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Harrison Bader is still the Cardinals future

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Despite the slow start, there’s no reason to expect Bader to go away anytime soon.

Cincinnati Reds v St Louis Cardinals Photo by Dilip Vishwanat/Getty Images

What a difference a couple games makes. The absurdity of over reliance of small sample sizes strikes its ugly head again. I could be referring to any number of things, but in this particular case, I’m referring to Harrison Bader. And yes, I’m aware of the irony of my statement in a post where I appear to be doing that very same thing, now that his numbers have completely reversed.

I think the mistake a lot of baseball fans tend to make, and I am no exception, is that we like to think that players are basically machines, and the only reason they struggle or succeed is because of essentially luck. Harrison Bader looked genuinely bad at the plate for the majority of this season. His 41 wRC+ through Friday did not necessarily indicate he had bad luck. Here’s the thing: a player can have a stretch of 29 plate appearances where he looks like a worse hitter than some pitchers without that being indicative of the type of hitter he is.

Because just two games later, and Harrison Bader has a sustainable looking 144 wRC+ for the entire season. Just like that. Is he a different hitter than he was two days ago? Of course not. Something clicked for him. Maybe it took the lucky double he got yesterday to kick start him, maybe it was the homer, but he got his reps in and figured it out. Could he return to the Harrison Bader of the first 29 PAs after today? Entirely possible. We can’t predict the hot hand.

For the longest time, I’ve wanted to write an “Extend Harrison Bader” post. I needed to find that sweet spot between when he looked like the hitter I expect Harrison Bader to be, and he just sort of bulldozed through that sweet spot over the past two games. If he’s struggling too much, well then my own doubt creeps in. And if I did it now, well that would seem to be a massive overreaction to two great games, and I don’t want to be seen as that guy.

But like I said, I’ve wanted to write it since the beginning of last year. But it didn’t make a whole lot of sense to do it last year, not because he was always below that level that I expect Bader to be (though he was), but because it was a year too early. He still had the rest of last season, plus this season at a league minimum price, and while I love watching Bader, he’s not the type of player you extend a year too early.

But now? Well, an extension would kick in next year, when he starts making millions. Well maybe. That’s the other argument against signing him to an extension. His style of play does not lend itself to being compensated appropriately in arbitration. Elite level defenders at centerfield whose bats aren’t really impressive do not get paid what they’re worth typically. I’ll give you an example.

Back in 2017, Kevin Kiermaier signed a 6 year extension with the Tampa Bay Rays. We have a pretty good idea of what he’s worth in arbitration since he agreed to a deal to avoid arbitration before signing that deal. In 2017, as a Super Two player, Keirmaier signed a $2.975 million deal with the Rays. A year before he signed, Point of Pittsburgh did a study of what players in arbitration really got paid in comparison with their value. They found players in Super Two got 18% of their value. Which would make Kiermaier close to worth $16.5 million. He was a 4 WAR player the year before. 4.3 WAR player the year before that.

Now maybe Keirmaier should have taken his chances in arbitration, but he may have gotten even less than that. That $2.975 million was a negotiated middle of what the team and his agent submitted to the arbitration panel. So whether or not the panel would have said he was a $16.5 million player or not, they wouldn’t have said he was much better than that in any case. And yes, Keirmaier is probably a warning sign not to sign Bader so I’m hurting my own case for bringing him up.

Anyway, away from the extension talk, back to Bader as a player. The great thing about Bader is that his defense puts a very high floor on him as a player. We saw evidence of this last year. Bader hit for just an 81 wRC+, and even with that, he was a 1.8 fWAR player in just 406 PAs. Give him a full season, and he’s easily an above average player. And maybe I’m higher on his offense than most, but I suspect an 81 wRC+ would be on the very low end of his offensive output. Maybe an uptick in offense will be evened out by what will probably not remain +20 defense forever. Again though, better offense, little worse defense - last year was a 2.7 fWAR player over 600 PAs.

And yes, you don’t need to give him 600 PAs. When he’s struggling, sit him against right-handed pitchers who will give him fits. If it’s a really elite pitcher, well, that’s tricky, because runs will be at a premium so his defense would really help since I wouldn’t necessarily expect Lane Thomas to do anything against Max Scherzer either. But he should have at least 500 PAs a season, barring injury.

Along with his defense, I think his newfound patience will also raise his floor. Because the Bader we got from the minor leagues was not a patient hitter. He didn’t need to be. He had a minor league high walk rate of 7.1% before getting called up in late 2017. And since that point, he has walked enough in the majors and his second stint in the minors that ZiPS projects him as an 8.9 BB% hitter. The Bader we saw in 2017 was always unsustainably good. He has the tools to be a similar hitter without as much luck (.358 BABIP). Let me refer you again to his 2019, where he was an 81 wRC+ hitter: he had a .268 BABIP.

Bader doesn’t need to improve that much as a hitter anymore. He just needs better BABIP results. Whether that’s luck-related or making better contact or both, you wouldn’t expect a hitter with Bader’s speed to have a .268 BABIP. And again, ZiPS doesn’t. They largely take his career .310 BABIP at face value, projecting a .308 BABIP the rest of the way. Which is why, even without counting yesterday’s stats at the time of this writing, Bader is projected for a 92 wRC+. I suspect it will be higher once his homer, double, and walk are counted.

For those thinking Dylan Carlson’s return would bring about Bader’s demise, I wouldn’t write Bader off yet. For one thing, there’s no reason to think Lane Thomas belongs ahead of Bader. None at all. I like Lane Thomas. But his biggest problem is that he’s on a team with a 25-year-old with a career 123 wRC+ in AAA, a 26-year-old with 5.6 fWAR in 957 career PAs, a 21-year-old top 50 prospect in baseball, and a 34-year-old with 1,437 career games played. Yes, Dexter Fowler sticks out like a sore thumb there, but until he repeats his 2018, he’s getting starts.

So hop on the Bader train. I don’t think he’s going anywhere and I don’t think he should. Appreciate elite defense while we have it and anything he can give us with the bat is just extra. Everyone seems to argue for a player like Bader, but when push comes to shove, people just like offense more. Well, hopefully Bader makes the defense/offense argument irrelevant by also providing average offense. Because then, well, then he’s an All-Star.