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Bader is Peaking

Bader has improved against breaking balls. And against allergens. That’s led him to peak production.

Syndication: The Enquirer Albert Cesare / The Enquirer via Imagn Content Services, LLC

Note: this article was written before the Cards game on 7/27, in which Bader went 3-4 with a HR and two hard hit doubles. All of the stats will listed below, including the expected stats will be going up. In other words, he’s peaking! On with the article…

Harrison Bader has been exceptional for the Cardinals this season.

He currently carries a .289/.358/.507 slash line. That translates to a .360 wOBA and a 129 wRC+. Both of those numbers are second on the team and just percentage points behind team-leader Tyler O’Neill.

While the club entered the season with questions across its outfield, O’Neill and Bader have more than answered those with excellent offensive and defensive seasons. Young Dylan Carlson is still waiting for that power surge we all expect, but he has more than held his own.

At the 100 game mark, the only problem with the outfield has been health. Bader has missed most of the first half of the season. O’Neill has been on the IL and missed sporadical games with various injuries. Carlson has stayed healthy, but he’s also been forced to play more centerfield than expected, where he has been inconsistent.

The play of those three, assuming some hoped-for improvement from Carlson as he ages, has fans openly wondering if the Cardinals have finally solved their outfield problems for the future. Can the club head into 2022 with those three, plus some needed depth, and contend for championships?

Your answer to that question might depend on whether you view the current production of both Bader and O’Neill as sustainable. We’ll deal with O’Neill in a later article. For now, let’s center in on “Aybay” Bader.

Sticking with traditional evaluation methods, what Harrison Bader is doing this season seems relatively sustainable. His slash line, wOBA, and wRC+ are all well above what anyone expected this season, but there are underlying numbers to support this kind of improvement. His walk rate, low in his first two seasons, has now settled in between 9-11%. That’s good production and exceptional improvement. His strikeout rate was high before this season but he has cut that in half. He sports a 16.4% K% right now. He’s making better contact but he’s also not overly lucky. His BABIP is an average .303.

Bader is building his success by working hard to correct his flaws: issues with his swing and recently diagnosed physical limitations.

Bader’s struggles against breaking balls are well documented. In 2019, he produced just a .153 wOBA against breaking pitches. The more he struggled against those pitch types, the more he saw. His fastball rate plummeted. Pitchers threw curves and sliders almost 40% of the time in 2019 and 2020. Bader’s overall production tanked.

I argued at the time that all Bader had to do was not be historically bad against breaking pitches and he would easily return to being a quality starting center fielder. He flashed signs of improvement in 2020, hitting a still bad .270 wOBA against those pitch types. Because of his ability to hit fastballs, even that meager improvement helped Bader tremendously. His wOBA jumped from .293 to .337. His wRC+ went from 81 to 113.

Those were encouraging signs. The problem was the sample size – just 50 games. Could he repeat his improved approach against breaking balls?

He’s done more than that. This season, Bader is up to an exceptional .414 wOBA against breaking balls. He’s hitting .347 on breaking pitches and slugging over .600.

Bader hasn’t just improved against breaking balls. He’s become a breaking ball-bashing beast!

His improvements are not limited to his swing against pitch types. Physical changes are also contributing to his better play.

This offseason Bader had polyps removed from his sinuses. Those were increasing his seasonal allergies, which caused congestion and watery eyes. That affected both his balance and his eyesight. It was readily noticeable in the batter’s box.

If you want more information on the procedure and its impact, check out Jeff Jones’ article here.

Besides the improvement against breaking balls, the biggest outlier in Bader’s statistics this season is his strikeout rate, which he has cut in half. Projection systems, like ZiPS, expect that rate to regress to its established norms of around 28%. Because of his surgery, it’s hard to write off the improvement he has made in his strikeout rates and batting average. Improved balance and eyesight really could have a massive impact on his contact rates.

Those two improvements force a re-evaluation of Bader’s production and profile. With 159 PAs this season, Bader has already produced 1.6 fWAR. Translated to a 600 PA pace, that becomes 6 fWAR. That’s near MVP caliber production. That’s prime Matt Holliday or Matt Carpenter numbers. That would be incredible.

