mind the wolverine. Compact, stalking, ranging, explosive.
Just as exciting as the defense, though, was the fact Bader’s offense in 2018 was more than acceptable, given his excellence in other fields. Juan Lagares in 2013 with a 75 wRC+ can be a solid, useful player, but Harrison Bader in 2018 with a 106 wRC+ can be a star.
And a star is just what it looked like Bader might be at this time last year. Buoyed by a high but not unbelievable batting average on balls in play, he posted that 106 wRC+ over the course of 138 games and 427 plate appearances. The plate discipline was an issue, and the left/right splits were very worrisome, but there was a little power, and Bader’s speed made it easier to think he might just be a high BABIP hitter. Not .358 high, necessarily, but maybe a ~.330 type. His baserunning was elite, almost eight runs to the positive, and the defense was obviously remarkable. In all, Bader posted 3.5 fWAR in those 427 trips to the plate, which translates to something like a five win pace over the course of a full 600ish PA season. That seemed a little optimistic, maybe, but it wasn’t hard to believe this was a 4+ win player going forward.
Thus were we all set up for disappointment, even heartbreak. Bader’s BABIP in 2019 did not fall off slightly and normalise; it cratered, to the tune of a current .277 mark. It was easy to see .358 was too high, but .277 seems obviously too low. Still, the numbers are what they are. The power was even more disappointing; while the rest of the league took another jump forward in power production, Bader’s ability to drive the ball seemingly took a step back. His isolated slugging percentage this season is just .147, or almost exactly the same as noted non-slugger Kolten Wong (.145). Obviously, you can be a fine hitter with that level of power production — witness noted non-slugger Kolten Wong’s 109 wRC+ — but when your plate discipline is Baderian, rather than Wongian, you’re probably going to need some more thump than that.
The defense remained elite; Bader has been almost exactly as good by plus/minus, DRS, and UZR/150 this season as he was in 2018. That’s the good news. When your defense is that good at a premium position, you can still be a decent player even when things go wrong. The bad news is that Bader’s baserunning has been bizarrely terrible this year. He’s gotten roughly half a season’s worth of plate appearances this year (314, reppin’ that STL life!), and has been below-average on the bases, to the tune of -0.8 runs. Compared to 2018, that’s almost an eight and a half run swing, or nearly a win’s worth of value. For a player whose speed is still at the very top of the pile, being a negative on the bases is hard to understand.
Overall, in 2019 Harrison Bader’s wRC+ is 81, and he has been worth 1.3 wins above replacement. That’s still around a two and a half win pace over the course of a full season, but that is nowhere near the star we thought he might be in early September of 2018.
But let’s look a little closer at the offense, and see what reason there may be for optimism, shall we? Because, spoiler alert, there actually is some definite reason for optimism, even excitement.
At the end of July, Bader was sent down to the minors. At the time, his wRC+ was just 71. His BABIP was a brutal .259. His overall slash line stood at .195/.309/.339. There was an outcry at the time that sending him down was the worst kind of misevaluation; that Harrison Bader with that terrible batting line should still be starting everyday because he was so much better defensively than the alternatives, and this club just doesn’t understand defense, and that sort of thing. Personally, I had no problem with Bader being sent down; I always got the feeling the demotion was less about the club believing they were better off without him, and more about doing what was best for the player in hopes of helping him get back to his best self long term. I understand the frustration, but if a player is drowning, it’s best to throw him a life preserver rather than demand he keep swimming because you need him to.
There is a kernel of optimism built in to even those dire numbers through the end of July. It’s relatively easy to spot, of course, and I doubt I’m telling you anything you didn’t already feel at least implicitly. It’s that .309 on-base percentage. Now, a .309 OBP is not good, but when combined with a .195 batting average, it takes on a very different colour. Even with all his struggles, Harrison Bader in 2019 has been a markedly more patient hitter than he was in 2018. His walk rate in 2018 was 7.3%, which combined with a strikeout rate near 30% is concerning. This year through the 28th of July when he was sent down, however, his walk rate was 11.2%. His K rate was still 28.1%, which isn’t enough of an improvement to care much about, but a ~55% increase in walk rate is most definitely something to care about. The power wasn’t there, the hits weren’t coming, and he was still swinging and missing entirely too often, but Bader was doing a hell of a job taking walks when they were available.
Bader ended up being in the minors for just over three weeks. He torched the Pacific Coast League, putting up a 166 wRC+ in 75 trips to the plate. Strangely, that huge batting line was driving mostly by a crazy power output (.381 ISO), which was completely unlike anything he’s done at the big league level. Yes, it’s Triple A pitching and a hitter-friendly league, but a guy should not, you would think, be putting up nearly triple the power numbers by stepping down a level. Small sample size, I would assume, but still something to think about.
He returned on the 20th of August. And the 54 plate appearances he’s taken since that time are what I really want to talk about.
Over that time, Bader has posted a 129 wRC+. That’s good, obviously. Problem is, we’re talking about 54 PAs, and lots of things can happen over 54 plate appearances and two weeks. For instance, Bader’s BABIP over that time is .353, which if we’re going to be skeptical about his .358 BABIP in 2018, we have to look askance at as well. So to be fair, we have some iffy indicators.
