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Is Harrison Bader getting better?

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The results for the last month or so have been better. Let’s take a spin through the underlying numbers.

MLB: SEP 14 Cardinals at Brewers - Game 1 Photo by Lawrence Iles/Icon Sportswire via Getty Images

At the end of July, I wrote that the Harrison Bader narrative had become clear. While there were a number of theories about the mercurial center fielder’s offensive profile, I concluded that the real story was he could not hit breaking pitches.

Since then, Bader’s production has improved dramatically. So I thought it would be worth taking a spin through some of the underlying numbers to see if something had changed, or if our on-again, off-again center fielder was simply just... on-again.

BABIP

The first stop I usually make on an “Is This Real?” tour is still BABIP. It’s an easy catch-all for momentary or even extended streaks that boil down mostly to luck.

In Bader’s very good 2018, he ran a .358 BABIP. In his not-very-good 2019, he posted a .268 BABIP. Thus far in 2020, he’s at .313. That all tracks. Bader’s BABIP went from flukishly high to flukishly low, and this season looks to be in between.

BABIP is a bit of a blunt instrument, and folks these days want to dig deeper into quality of contact, etc. And that’s all fun and illuminating, but BABIP still tells you much of the story on its own.

Still, Bader’s pushed his wRC+ up past the 107 mark he posted in 2018, all the way to 116 now. So maybe there’s more going on.

Strikeout/Walk Rates

Luck can play with your results when you put the ball in play, but when you don’t put the ball in play, you strikeout or walk (or homer). The rate a player does that tends to remain very stable, and if it changes it often marks a true growth in skill.

Nothing much to see here... Bader’s K% has been 29%, 29% and now 30%. His BB% went from 7% to 11%, and sits at 11% again this season.

Plate Discipline

If Bader’s K/BB rates are essentially the same, it might seem pointless to look at Plate Discipline. But here, we can see some very small changes.

In 2019, Bader seemed to be trying to combat the way pitchers were beginning to attack him with breaking stuff by simply swinging at fewer pitches. His swing rate dropped from 45% down to 40%. The problem was, he cut down on both his swings on pitches outside the strike zone AND pitches inside the strike zone.

As Zach Gifford noted in a very good piece at Birds on the Black, this meant Bader was taking more pitches middle-middle than almost any hitter in the game. In 2019, Bader swung at just 58% of pitches that were middle-middle. That put him in the bottom 1% in the league. The league-average player swings at a pitch middle-middle around 73% of the time.

This season, Bader has increased that to swing rate to 65% on pitches right down the middle. That’s a clear improvement... but it still puts him in just the 15th percentile overall.

The trend continues of Bader seeing fewer pitches in the strike zone each year of his career. For the most part, he’s just swinging more. His Swing% is up on both balls inside and outside the zone. But the added value from those swings in the zone are a net positive.

Breaking Balls

In my July post, I detailed Bader’s truly dreadful career numbers against breaking pitches. But checking back in, it looks possible that we may have some real improvement.

In 2019, Bader’s performance on sliders ranked 12th worst out of 207 players with at least 400 PAs - the 5th percentile. In 2020, his performance has skyrocketed all the way to the 59th percentile. He’s out of the negative and actually generating positive value vs. sliders.

Now, his numbers against curveballs are still pretty poor, but let’s see if we can sidestep that whole abstract argument about pitch classification.

Baseball Savant divides pitches into three categories: Fastballs, Breaking and Offspeed pitches. For every season of his career, teams have attacked Bader with more Breaking pitches and fewer of both Fastballs and Offspeed pitches.

So let’s look at how Bader has fared on Breaking pitches over the last three years:

Pitchers are clearly still trying to attack Bader by throwing him more breaking stuff - likely because they read my July post. It certainly worked in 2019. But in 2020, Bader has cut his whiffs on breaking balls dramatically. That’s led to a huge jump in his production against breaking pitches, though the xWOBA suggests that production might be a bit juiced with batted ball luck.

The Conclusion?

All of this has to be couched in the caveat that - by looking at a portion of a 60-game season - we are considering a very small sample size. Even so, I think there’s reason for optimism.

Much, probably most, of the improvement we’re seeing in Bader’s 2020 performance is just the Fickle Finger of Batted Ball Fate. His overall profile in terms of strikeout and walk rates is not really changing. But through the window of how teams are attacking him: They are targeting him more than ever with breaking balls, but he shows signs of improving his results against breaking pitches.