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The better pick for opening day: Harrison Bader or Tyler O’Neill

Which one makes the opening day roster?

MLB: Milwaukee Brewers at St. Louis Cardinals Jeff Curry-USA TODAY Sports

The topic of the Cardinals 2018 outfield has been discussed quite frequently over the last twenty weeks. It is easy to divide this offseason into two parts: pre-Ozuna acquisition and post-Ozuna acquisition. That is fair, but so much else has happened as well. Fowler slid over into right field, while Pham made the move to center. Piscotty was traded. Grichuk—a player who would start on almost any other MLB team, but was the 4th outfielder for the Cardinals—was also traded. Jose Martinez, a very formidable 4th outfielder, remains. He will, however, also be used as an infielder.

Although the outfield has been discussed ad nauseam this offseason, a question that looms upon the beginning of spring training is the potential fifth outfield spot. Harrison Bader or Tyler O’Neill? Bader has more MLB experience, but is there an argument that could be made for O’Neill?

Bader is the more well-known name, so to remove the edge he would receive from familiarity, we’ll do a blind comparison. These are the 2017 AAA numbers from each of these players.

Bader vs. O’Neill blind comparison

Player Games PA R SB BB% K% wRC+
Player Games PA R SB BB% K% wRC+
A 123 479 74 15 7.1 24.6 111
B 130 557 77 14 9.7 27.1 107

HR and RBI numbers are not included—O’Neill’s profile as an extreme power hitter would have been a dead giveaway. What we have here is actually somewhat surprising. The two players compare similarly. One might have expected Bader to draw substantially more walks than O’Neill, but perhaps most shockingly, their BB% and K% are very similar. Their stolen base numbers are basically the same. And overall, their wRC+ values are almost too close to distinguish.

Now, let’s move on to a few statistics that might give away our players identities.

Bader vs. O’Neill blind comparison 2

A 0.283 0.347 0.469 0.356 20 55
B 0.247 0.321 0.498 0.35 31 95

It’s far more obvious now that Harrison Bader is player A and Tyler O’Neill is player B. The Home Runs and RBIs illuminate that difference. Still, the players are more similar than you might think—their wOBAs, which measure relative offensive value, are almost identical. The similar numbers here indicate that what Bader lacks in power, he makes up for in getting on base.

If the decision comes down to defensive flexibility, the choice will not be clear. Yes, Bader has MLB experience, but both have played at each outfield position—Bader predominantly in center; O’Neill mostly in right. Which spot will need more backup innings? Pham and Fowler are both slotted in as everyday starters—they are two of the best players on the team and cornerstones of the projected lineup. Depth Charts projects Pham for 146 games in 2018. Similarly, Fowler is projected for 148. There is not a lot of extra playing time to go around—Ozuna is projected for 147 games.

Although available playing time is sparse, the decision is an important one. O’Neill has the higher ceiling, which may lead the Cardinals to keeping him in Memphis, buying him some extra time to develop while Bader comes off the bench.

The choice essentially boils down to what Mike Matheny wants coming off of his bench. If it’s Bader, it is a player with more experience and potentially more defensive flexibility. If it’s O’Neill, it is a player with extreme power. Both players have potentially troublesome K%, but both can steal bases. They are both potential 20/20 players. Spring training may be the difference, considering the similarities these players share.