However, there are a couple of things about which we can be excited without qualification. Two things, in fact.
The first is Bader’s hard-hit rate, which since returning from Memphis in August is a remarkable 48.6%. Actually, it isn’t just Bader’s rate of hitting the ball hard since his return; it’s his avoidance of weak contact as well. Bader’s soft contact percentage over this period of time is just 8.6%, his medium% is 42.9%, and his hard contact stands at 48.6%. That ratio basically looks like Matt Carpenter’s near-MVP 2018 season: 9.3%/41.7%/49.0% soft/medium/hard. So since August 20th, Harrison Bader has basically hit the ball hard as often — and avoided hitting the ball softly as well as — Matt Carpenter in his monster 2018 campaign.
It is worth noting Bader’s batted ball type distribution isn’t as productive as Carpenter’s; Bader hits the ball on the ground significantly more often, but for a player with his speed that isn’t the worst thing in the world. And really, I’m not saying Bader is going to be as good a hitter as Matt Carpenter circa 2018; I’m just saying he has hit the ball as well over a limited sample since coming back from working on his swing.
The other big thing — and this is maybe the biggest of all for me — is Bader’s plate discipline and contact numbers.
Over the course of his young career, Harrison Bader has been, well, kind of a hacker. His career walk rate coming into the 2019 season was 6.9%, while his strikeout rate stood at 28.7%. That’s obviously not a good ratio. Probably not unplayable, particularly considering all the other things he does well, but definitely limiting in terms of his offensive upside. I’ve already listed his plate discipline numbers this season through his demotion; the strikeout rate was basically the same, but a jump to an 11%+ walk rate is a huge deal in terms of approach. Still striking out too much, but patient enough that ‘hacker’ is no longer really applicable.
Since coming back from the minors, Harrison Bader’s plate discipline has been a thing a beauty.
Again, it’s 54 plate appearances, so big grains of salt on the glass and all that, but over that time, Bader is walking at a 16.7% clip. Even more impressively, his strikeout rate is just 18.5%. For his career through the end of 2018, Bader’s out of zone swing rate was 30.8%. Since the 20th of August, his o-swing% is just 20.4%. Career z-swing% prior to 2019: 65.6%. Swing percentage at pitches in the zone since coming back up: 51.0%. Now, as I always try to point out, swinging at fewer strikes is not necessarily a positive, but it’s also not necessarily a negative. Swinging at good pitches to hit is what you want to see, which would perhaps best be judged by looking at a hitter’s hard hit percentage. Which we have already done, and found plenty of reason to be excited. Swinging at balls is almost always bad, though, and thus a reduction in chase rate by a full third is something truly remarkable.
Now, do I expect that Harrison Bader will continue from this point on to work pitchers over like Joey Votto? Not really, no. But it’s worth noting that since going to the minors for three weeks to reset and try to work on his swing, Bader has done basically that for a not-insignificant period of time. This is a player whose plate approach coming in to 2019 was probably the biggest limiting factor on his offensive upside, and for at least a couple weeks he has managed the strike zone like the most elite of players. All season he has been far more patient, but since returning from Triple A he has taken that to a completely different level.
So what are we to make of all this? It’s tough to draw hard conclusions from 50 at-bats, obviously, and so we should try to avoid doing so. But what we have seen in 2019 is that even through extraordinarily difficult results, Harrison Bader’s approach has been very malleable, and he has pushed himself toward a better standard throughout. And since his Memphis vacation, not only has he made further improvements, his results have largely matched the underlying strides he has made. The power still hasn’t shown up the way you might expect for a guy who clearly has the physical strength and bat speed to do damage, certainly not anywhere near the degree of thump he showed against the PCL this year. However, if we take it as a given that Bader’s glove will remain elite, and his poor baserunning this season is more noise than signal, more blip than trend, then the offensive threshold for Bader to be a good player is pretty low. The threshold for him to be a great player isn’t even prohibitive, it doesn’t seem. And if the player we’ve seen patrolling center field and taking at-bats for the Cardinals since the 20th of August is anywhere near the player we might see going forward, the thresholds for good and great will almost certainly not matter.
Harrison Bader in 2019 has had a frustrating season. There is reason to believe, though, that the arrow is pointing up for Bader now going forward. And not just up, but way up. Some of these gains will almost certainly prove illusory, of course. We’ve seen countless players go to the minors, make some adjustments, get their confidence up, and then succeed upon returning to the big leagues, only to slip back down as the league adjusts right back to them, finding the new cracks created by the patch job over the old ones. But Harrison Bader doesn’t have to be a great hitter to be a star, only a decent one.
And if he does turn out to be not just a decent hitter, but one for whom a .289/.407/.447 line is not out of the question? Well, in that case we’ll be talking about Harrison Bader alongside all the other great center fielders in Cardinal history. So pump the brakes, obviously. But this is a 25 year old player who looks like an all-time defender, has improved his walk rate by half over his previous numbers, and has cut his strikeout by a huge margin since some intensive swing work in Memphis. It’s hard not to be very, very excited by what Harrison Bader is doing right now.