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Harrison Bader is Improving Against Breaking Balls

It’s all about breaking balls for Bader. His improvements have him trending up.

MLB: SEP 27 Brewers at Cardinals Photo by Keith Gillett/Icon Sportswire via Getty Images

There it is. The blandest title I could come up with for this article.

It’s a sharp contrast from the last Harrison Bader analysis article I wrote, my first here at Viva El Birdos. I tried to get cute with that headline, making a play-on-words about Bader’s struggles with breaking pitches: “Is Harrison Bader Broken”? That title landed my article in Bader’s “virtual trash can” and my Twitter timeline in the foul graces of rabid fanboys (and girls).

(Here’s the Tweet I’m referring to.)

No more cute titles for me!

If anyone had bothered to read beyond the lede for that one, they would have found a pretty simple and hardly controversial point. Bader wasn’t very good in 2019. There’s no way to disguise his .205/.314/.366 slash line and .293 wOBA as anything but bad.

I offered a simple recipe for improvement in 2020 — one Bader himself echoed. He just had to spend the offseason hitting breaking balls and his offense would probably bounce back to previous expectations.

He did what he said he would do. He worked on breaking pitches all winter and it paid off with an overall .226/.336/.443 line and a .779 OPS in 2020.

Harrison Bader is improving.

That title is boring... but it’s also true.

A magical thing begins to happen to second-tier players when they enter their 3rd or 4th season in the big leagues. All that statistical noise from part-time play, shifting roles, and small sample sizes begin to even out. Plate appearance after plate appearance for 300+ games smooth the stat sheet wrinkles. The result is a clearer picture of who a player actually is and more accurate projections of how they will perform.

Did you know that Bader just passed 1000 career plate appearances this season? It’s true. We’re just now exiting “DANGER! SMALL SAMPLE SIZE!” analytics from Bader. (That’s an important point to remember when considering fellow outfield enigma Tyler O’Neill.) We’re finally reaching the point where we can draw some more definitive conclusions about who Harrison Bader is as a hitter and what we can expect from him in his prime.

We’re going to focus mostly on breaking balls. The following chart outlines Bader’s performance against breaking pitches by season, including his short rookie campaign in 2017.

Harrison Bader Against Breaking Balls 2017-2020

2017 30.3 .332 .255 49
2018 31.1 .340 .241 38.2
2019 37.2 .220 .163 36.9
2020 39.1 .368 .276 29.9

Baseball is a brutal game. When pitching coaches find a flaw in your swing, they will exploit it ruthlessly. Bader has experienced that in an extreme way. When Bader entered the league in 2017, he already had a reputation of problems with breaking stuff. The minor league scouting reports were accurate. He saw a higher-than-average breaking ball percentage his first time through the league and didn’t do well against them. He produced a .255 wOBA and a WHIFF% of 49% in just under 100 PAs.

In 2018, Bader’s first full season, the young center fielder made some slight progress. His breaking ball rate increased by about a percentage point and his wOBA against breakers dropped by .014. He didn’t whiff quite as often, but his rate was still pretty bad.

Pitchers, though, don’t just throw curve balls. While Bader was struggling against breaking balls, he was crushing fastballs. His wOBA against fastballs was .395. He’s an MVP-caliber hitter against hard stuff.

Consider that profile from the perspective of a pitching coach. Bader had over 500 PAs worth of tape and analytics telling them not to throw fastballs and to throw Bader as many curves and sliders as they could. The league went into “FINISH HIM” mode and nearly succeeded.

In 2019 the percentage of breaking pitches rose league-wide and Bader was near the head of that peak. Bader saw the 6th most curves + sliders of any batter (with a minimum of 200 pitches faced). His fastball percentage dropped by 6 points; he saw the 19th lowest percentage of fastballs.

Good breaking balls, bad breaking balls… it didn’t matter. In 2019, Bader couldn’t hit them and pitchers kept throwing them. While Bader’s performance against fastballs remained the same – indicating that he wasn’t just slumping of having bad luck for a season – his already weak statistics against breaking balls nosedived. Bader finished the season with a cringe-worthy .163 wOBA against breakers. He had only 18 hits all season against curves and sliders.

Entering 2020 there was no reason to think that pitchers would let up. They had found his kryptonite. This season Bader’s breaking ball percentage jumped again – all the way to 39.1%.

How did he do against them? Not great. But incredibly well.

Yes, both those statements can be true. Bader produced a wOBA of .276. That’s not great. It’s bad by any measure of wOBA. However, considering where Bader’s wOBA aginast breaking balls was in ’19, it’s a huge positive jump in production. He added over 100 points of wOBA against curves and sliders! He also improved his WHIFF% against breakers to 29.9% – the lowest of his career.

Meanwhile, Bader was his usual self against fastballs – providing a .374 wOBA against hard pitches, which he saw over half the time.

Average a very good .374 wOBA against fastballs with a pretty bad .276 wOBA against breaking balls, throw in a handful of offspeed pitches, and voila, the end result is a .332 overall wOBA.

That’s the point I’ve made over and over with Bader for a full year. He doesn’t have to be good against breaking balls. He’s so good against fastballs that any kind of production at all against breaking pitches is enough to him make him an average-to-good starting center fielder, assuming his normal elite defense.

In other words, as boring as it is as a headline, Bader is improving.

This isn’t limited to breaking balls. Bader’s walk percentage has climbed from 5.4% in ’17 to over 10% (11.3 in ’19) two seasons in a row. His ISO has climbed every season of his career. He’s still just 26. He’s poised to have his best seasons right now.

Bader isn’t alone with this kind of offensive profile. The reason breaking ball percentages are increasing league-wide is because the majority of hitters simply can’t hit sliders and curveballs as well as they can fastballs. That’s the entire reason why Adam Wainwright is still in the league.

It’s worth noting that there might be some room for Bader to grow against fastballs, too. His .374 wOBA against fastballs — .02 below previous seasons — and lower overall exit velocity could be tied to the extreme playing environment caused by COVID. (I will continue to reference this article in my offseason analysis. It’s content is vital to understand the direct and indirect impact that COVID had on all Cardinals hitters last season.)

History tells us there’s reason to believe that Bader’s wOBA against fastballs should return to the .390+ range. If he can simply maintain his improved level of “bad” performance against curves and sliders and recover some of his performance against fastballs, then that .331 wOBA could slide into the .340+ range.

At that point, with his level of defense, the Cardinals would have an age-27 “career year” from Harrison Bader.

There’s our high point. Odds of seeing it would increase if the Cardinals did a better job of managing Bader’s exposure. With Thomas, O’Neill, and Carlson all capable of playing center, there’s no reason to force Bader to face righties with tough breaking pitches regularly. Those would be great days to give Bader some rest.

On average, Bader will probably still be a 2.5-3.5 fWAR player (with 4.0 in the career year I’m pointing toward). Fangraphs’ Steamer is a little less optimistic, giving him 1.9 fWAR in 501 PA’s. There’s a lot about their projection I like. I do take issue with his projected walk rate. At 9.5 that’s a point below his now well-established norms. As is always the case, projections normalize defense; the Cardinals can and do expect more from him with the glove than Steamer wants to give him. Adjust those to two areas upward and Steamer is right there with me.

What does that mean for Bader? It means the Cardinals should hang on to him and start him in center field next year. Or it means that the Cardinals can use him as one of their few relatively worthwhile trading chips.

Personally? I would keep him. I would try to get that career year from him. Someone is going to get a .340 wOBA and 4.0 fWAR season from him in the next 2-3 seasons. It shoudl be the Cardinals.