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Harrison Bader Can Be a Consistently Productive Hitter

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

In the 2020 season, there were exactly zero players on the St. Louis Cardinals with a better barrel rate than Harrison Bader (minimum 20 BBE). Bader’s barrel rate (11.9%) was over a full percentage better than Paul Goldschmidt’s (10.7%), the next closest hitter. 2020 was a short season, however, so this translated to just eight barreled balls for Bader. Of these eight, three were sinkers, three were four-seamers, and two were sliders. This makes sense as Bader typically crushes fastballs and struggles against breaking balls. However, it is encouraging that two of these barrels came against sliders. J.P. Hill wrote an excellent article about Bader’s improvement against breaking balls earlier in the offseason, and when Bader combines his improvement against breaking balls with his ability to generate a lot of barrels, he has real potential to be a productive hitter.

2020 was not the only season that Bader posted a strong barrel rate. In 2019, he was second on the team (minimum 40 BBE) in barrel rate, behind only Paul Goldschmidt (11.3%). Bader’s 9.9% barrel rate that season was largely due to his ability to crush fastballs as 21 of his 23 barrels came against some variation of the fastball.

While just two of Bader’s barrels in 2020 came against sliders, he also only barreled two non-fastballs in 2019. The difference between the two years of course is the length of the season, as the abbreviated 2020 season led to nearly 300 fewer plate appearances. Therefore, the fact that Bader was able to barrel the same amount of non-fastballs in 2020 as he did in 2019 demonstrates his improvement as an all around hitter. Additionally, this improvement can be seen on pitches that Statcast labels as as “Solid Contact”. In 2019, Bader made solid contact with 18 pitches, and just four were non-fastballs (one curveball, one changeup, two sliders). However, in 2020, Bader made solid contact with 8 pitches, and four were non-fastballs (one curveball, one changeup, two sliders). Once again, this is the same story as Bader had just as many individual solid contact events with non-fastballs in 2020 as he did in the year before. The only difference, obviously, is the lengths of the season.

For someone who strikes out as much as Bader, it is interesting that he can barrel a ball as often as he does. Most of this is due to his ability to crush fastballs, but recently he has shown an ability to occasionally crush non-fastballs. Obviously the improvement in 2020 has the danger of small sample size. However, with the improvements that J.P. Hill highlighted on Bader’s ability to hit breaking balls, and the improvements that Bader has made in his barrel rate, it seems that this change is real.

Bader’s barrel rate has risen every year since 2018, going from 6.9% in 2018 to 9.9% in 2019 to 11.9% in 2020. This is strong improvement from Bader and if he can maintain it next season, then he could potentially be a better than league average hitter. Additionally, for a hitter with a lot of swing and miss (28.3% whiff rate in 2020), Bader’s ability to barrel the baseball allows for him to do more damage when he does make contact, which helps him provide value despite having a career .234 batting average.

Of Bader’s eight barrels last season, four cleared the fence, one landed for a double, and one landed for a triple. This clearly made up a good chunk of Bader’s production. When Bader’s barrel rate is extrapolated to fit the number of batted ball events that he experienced in 2019 (the last full season), then Bader is left with 26.7 barrels. These roughly 27 barrels are four more than Bader posted in 2019. Of these 23 2019 barrels, Bader hit 10 home runs and 6 doubles. Therefore, Bader’s 2019 production could have been expected to increase by around 1-2 home runs and 1-2 doubles simply due to more barrels in 2020.

However, Bader also increased his solid contact rate from 8% in 2019 to 11.9% in 2020. On these batted ball events, Bader has posted a wOBA near .600 over the course of his career. Therefore, when Bader’s 2020 barrel rate and solid contact rates are extrapolated to the number of his 2019 batted ball events, he gains an additional 9 balls hit with a wOBA around .600. Even though this is just four more barrels and 9 more solid contacts, these 13 batted ball events have a large impact on Bader’s overall numbers due to their ideal combination of exit velocity and launch angle. Therefore, adding 13 more of these balls to Bader’s 2019 production makes him look like a much more productive hitter.

Obviously, this is a rough calculation that involves a lot of assumptions, such as Bader being able to maintain a 11.9% barrel rate and an 11.9% solid contact rate over the course of roughly a full season. However, Bader’s contact rates remained almost exactly the same between 2019 and 2020, so a similar amount of plate appearances, should lead to a similar amount of batted ball events. Therefore, if Bader can maintain these barrel rate and solid contact rate improvements in 2021, then he has a good chance of being at least a league average hitter. There is reason to believe that this is possible as he appears to have improved against breaking pitches. If this is the case, then he will be able to barrel more of these pitches, instead of only barreling fastballs, which should help him maintain his barrel rate improvements. This would make Bader a much more productive hitter, and would allow the Cardinals to have one outfield spot locked down for the foreseeable future.