I was talking with my dad over the Thanksgiving post-"dinner" (1 PM dinner), belly-full-football watching digestion period about Cardinals baseball. We were discussing different players while I was talking to him about my projections for 2020 (speaking of which - here's a link to the 2019 ones and the projection analysis for pitchers and for position players). One of the players we discussed was Harrison Bader and I started looking at some Statcast data on Baseball Savant (what a comprehensive and incomparable website!). I wondered what in the world happened this year when I looked at some of the improvements Bader made.
So no, I am not going to take the same angle that JP Hill over at Viva El Birdos already took when writing a very good article about Harrison Bader and his problem hitting breaking balls back on November 7th. I am going to look at some of the positives Harrison Bader had in 2019 and show that he may very well have been a bit unlucky and should have been a better hitter than he was and why (despite the terrible splits against breaking balls in his career) there could be a bounce back from Bader in 2020. I will then discuss what still causes me concern outside of the breaking ball problem - of which I am sure Bader is aware and working on diligently.Why a bounce back? Well, let's look at 2018 and 2019 stats next to each other:
2018: 427 PA, .264/.334/.422/.756
2019: 406 PA, .205/.314/.366/.680
You might look at me like a crazy man. In addition to that above, looking at the Statcast data it'd be easy to say that Bader just didn't hit. His average exit velocity was in the 16th percentile. his expected batting average (xBA) was in the 2nd percentile! His xSLG was in the 25th percentile leading to an xwOBA in the 33rd percentile and had just a 31st percentile for their hard hit percentage. But if you've read me before, you know that I like to dig a lot deeper than the snapshot.
Harrison Bader showed a lot of improvement in 2019 in a lot of ways. Let's take a look at some stats.
In 2018, Bader hit line drives 91.7 mph.
In 2019, Bader hit line drives 95.8 mph.
That's a 4.5% improvement.
The average distance on his line drives jumped from 248 feet to 273 feet! He increased how far he was hitting line drives by 25 feet, over a 10% jump from the prior year!
In 2018, Bader hit fly balls 91.4 mph.
In 2019, Bader hit fly balls 92.9 mph.
That's a 1.6% improvement.
The average distance on those fly balls jumped 12 feet from the prior year, from 320 feet to 332 feet.
Interestingly enough, despite more pop ups, Bader's average launch angle on fly balls lowered in 2019 from 37.7 degrees to 36.1 degrees.
In 2018, Bader barreled the ball in 6.9% of his plate appearances.
In 2019, Bader barreled the ball in 9.9% of his plate appearances.
That's a 43.5% improvement.
Here's a look at one of those barreled balls, courtesy of cardinalsgifs:
His xwOBA on barreled balls increased by .156 from 2018 to 2019, but his actual wOBA only made a leap of 0.099 (less than 2/3 of what was expected).
In 2018, Bader made "solid contact" with the ball in 6.2% of his PA.
In 2019, Bader made "solid contact" with the ball in 7.7% of his PA.
That's a 24.2% improvement.
Here's an example of Bader making "solid contact" on a slider from San Diego's Adam Warren, a pitch on the outer half that typically gives Bader fits.
In 2018, Bader had a 30.8% hard hit rate.
In 2019, Bader had a 35.3% hard hit rate.
That's a 14.6% improvement.
In 2019, his xSLG jumped 41 points over the previous season and his xwOBA jumped 21 points over the prior season. Those represented 11.2% and 7.1% improvements, respectively.
In 2018, Bader walked 7.3% of the time.
In 2019, Bader walked 11.3% of the time.
That's a 54.8% improvement over 2018.
Look at these two beautiful 3-2 pitches that Bader actually takes in 2019 and tell me he doesn't swing at them in 2017-2018. The one on the left is a Sean Doolittle fastball low and away that Bader takes for a walk. For context, it was the top of the 8th and the Cardinals had 2 outs and 2 men on, down by 1. It was a great take by Bader and shows growth from prior seasons. The right side take I wanted to show because of it being a low and away slider, much like the slider that I showed above that he absolutely hammered, except he recognized it dipping out of the zone and recognizing that he could not do damage on that pitch.
In 2018, Bader struck out 29.3% of the time.
In 2019, Bader struck out 28.8% of the time.
That's a 1.7% (slight) improvement over 2018.
So basically what the numbers are saying is that Harrison Bader made better overall contact in 2019 than 2018 when he actually made contact. They're also saying that he had better plate discipline in 2019 than 2018.
