Positive, Early Signs for Harrison Bader

For most players, by this point in the season, you could scroll around their Fangraphs page and think about maybe drawing conclusions about their performance. If you did that for Harrison Bader, you might find a breakout: a 143 wRC+, a normal .300 BABIP, a 13.6% barrel rate, and a career low 7.5% swinging strike rate.

Then you see the counting numbers. 174 pitches faced. 41 plate appearances. 22 batted balls! 3 barrels! Three! Why are we reading or writing anything about Cardinals players right now?!

We should be careful saying anything about anyone at this point in the season, and especially Cardinals players, who missed an extra two weeks due to COVID. Any analysis at this point in the year should come wrapped in caution tape, and preferably in a fashion similar to @cardinalsgifs cover art. Harrison Bader has taken 41 trips to the plate this year. He’s maybe halfway to the stabilization point for even the most granular metrics. Changes in stats, his approach, or how he looks at the plate might all look like real changes and turn out to be fool’s gold later on. Hell, they could be real improvements that disappear once pitchers adjust to the new Bader. But for all of us who write or read (thank you!), this is what we have to work with.

If we’re going to pretend we can draw conclusions based on fifteen games of data, we should start where the samples stabilize earliest. Theoretically that should be plate discipline, since each data point is a pitch rather than the end of a plate appearance or a batted ball. Don’t take that to mean plate discipline metrics are reliable at this point in the year, because they aren’t, but I’m going to point at the plate discipline noise and wonder if there might be signal.

So, let’s start with plate discipline and that 7.5% swinging strike rate. Here’s Bader’s 15-game trended swinging strike rate over his entire career:

When we’re trying to filter through noise for signal, it helps if a player is doing something they’ve never done before. this year, Bader is swinging and missing at 7.5% of the pitches he sees. While that isn't territory he's never seen before, it’s close. There's a hole in the method this time, though: the other times he ran a swinging strike rate this low were last year, and he stunk.

Breaking it down further, there’s two ways to whiff less: swing less or make more contact when you swing. As you can see below, Bader is swinging a little less than his career rate but in line with last year and making slightly more contact.

Still, this isn’t something that I’d say is definitely something, or even likely to be anything. Which, if you want to believe in a Bader Breakout, isn’t great news.

What about his control of the strike zone? Hard telling – Fangraphs hosts plate discipline metrics from three different sources. Pitchf/x and Pitch Info show that he’s swinging at more balls outside the zone and less balls inside the zone, while the generic-branded discipline metrics (maybe from Brooks Baseball?) show he’s chasing fewer balls and swinging at more strikes. Baseball Savant, which hosts Statcast data, thinks he’s swinging at a career low rate of pitches in the zone and a near-career high rate at balls outside it. In any case, the differences between this year’s rates and prior years’ rates aren’t meaningful. There aren’t any helpful clues looking by pitch type, either.

Where things finally get interesting is what Bader's doing when the ball is inside the strike zone. I’ve been vocal about how Bader needs to be more aggressive with pitches near the middle of the plate. Pitches over the heart of the plate are the easiest to hit, but last year Bader stopped swinging at them frequently enough. So far this year, he’s swinging at them more often:

The chart above shows rolling 41-pitch swing rates at pitches in the “Heart” of the strike zone. There’s a break between seasons, so each season’s line starts at pitch 41. I chose 41 because Bader’s seen 41 pitches down the heart this year, and I had no good reason to choose any other numbers. So far, he’s swinging more at the easy pitches to hit! He’s swinging 73.2% of the time against those pitches, to be exact, or 30 out of 41. Once again, though, this isn’t unprecedented territory for Bader. Even last year, he had a stretch where he topped 75%.

Where there’s maybe more of a difference is after the first pitch. Bader rarely swings at the first pitch (26.6% first pitch swing rate compared to 28.5% for the league, and he’s doing so even less frequently this year than any prior season (17.1%). For the most part, it seems like Bader's decision not to swing at the first pitch is made when he's standing in the on deck circle. In other words, he's not deciding whether to swing or not once the ball is out of the pitcher's hand.

If we exclude first pitches of his at-bats, Bader’s seen 35 pitches in the heart and swung at 28 of them, or 80%. Last year, that number was 68.5%. In 2018, it was 72.5%. Using the same rolling average method as before (on all non-first pitches down the heart and in groups of 35), we find he hasn’t eclipsed this year’s 80% swing rate at any point since 2017. Excluding 3-0 pitches, another count in which Bader is unlikely to swing, doesn’t really change the story - Bader is swinging at meatballs more often in situations where he is deciding whether or not to swing.

Potentially making this even more interesting, Bader hasn't equally distributed his swing rate changes within the heart zone - he's swinging more at pitches up in the zone where he's more likely to be able to elevate and celebrate.

Is that the signal in the noise, that Bader is swinging more at meatballs and especially the one's he's most likely to drive? It would be a great sign for a breakout if we could believe it! Unfortunately, though, it's probably still noise. (Sorry if you were waiting for the slam dunk at the end of the article). Bader's played 15 games this year. Just four days ago, Bader was swinging at 75% of pitches down the middle and we all thought he was terrible. A few good games shouldn’t change our opinion, just like a handful of bad games probably shouldn’t have swayed us much, either.

But could the swing rate changes be a sign of a real change and better things to come? Maybe! I don’t know when Heart-Swing% stabilizes or when it becomes meaningful. My guess would be quickly, since swinging at pitches down the middle should be one of a hitter’s easiest decisions, but I have no clue. At the end of the day, it’s going to be nearly impossible to conclude anything about anyone during this shortened stop-and-start season. Swinging at pitches down the middle is good, though, and I hope Harrison Bader keeps doing it.

As always, credit to Fangraphs and Baseball Savant for their data contributions to this post, and @cardinalsgifs for the cover art., which I always ask him for at the very last minute.