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Harrison Bader and Hunting Fastballs

Bader’s recent hot streak has been huge for the lineup, but if he wants to sustain his success, he needs to tweak his approach.

St. Louis Cardinals v Chicago Cubs Photo by Jamie Sabau/Getty Images

Amidst all the fanfare surrounding Oli Marmol’s exceptional bullpen management this week, Paul Goldschmidt’s going atomic, and Brendan Donovan’s do-it-all offensive and defensive game, it’s easy for Harrison Bader to get lost in the shuffle.

Goldy was the NL Player of the Month in May, Arenado has had a nice stretch, Donovan is coming off a game in which he had a pair of hits and a pair of outfield assists and he has been a huge part of the lineup since his promotion. That last bit can be said about Juan Yepez and Nolan Gorman too.

They have all been great, and they’re certainly deserving of all the recognition they are getting, but somehow, Harrison Bader has been lost in the shuffle a bit. He’s quietly been the fourth best player on the team in terms of fWAR and he has hits in 16 of his last 18 games, stretching back to June 17.

In fact, he’s batted .354 since June 19, good for a 141 wRC+. This most recent stretch has boosted his season wRC+ over 100 (102) and made him one of the most consistent producers in a lineup that seems full of them right now.

Perhaps even better is the fact that he’s provided his typically strong defense in a starting outfield more known for its offensive prowess. Replacing the injured Dylan Carlson and Tyler O’Neill with rookies Juan Yepez and Brendan Donovan certainly has not helped things defensively. That makes Bader’s range and overall contributions even more important at a premium defensive position.

Let’s look back at Sunday’s game. Juan Yepez was playing left field and didn’t have the strongest of games.

Here’s the first hit we’ll look at. This double by Nico Hoerner had an expected batting average of .120.

That’s a tough ball to catch, but it’s a play that Tyler O’Neill probably makes. That’s absolutely the left fielder’s ball and Edmundo Sosa almost beat Yepez to it from short. In fairness to Yepez, that’s a blooped ball hit into no man’s land, but a better left fielder probably catches that.

Here’s another play from the same inning on Sunday.

Yepez had me really nervous when I was watching that play. Thankfully, it ended with an out, but he looked like he got a late read and got the ball a lot later than he should have. That line drive had a .270 expected batting average.

Now, here’s Harrison Bader stealing a hit from Rafael Ortega on a line drive that had an expected batting average of .620.

That honestly looked about as routine as a diving play can look and it’s because Bader got such a good read off the bat. When there are outfielders giving the other team extra outs, it’s nice to have an outfielder who steals outs instead.

I didn’t go through this to say that Yepez is a bad fielder or to make the obvious point that Bader is better in the outfield. Rather, I did it to emphasize the fact that Bader’s Gold Glove caliber defense is welcome asset when he’s flanked by Yepez and Donovan.

Though others have received the attention recently Bader’s recent hot streak shouldn’t go unnoticed.

Now it’s time for the real question — can it last?

This isn’t even worth asking when it comes to defense, so we’ll consider it offensively. Obviously, Bader isn’t going to hit .354 the rest of the way, but he was a well below average hitter before his hot streak and it’s fair to wonder if he’s flipped a switch.

Right off the bat, I’m not encouraged. This is mainly because Bader has a 1st percentile exit velocity of just 83.2 mph. Now, he’s never been an exit velocity king. In fact. he peaked in just the 32nd percentile in 2019 (88.4 mph).

Nobody would have ever mistaken him for a power hitter, but an 83.2 mph exit velo with a 4.7% walk rate and 15.5% strikeout rate basically makes him a prototypical slap hitter.

To look even further, he has a career high swing rate and a career high contact rate to go with a career low isolated power. Slap. Hitter.

He’s even become an aggressive slap hitter in a year when he is seeing nearly 2% fewer pitches in the zone than the average hitter. He has a career high chase rate (33.6%, 5.3% over the league average), and a zone swing rate (66.4%, slightly below league average) second to only his first MLB season in 2017 when he played just 32 games. So, that’s great. He’s an above average chaser while also swinging at an average number of strikes.

