Harrison Bader has the potential to be the best outfielder on the Cardinals team in 2020, and he likely will be unless one of the other young guys (O’Neill, Thomas, Williams, Carlson, etc.) breaks out. However, this might seem like an odd statement considering what he endured last season. He was briefly demoted to AAA Memphis, he was benched for the NLCS, and he finished the regular season with nearly 150 less at bats than Dexter Fowler and Marcell Ozuna despite posting a higher WAR than the former and a similar WAR to the latter. The reason for this is, of course, the idea that Harrison Bader is a bad hitter. However, while he struggled last season, bad batted ball luck played a large role, as John LaRue showed in his excellent article last week. Therefore, it was not be crazy to expect some statistical improvements from Bader this season. Even if he only improves slightly, then he is still going to be a solid player worth about 3 WAR over the course of a full 162 games.
It is clear that Harrison Bader struggled at the plate last season. He finished the season with an 81 wRC+ whhile striking out at a rate of 28.8%. It is also clear that Bader struggled to hit non-fastballs this season. The 25-year-old posted a .149 wOBA against curveballs, a .168 wOBA against sliders and a .199 wOBA against changeups. This is undeniably bad. However, Bader raked fastballs, recording a .399 wOBA and all 12 of his home runs against all fastball variations. While it seems like a problem that he can apparently only hit fastballs, bad luck likely had a role. In 2018, Bader recorded a .238 wOBA against sliders, which is not great, but it is certainly much better. Also in 2018, Bader tallied a .278 wOBA against curveballs and a .267 wOBA agaisnt changeups. All of these numbers are much better than 2019 Harrison Bader and it stands to reason that he might not actually be terrible at hitting off-speed and breaking pitches, he simply might have experienced some unfortunate luck. This would certainly fit with his profile last season.
In 2019 there was a 23 point spread between his wOBA (.293) and his xwOBA (.316). There was also a 40 point gap between his wOBAcon (.351) and his xwOBAcon (.391). A major factor in these discrepancies is a BABIP of .268, which is a whopping 90 points lower than his BABIP in 2018 (.358).
However, there are actually signs that Bader may have improved as a hitter in 2019. When compared to the speedster’s breakout 2018 season, his walk rate, strikeout rate, hard hit rate, barrel %, ISO, and exit velocity all improved. In fact, surprisingly, Harrison Bader had the fifth highest barrel % (9.9) on the team in 2019. And when players who received less than 40 at-bats (Lane Thomas and Rangel Ravelo) are factored out, he was behind only Marcell Ozuna (12.6) and Paul Goldschmidt (11.3). Also, among hitters who recorded more than 140 at-bats, Bader was 5th out of 13 Cardinals players in hard hit rate (35.3%).
All of these numbers demonstrate that Bader might not be a bad hitter, in fact he might even be a decent hitter or a slightly above average one. However, we simply do not know yet as he has only spent two years in the big leagues with two drastically different BABIP.
Even if it turns out that he is a career below average hitter (worst case scenario), he is such a good defender that he will still be a valuable outfielder. His 13 defensive runs saved and 21.8 UZR/150 guarantee that his floor should be at least 2 WAR if he is given at least around 450 plate appearances. Additionally his BsR (baserunning component of fWAR) regressed mightily in 2019, dropping from 7.6 to 0.7 which is weird considering his high end speed and the Cardinals overall baserunning improvements last season. As that can be expected to improve, it should give him an even higher floor as a player, even if his bat never becomes league average (which is unlikely).
With the impact that poor batted ball luck had on his hitting statistics, it does not seem like 2019 Harrison Bader is the real Harrison Bader, just like 2018 Harrison Bader is likely not the real one either. However, it seems that people were more willing to accept the 2019 struggles at the plate, leading to him getting benched and demoted. Clearly he is not as good as his box score statistics said he was in 2018, but he is also not as bad as his box score statistics said he was in 2019. The Cardinals need some of their young outfielders to pan out and become true starters, and Harrison Bader is already at that level. Therefore, he should be deployed in centerfield with confidence, not relegated to Memphis or the bench. His defense and baserunning give him a high floor, but if his hitting can take a step forward, then his ceiling could be very high. This gives him the profile of the Cardinals starting centerfielder for a full season’s slate of games, for 2020 and beyond.