There are a few obvious standouts on the Cardinals team as they sit in first place by 3.5 games. Nolan Arenado is posting Coors level numbers without the benefit of Coors, Tommy Edman is striving to 200 hits, Dylan Carlson is making his best rookie of the year case that he can, and Yadier Molina has found power we haven’t seen in years. Hidden among that group is Harrison Bader, who might not seem like a standout, but with a 108 wRC+, would be a literal All-Star if he maintained that all year with his elite defense in center. He also has a .229 BABIP.
To repeat myself, Bader has a 108 wRC+ with just a .229 BABIP. It’s not his power. Well, it is his power, but that’s not the outlier. His .217 ISO is certainly higher than you’d expect, but it’s also not THAT out of line with expectations either. Bader with a .217 ISO is in fact a 108 wRC+ hitter.... but with a normal BABIP. Not .229. No, Bader has been able to be a 108 wRC+ hitter with a .229 BABIP, because he has stopped striking out. Take your best guess at his K rate. It’s probably lower than that. Unless you’ve looked at his stats recently, and then this game isn’t fun. Go ahead look at his stats now. Shockingly low, right?
Bader has nine strikeouts on the year. He has 70 plate appearances. This means that he has a 12.9 K%, which coincidentally is the exact same as his BB rate. He has as many walks as strikeouts. Is this for real?
Short answer: absolutely not. Enjoy the ride while it lasts. For starters, he’s been intentionally walked five times. So his K rate not including intentional walks is 13.8%. That... doesn’t change much, does it? I can still write this article. Awesome. His BB rate, however, can be completely ignored, unfortunately. He did not intentionally walk last night, making his BB rate, ignoring plate appearances ending in an IBB, at 6.2%. Would you take a Bader with a 13.8 K% and 6.2 BB%? I’m not sure a single person would say no to that.
First and most important question that must be asked. Has Bader had a sample of games like this one before? Which is to say, has Bader ever displayed an 18 game sample where his strikeout rate was as low as it right now?
It has happened once and in fact he was even better at not striking out then. Back in late September of his rookie season, he had an 18 game sample of a 10% K rate. He hasn’t really come all that close to either that number or his current stretch at any other point of his career though. When he’s “not striking out” normally, it tends to be in the under 20% range and his next lowest, outside of his rookie season and now, is 17.8%. So this is a rare occurrence.
Has anything changed to make us think his K rate is for real? I’m going to have to give a hat tip to Zach Gifford for showing me this stat, but Bader has his highest contact% with 2 strikes on him by far in his young career. After a rookie season that saw him at least hit bat to ball on 40.5% of pitches with a 2-strike count, Bader settled in the 44% range the last three years. So far this season, it’s 65.4%. Makes sense. He’s not swinging and missing as much with two strikes, so he’s not striking out. We both asked “has this happened before over a stretch games similar to this one?”
Again, we’re in rarified air here, but it has sort of happened before. Last night’s game would not help his case, as he was in one 2-strike count and swung and miss. So his numbers would be about in line with his previous career high, somewhere between pitch 800 and 1,000. Interestingly that was certainly not late in his rookie season. I’m guessing that 55% early in the graph, however was.
Okay, so there’s precedent. Let’s look at the underlying behavior behind his change. Excluding his 92 PAs in his rookie season, Bader’s Z-swing% is his highest of his career. Z-swing means swinging at pitches in the strike zone. His 68.1% is better than his career of 62.3%. He is also swinging at pitches outside of the strike zone less than ever before. His O-swing% is 26.7%, while his career average is 29.5%. He’s also just straight up swinging and missing less as well. His 8.6% - or however high it is now - is lower than his career average of 10.6%.
If you were wondering, he has done all these things individually before in an 18 game sample, but the question is - has he done them all at the same time. Luckily, this will take no work at all. Because as you see, his only time having a K% remotely this low was at the end of 2017. Again, no other time compares to his current stretch. And to end 2017, Bader.... sucked. His 10 K% stretch features some truly putrid hitting from Bader.
This also happened in just 40 PAs, not 70. But he batted .194/.250/.222 with a .212 BABIP. So actually, let me amend the above statement. Bader has in fact never had a stretch like this with regards to strikeouts. Bader wasn’t a full-time player in 2017. Bader had a higher Z-swing%, an O-swing% in line with his career (not 2021), and a swinging strike% in line with his career as well. He had the exact same contact% as he does now (excluding yesteday’s game), but it includes much less contact on pitches outside of the zone and more in the zone.
This is... interesting right? At the very least, Bader has never struck out this little and been actually good at hitting. He hasn’t been even close to this level of strikeouts over 70 PAs either. It could be as simple as him discovering how to hit breaking balls. Whether that is now a talent of his and not a small sample is impossible to say right now. But he’s in uncharted territory here. And that’s something to pay attention to.
Last thing I’ll cover: what counts Bader finds himself in. In 2021, he has been in 33 2-strike counts. He has struck out in nine of these plate appearances. For his career, he has been in 661 2-strike counts out of 1,120 career PAs. So the simple answer to my question may just be that he’s avoiding 2-strike counts. And making contact more when he is in one. Because for his career, 59% of his plate appearances end up with two strikes. In 2021, that’s just 47.1%. And when finds himself in a 2-strike count, Bader has struck out 47.6% of the time in his career. This year, it’s just 27.3%.
So there’s your answer. He’s avoiding bad counts, and staving off strikeouts when he finds himself in that count. Best of both worlds. The question is: can he keep this up? Aside from the answer being no, I wonder if generally avoiding bad counts will stay better than his career, because it will lead to less walks.
It’s clear to me that the current version of Bader is sacrificing walks for strikeouts, which is absolutely a worthwhile tradeoff if his K rate is this low. But if it’s between 20-25%, it might just make him the same player who strikes out less. And hey if he does that, great for him, because fans will like him more even if he’s the same exact player, value-wise. The key to follow and for Bader himself, is to find that uneasy balance between strikeouts and walks. And for his power to not be affected, but honestly that doesn’t seem to be an issue if he’s a free swinger in my opinion. It’s mostly the walks/strikeouts thing.
It’s kind of cool that I’m now tracking two Cardinals players (Bader and Tommy Edman) strikeouts on a daily basis in an age of increasing strikeouts. Throw in Nolan Arenado and it begins to make sense why the Cardinals team K% is sixth best in the majors. Yes, that’s how much people strike out now. Take how much the Cardinals strike out and put it in your mind that it’s the sixth fewest strikeouts of anybody. The Tigers, as a team, are striking out 29% of the time! Cardinals do face Detroit this year in mid-June so we’ll see their hitting.
So in summary, because I don’t know how to end this, Bader: not striking out, hasn’t happened before, who knows what this means for his future, enjoy the ride.