The St. Louis Cardinals have an offense filled with superstar talent and promising youngsters from reigning NL MVP Paul Goldschmidt, third place finisher Nolan Arenado, superstar prospect Jordan Walker, and third place NL ROY finisher Brendan Donovan among others. However, when you look at their underlying metrics the player who is coming off of the one of the most fantastic seasons has only recently taken the spotlight. Lars Nootbaar, the WBC sensation for Japan, was quietly one of the best hitters in the MLB last season and that has continued already into this year. For team Japan the 25-year-old has a .429 batting average, 1.008 OPS and 3 RBIs through 14 at bats. Down below we are going to discuss the 2022 season of the potential breakout star and whether or not it can continue into the 2023 season.
The first thing I notice when evaluating Nootbaar is how little there is that indicates last season was a fluke. When stacking up his quality of contact numbers and expected metrics versus some of the more notable hitters in the leagues you have to walk away impressed. The chart below shows how his numbers compare to the second and third place NL MVP finishers.
How Lars Nootbaar stacks up to some of the best
Now the obvious argument against Nootbaar is going to be the amount of at bats and batted balls he had last season and I understand that point of view. Nootbaar had 288 fewer at bats than Machado and 267 fewer than Arenado. Both batters did it over a significantly larger sample size which does give their numbers a little bit more validity. On the flip side, Nootbaar dominated in that sample size with nothing to show he was lucky and that holds significant weight. In fact, that are statistics that show he was actually an unlucky hitter at the dish. His BABIP, courtesy of Fangraphs.com, was .233 at the Triple-A level and .248 in the MLB last season. Additionally, his xBA .019 higher than his actual batting average. It also cannot be overstated that this was the second season where Nootbaar featured a revamped swing where he added significant bat speed, and the results can be seen in his metrics.
So, what does that new swing look like?
Pretty nice would be the answer. His hand path is perfectly fine as he drops them slightly, then brings them back to load them and then brings them forward. It is close, but they do not enter two planes of motion which is massive when evaluating a player's swing. He has a significant leg kick and some additional moving parts which can lead to some elongated slumps, but his discipline — which we will get into later — helps quell some of those concerns. When putting his swing in slow motion and seeing it from the front and the side there are some similarities to Bryce Harper’s swing when he gets that front foot down as well. So effectively, Nootbaar’s swing also passes the smell test.
Nootbaar’s becomes swing is solid and his expected metrics are good, but what about bat to ball and pitch selection skills? The answer is also very good, when comparing him to Max Muncy and Alex Bregman, two batters with elite eyes, his numbers hold up well.
So, the question that is on my mind when evaluating Nootbaar is if his quality of contact metrics is strong, his eye is great, and his swing is solid, why was his xBA so low? The answer is his launch angle is only at 10.7 degrees which in today's MLB is far too low. His ground ball percentage was 46 percent last year, 1.1 percent above league average. His flyball percentage was only 25 percent and his line drive percentage was 23.7 percent, both of which were within 2 percentage points of league average. If he can pull up his flyball and line drive percentages while reducing his ground ball percentages, he should see a significant uptick in his expected metrics.
With everything discussed in mind, Lars Nootbaar brings a lot of promise to this Cardinals lineup. If he can build off of his 2022 success and work on getting the ball more in the air... look out. The Cardinals might just have another All-Star hitter on their hands who can receive some MVP votes.