Moreso, Harrison Bader was pitched in the strike zone over 50% of the time for the first time ever in 2019, and while he swung less often at pitches in the zone he made contact at a better rate than any other in his career.
The numbers say that Bader also chased outside of the zone less often than any other year in his young career. Bader also made contact less often outside of the zone, but overall whiffed less often than in any other year in his career as well.
Those numbers are all things that could be pointed to in order to show why I have faith that my 2020 projections (which will come out in spring training) will be correct; that Bader will bounce back to something more resembling his lauded 2018 in the next season.
With all that being said, I believe that there are reasons to still be concerned. I even found reasons that were NOT necessarily directly involving his documented troubles on breaking pitches.
One of those items is that in 2017 and 2018, Bader saw shifts on just 17 of his 512 plate appearances. That's 3.3% of the time. Bader's wOBA when defenses were aligned normally was .303, while on the 17 shifts, Bader had a very small sample size .691 wOBA!
In 2019, all of that flipped on it's head. Bader had a .300 wOBA with defenses aligned normally but only a .260 wOBA against the shift. The problem with that was that they shifted Bader 61 out of 399 times (the games in Mexico were not counted on Statcast). That's a shift rate of 15.3%, over league average against RHB.
Another item that scares me a bit is that Bader simply pounded pitches into the dirt in 2019. His average launch angle went from -12.0 degrees (yes, that's negative twelve) in 2018 to -15.7 degrees in 2019.
On the left is Harrison Bader's 2018 launch angle chart from Baseball Savant and on the right is Bader's 2019 LA chart from Baseball Savant. The first thing that likely jmps out to you is in 2018, Most of Bader's balls were hit between 0 and 20 (or even 0 and 35) degrees. If you compare that to 2019, there was a huge chunk between -20 and -25, a huge chunk between -5 and 0 degrees, a huge chunk between 10 and 20 degrees and a huge chunk between 35 and 40 degrees. To me, that shows less consistency, but as we already stated his hard hit rate and barrel rate and solid contact rates all went up despite this lack of launch angle consistency.
Notice the HUGE chunk of ground balls from -15 to -25 degrees on the chart on the right, whereas there were ground balls spread out a lot more evenly between 0 degrees and -25 degrees in 2018 on the left. That means that Bader's ground balls averaged going 39 feet prior to hitting the ground in 2018 and only 30 feet in 2019. Perhaps that created some easier bounces for the defense. Like this one here:
That could definitely lead to one more confusing thing about Harrison Bader's 2019. Harrison Bader's infield hit percentage dropped from 17.8% to 12.8% from 2018 to 2019. By hitting the ball harder overall and by hitting the ball at a lower launch angle on the ground, Bader kept himself from getting some gimme singles that he got in 2018. Also by hitting the ball more in the air as opposed to on the ground and line drives, Bader kept himself from having a higher wOBA and thus from having a better season. In fact, while Bader had a (probably unsustainable in the high direction) .358 BABIP in 2018. In 2019, Harrison Bader had a (probably unsustainable in the low direction) .268 BABIP.
Thirdly, Harrison Bader cannot utilize his speed if the ball is in the air more often. Harrison Bader increased his fly ball rate by 31.9% in 2019 from 2018. In the process, his ground balls went down by 3.5% and his line drives went down by a change of 35.1%! Not only that, but he pulled the ball less in 2019, leaving more balls in the middle of the field - increasing how often he went to center field by 26% over 2018's numbers. The center of the field is not great to use if you are hitting the ball on average 36 degrees in the air on fly balls and hitting fly balls in 4 out of every 9 times you make contact. While his fly balls increased from 320 feet to 332 feet (as noted earlier) and his line drives increased from 248 feet to 273 feet, it could be said that the center fielders (who average starting 323 feet from home plate) had a better shot at catching the 2019 batted balls. Contrarily, left fielders start an average of just 304 feet from the plate and right fielders just 297 feet away from home plate. They likely had a lot better shot at catching line drives that came 25 feet closer to them on average in 2019 than 2018, while fly balls (with more hang time) carried just 12 feet further.
All in all, this basically just makes for one confounding season as the process seemed to be better, but less consistent in it's better-ness (how good of a word is that???) somehow; however, the results were clearly worse.
As I said before, I feel like Bader will have a big bounce back season based on the process being better - so long as the process is still better and he can stabilize that process to be more consistent within it.