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The hidden competition between Justin Williams and Lars Nootbaar

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Two extremely similar players probably can’t coexist as bench players, so one of them will have to win.

MLB: St. Louis Cardinals at Pittsburgh Pirates Charles LeClaire-USA TODAY Sports

The Cardinals are in search of a fourth outfielder. With no money to spend and no desire to lose prospects, their search is limited to internal options. At the beginning of the season, the role could have went to any of Justin Williams, Austin Dean, or Lane Thomas. Scott Hurst unexpectedly joined the conversation for a minute and Lars Nootbaar hit his way into the conversation. It got so bad that the answer has been, for quite some time during this season, an actual infielder, in the form of Tommy Edman or Jose Rondon.

For now, Nootbaar gets his chance. It is not totally clear he’s the answer, at least for this season. Hell, there may be no answer for this season. Harrison Bader is starting a rehab assignment soon - or already started it - and the fourth outfielder becomes about as important as a fourth outfielder and not extremely important, being the biggest hole in the lineup.

And yes, I’m aware that more than just the third outfielder is a problem, the thing is that the other seven starters either have a very strong track record (Goldschmidt, Arenado, DeJong), or strong defense which can pair with below average offense (Edman, arguably Molina since he’s a catcher not because he’s still a strong defender, and even though his offense has been more than fine, Tyler O’Neill too!). And Bader fits into the second group obviously, and would be an offensive improvement over literally every other outfielder who has replaced him thus far. You kind of get why I want to keep emphasizing every chance I get that the offense isn’t the problem, the pitching is? Because there’s literally nothing you can do with the offense. With Bader back, every starter should be at least average and has a good chance to be above average. Except arguably Molina, but not like there’s this great catcher market out there even if we wanted to upgrade.

Anyway, two of the stronger candidates are very similar players. They’re both left-handed, and they both hit the ball on the ground a ton. They hit the ball hard. I guess that’s about it as far as the comparison goes, but hard hitting grounders is a difficult profile to make into a good hitter, and the best example of this profile is Eric Hosmer, who is rather famous for being a good hitter every other year. Not exactly a guy you want to be compared to. Now granted, a Hosmer who plays a decent RF is much more valuable than the real Hosmer, who plays 1B, but still.

So, Lars Nootbaar and Justin Williams. It would seem rather unlikely that one MLB roster would have a place for both of these guys, and in that respect, Nootbaar has the advantage. For one, he has not had any of his options burned yet, though at least one will likely be burned by the end of this year. That still leaves two more years he can be sent down, which means two more years to prove himself. Justin Williams last option was burned when he came off the IL, although I believe if he’s called up within 20 days, it will not be burned. It doesn’t seem likely he’ll be called up before the 20 days are up, which means his option will be burned.

Justin Williams was drafted out of Terrebonne High School in Hourna, Louisiana in the 2nd round of the 2013 MLB draft. He was unusually young, not turning 18-years-old until the August after he was drafted. Despite being so young, he did not have much trouble in the lower minors. He had a 138 wRC+ in the AZL and hit .412 in 11 games in the Pioneer League in his age-17 season. He was still just 18 the next year, so he repeated the Pioneer League and again hit for a 138 wRC+. He finished the year with a 131 wRC+ in Low A ball.

He was then traded by the DBacks to the Rays with another prospect for Jeremy Hellickson in the next offseason. He was sent to Low A by the Rays - still 19 - and hit for a respectable 107 wRC+. They promoted him to High A for the last 23 games of 2015 and he finally hit a roadblock with a 65 wRC+. He repeated High A in 2016 and only stayed there for 51 games - a 133 wRC+. He finished AA with a 106 wRC+, then had a 145 wRC+ through 96 games the next year. Then we pretty much know the story. He was slightly below average in his first go-round at AAA, got traded to the Cards as part of the Tommy Pham deal, and a number of unfortunate things have led to him only getting 85 games in AAA as a member of the Cardinals - which includes 11 games this year. He’s been here since 2018. That’s insane.

