Harrison Bader has gotten hot in September, and he has played a key role in the current winning streak for the St. Louis Cardinals. While his success during the streak has been important, he has displayed a new approach at the plate throughout the entire 2021 season.
Bader currently has the lowest walk rate of his career since he made his big league debut in 2017 with 92 plate appearances. His current 7.2% walk rate is much lower than his 10.4% walk rate in the shortened 2020 season and his 11.3% walk rate in 2019.
He has also struck out less, lowering his strikeout rate to just 20.9% after consecutive seasons of 28.8% and 32.0%. As a result, Bader is putting more balls in play and has seen his batting average rise to .262, just two points below his career high. The decrease in walks means that Bader’s OBP is still lower than his OBP last year, but he is still at his career average of .322.
This new approach can be seen more clearly in other stats, though. Bader’s swing rate is 47.5%, which is just 0.6% below his career high in 2017, and is 5% higher than his swing rate last season. There is a problem with this, as Bader has increased his chase rate by 3.1%, but he has also increased his zone swing percentage by over 5%.
The effects of this have been positive for Bader. He is striking out much less despite swinging at more pitches outside the zone. This is because he is making more contact, but also because the aggressiveness of his approach means that if he whiffs on a pitch outside the zone, then he can just hit the next pitch inside the zone.
By swinging at less pitches, Bader allowed himself to work deeper into counts and draw more walks, but he also struck out much more. Now that he is being more aggressive at the plate, Bader is hunting hittable pitches early in the count and looking for extra base hits. As a result, he has seen fewer than four pitches per plate appearance for the first time in his career.
Bader has an .892 OPS when the first pitch of the at-bat is put in play. His slugging percentage on these pitches is .541. His OPS rises to 1.116 (includes walks), with a .597 slugging percentage when the outfielder is ahead in the count. This includes a .909 slugging when the count is 1-0 and a .917 slugging when the count is 2-0. Even in 1-1 counts, Bader has a 1.253 OPS and .792 slugging. Bader is doing more than just getting hits when he is ahead in the count or swinging at the first pitch, he is doing damage.
Additionally, by putting more balls in play, Bader is able to use his 97th percentile sprint speed. The 27-year-old has a .303 batting average on ground balls, and this is the third season of his career that he has batted above .300 on grounders. He has also hit six doubles on balls on the ground. It is his elite speed that allows Bader to have such a high batting average on ground balls. His speed also allows him to stretch singles into doubles, and he cannot do this if the ball is not put in play.
The obvious drawback to this aggressive approach is fewer walks. However, Bader may be able to increase his walk rate if he is more selectively aggressive. If he could lower his chase rate back to his career average while still maintaining a high swing rate on pitches inside the zone, then he would be able to walk more and improve his results on contact.
Bader’s newfound approach may also explain his increased whiff rate against breaking balls. If he is hunting pitches that he can do damage with early in the count, then he is likely going to be looking for fastballs. This means that he is susceptible to good breaking balls, and as a result, he has a 36% whiff rate against breaking pitches (28.2% in 2020). He has also hit seven home runs against breaking balls, but that is because he is looking to do damage, and hanging breaking balls are an easy pitches to do damage with.
Bader has a 105 wRC+ on the season, and when that is combined with his elite defense in center field, he has been worth 2.7 fWAR in just 95 games. There are some signs that he may be over-performing at the plate, though, as his xwOBA (.288) is well below his wOBA (.322). He also has just a 6th percentile average exit velocity (86 mph).
While these are not great signs, it is to be expected that Bader would outperform his expected stats. This is because his previously mentioned elite speed allows him to steal hits. Balls hit at low exit velocities are more likely to be beaten out by Bader, while anything hit into an infield gap has a high chance of being an infield single as well. This could explain why Bader has been able to post a batting average (.262) well above his expected batting average (.226).
Bader’s slugging percentage (.441) is also much higher than his expected slugging percentage (.375). Part of that is due to the lower expected batting average. This makes up 36 points in the 66 point gap. The other 30 points in the gap could be due to Bader’s ability to stretch singles into doubles. An example of this was seen on Saturday when he hit a ground ball into an outfield gap and beat the throw to second. The gap between his slugging and expected slugging is not due to getting ‘lucky’ on home runs as Bader has hit 13 home runs while he has been expected to hit 13.7.
Bader may not be able to consistently outperform his expected stats to this extent, but his speed should allow him to have better results on contact than would normally be expected. Bader’s more aggressive approach means that he is putting more balls in play, which means that he has more opportunity to outperform his expected stats, as he has has more opportunity to use his speed.