It’s also somewhat believable since Bader has such elite defensive value at such a critical defensive position. A 129 wRC+ isn’t an All-Star bat. A 129 wRC+ from a best-in-the-league center field defender probably is.

If you’re still looking for Bader’s ceiling, I think we’ve found it. Bader is peaking right now.

Can he keep this up?

While BABIP, K-rates, and BB-rates support Bader’s offensive production so far, the more advanced metrics raise some red flags.

Bader’s exit velocity is the lowest of his career at the moment I type this on Tuesday morning – 85.9 mph. That’s about even with his rookie season and 2020. His high came in 2019, when he managed an 88.3 average despite a pretty terrible overall offensive season.

Statcast takes a look at that, along with his batted ball profile (more ground balls) and spits out some expected (x) stats that are notably lower than his actual stats:

Actual vs. expected batting average: .289 vs. .254
Actual vs. expected slugging percentage: .507 vs. .441
Actual vs. expected wOBA: .360 vs. .326

Even though Bader’s BABIP isn’t much off average, his advanced metrics don’t support the kind of power he’s seen. Statcast expected some of his homers to be flyouts, some doubles to be singles, some ground ball singles to be ground outs. If that would have happened, his overall offensive line would be down.

That doesn’t mean it would be bad. Just turn those expected stats into a “Statcast” projected slash line (AVG/wOBA/SLUG): .254/.326/.441.

That’s not peak Bader. But it’s a line that feels very familiar.

His actual “Statcast” line in 2020 was .226/.337/.443. His improved eyesight can account for the bump in batting average. Otherwise, Statcast’s regressions are still right in line with his most recent production.

COVID limits Bader’s sample size from 2020. Injury limits it in 2021. Combined, though, his actual stats + expected stats provide 91 games and 284 PAs of really solid offensive production.

For his career, we can add in another 128 games and 427 comparable PAs from 2018, where he produced a .326 wOBA.

That’s a lot of actual and projected production that’s within a small range of variance.

Bader might be peaking right now, but we’re also getting a pretty good look at his current floor. In a career year, Bader can sneak up to the .360 range in wOBA. But, he’s probably a .326 wOBA player year-to-year.

After what we saw in 2019, I’ll take that!

Speaking of 2019, it’s not like that season can just be forgotten or explained away. Yes, his BABIP tanked. Yes, he couldn’t touch breaking pitches. None of that fits well with the rest of his career. It looks more and more like an outlier that we should not let define Bader going forward, especially in light of the positive physical and swing changes that he has made.

There are 62 games left in the season. That’s more remaining games for Bader than he’s played so far this season. We’ll have to see how long this peak version of Bader lasts. Regardless, I think he’s already done enough to solidify his floor as, at worst, a pretty good major league centerfielder.

And the future?

The Cardinals likely have their 2022 starting outfield set. O’Neill, Bader and Carlson are a solid, young outfield with great defense and some upside. The Cardinals don’t have an obvious reason to move on from any of those players.

Except that they aren’t a very good club overall. Between 2020 and 2021, the Cardinals have played 158 games of .500 baseball. They are tracking toward another third-place finish; this would be their third since 2015 if the standings stay as they are. The roster is also largely set for 2022. Any improvement has to come from displacing someone the club is currently planning to have and use. Like Tommy Edman or Paul DeJong. Adam Wainwright or Yadier Molina. Dakota Hudson or Miles Mikolas.

Bader is not one of the team’s problems. He is, however, one of their most useful assets. A few years ago, the Marlins turned a peak season from arb-eligible Marcell Ozuna into valuable, high-impact assets: Sandy Alcantara and Zac Gallen, among other pieces. The Cardinals could use an influx of MLB-ready impact talent to the top of their farm system if they want to build a championship contender in the next three years. They have very limited assets with which to acquire such pieces. Bader, coming off a peak season, would be one of them.

At the same time, the Cardinals could definitely do worse in center than Harrison Bader. That’s why they don’t make that kind of move.

Expect Bader to be locked into centerfield until he hits free agency after 2023. Maybe don’t expect this kind of peak production. But do expect him to be more consistent going forward.