If one wanted to be encouraged by this, he does have a history of being okay at his new level, and then crushing at that level once he’s adjusted. This happened in AAA too. He wasn’t that great in his first 115 games - most of which were for the Rays - and then had a 152 wRC+ in AAA in 2019 in just 36 games. Now, it’s really a shame we couldn’t see what he would do to AAA last year, because it sure would go a long way towards what we should see in him. He has just a 57 wRC+ through 11 games in AAA, but 11 games. (Also he went 2-4 on Sunday, which is not reflected in that 57 wRC+)

Meanwhile, Nootbaar has nearly the opposite route to the big league. He went to college, was drafted out of USC and wasn’t a terribly high pick, coming in the 8th round of the 2018 draft. And he rose through the system as fast as reasonably possible, especially given he had no possibility to rise through the system in 2020. He spent the second half of 2018 in the minors, the full year in 2019, and a little over two months in 2021.

But both of them cannot stop hitting the ball on the ground. Williams has a 53.4 GB% in the majors and has been hitting the ball on the ground 65.5% of the time in AAA. I checked the Memphis box score today, and it looks like he hit the ball on the ground three times out of a possible three times in Sunday’s game, so it’s higher than 65.5% by the time you read this. Nootbaar’s GB% is currently at 70.6% in the majors, though I will note that he lined out twice on Sunday, so it will be lower by the time you read this. It was 46.8% in AAA.

If one were to be successful with this strategy, Nootbaar seems to have the better contact profile. You simply cannot strike out as much as Justin Williams does and also hit the ball on the ground half the time. Nootbaar does not have a strikeout problem. His K% in AAA was just 18.3% and so far he has just one strikeout in his first 22 MLB PAs. He also has a 14 BB% in AAA, though the version of Nootbaar we’ve seen in the majors would never walk anywhere near that much. He’s seen just 2.8 pitches per plate appearances. No way that’s his true talent, just noting that part of his current not striking out is because he’s not getting deep into counts - which will cost him walks (even though it hasn’t so far)

With that said, it’s difficult for me to give up on Justin Williams. While he has struck out 33.6% of the time, he also has a .317 xwOBA. I suspect he hits the ball harder than Lars Nootbaar when he makes contact. And by a decent amount. But “when he makes contact” is a very important qualifier. There’s also Williams’ history of adjustments to new levels that gives me encouragement. Williams has barely played baseball in the last two years - that has to have some effect on his game I’d think.

What I’m saying is I’d like to give Williams another crack at the big leagues at some point. Give him a month, maybe two months in AAA. Whenever his performance could justify a call-up. If it never justifies a call-up, he’s probably not a major league player. But if he has a 110 wRC+, 120 wRC+, whatever, call him up and try to get him some plate appearances in the second half, see how he adjusts. Just to see if he gives the Cards anything to make them want to bring him back next year, with no options. I just think there’s not a good way to make that decision if we don’t see more MLB PAs from him personally.

The Nootbaar decision is much less time-sensitive. It’s very straightforward. I wonder if he’ll be sent down when Bader comes back, if only because the plate appearances won’t really be there. You get him his taste of the big leagues, let him go back to AAA and crush and he may be better prepared the next time you call him up. I’m not sure if that’s the Cardinals plan or not. Nootbaar has an xwOBA of just .290 and it looks like his two batted balls had xBAs of .250 and .020 so I don’t think today will help with that number. So Bader may very well replace Nootbaar on the roster, and that’d be fine because you probably want to start Bader-TON-Carlson just about every game anyway.

So Nootbaar vs. Williams will be the fight of the rest of the season that isn’t really a fight. Because they are two fairly similar players. Similar enough that it doesn’t really make sense to carry both on the roster, especially if both are expected to be bench players. And that, more than his play and more than his options, really puts Justin William’s career as a Cardinal in jeopardy. Because Nootbaar can keep getting sent to AAA if he sucks, while Williams is going to have to perform at the MLB level and soon.