Honestly, it’s impressive that he’s been able to make so much contact despite swinging at so much junk, but it also makes sense that his power has diminished.

There’s an even bigger problem with Bader’s approach than his tendency to swing at too many balls. That problem is his tendency to swing at everything but fastballs, despite really only being able to hit fastballs.

Bader has a swing rate of just 47% against fastballs. That’s lower than his swing rates against both breaking and offspeed pitches. Take a guess at which pitch is thrown in the strike zone most often.

Bader sees more fastballs in the zone than he does with any other pitch and he also hits fastballs the best, yet he is the least aggressive against heaters. For more proof, his swing rate on fastballs in the zone is just under 60%. Against breaking pitches in the zone, it’s nearly 72%, and against offspeed pitches in the zone, it’s nearly 86%.

This begs an even further question — Why is he doing this? I really don’t know. Bader has a .367 wOBA against fastballs this year, and his expected wOBA is practically the same at .366. He could be doing a little better as his fastball wOBA approached .400 in his best years against the pitch, but it’s still solid.

Against breaking balls, he has a .251 wOBA (.266 xwOBA), and against offspeed pitches, he has a .301 wOBA with a much worse .194 xwOBA. his exit velocities against both groups are right around 80 mph, while against fastballs that ticks up to above 86 mph.

I think it’s pretty clear that he should be swinging at more fastballs and fewer everything else.

That’s a simple thing to write but a hard thing to put into practice. It requires better pitch recognition and a willingness to change. The payoff could be huge, though.

He could have more well-hit balls because he would be swinging at pitches that he crushes (relatively speaking), and more walks because he would be swinging at fewer pitches that have a higher tendency of being balls.

Things don’t always work that smoothly, but Bader has more power in him than he’s shown, and he has certainly taken more free passes in the past. His hot streak has been a welcome jolt to the lineup, but it doesn’t seem sustainable currently, at least, not without some changes.

A hitter should swing more often at the pitches he hits the best. It’s a simple principle. For Bader (and most hitters), that’s fastballs. Something that has likely hindered Bader as well is that just under 51% of the pitches he’s seen this year have been fastballs. That would be a career low.

It’s basically a 50/50 chance that Bader will see a fastball on any given pitch, so he should be more aggressive when he does see them, since he may not see too many of them in a given at-bat.

It’s possible that the breaking and offspeed pitches are keeping him off balance and preventing him from swinging as much, but, when it comes down to it, Bader simply doesn’t have an optimal approach at the plate. And it’s not particularly close to being optimal.

The outfielder’s production has been great for the Cardinals, but if he wants to rediscover his power, and get on base more, he needs to hunt the pitches he can hit — fastballs. Flailing at fewer breaking and offspeed pitches could help him get deeper into counts and either walk or see an extra heater. That’s important for someone who only has 11 extra base hits on the year and a .311 OBP. Getting on-base more could set the table for the mashers at the top of the order and give him the opportunity to improve on his 14 stolen bases (T-2nd in MLB).

There’s a good chance that Bader finishes the year as the most productive outfielder on the team, and he could improve his chances with a better approach at the plate. It would be huge for the St. Louis Cardinals if he could keep his production going, and hunting fastballs is the best way for him to do just that.

Something to watch for is how many times Bader lets hittable fastballs go by or how many times he swings at breaking pitches he really shouldn’t be swinging at.

Even if the breaking or offspeed pitch is a strike, Bader needs to be selective when he can be. For instance, he clearly doesn’t hit outside pitches well.

Here’s his wOBA by zone this year.

See that line of blue on the outer edge of the plate? That means he shouldn’t chase breaking pitches there when he’s in a hitter’s count. This isn’t just a one year trend either. It’s consistent with his past. Here’s last year’s chart

That’s pretty clear cut if you ask me.

Instead of swinging all the time, Bader should be more controlled. Swing at more fastballs and lay off the outside breakers. Or really, just lay off the outside everything when possible. Learning how to hunt fastballs and take outer edge breaking balls in hitter’s counts will be key for Bader the rest of the year.

He needs to play to his strengths. Fastballs and inside pitches. If he can learn to focus on that, he’ll be just fine. He’s already having a strong year but it could get even better.