Should Harrison Bader swing more?

Updated: Feb 26

Spring has finally sprung, and the St. Louis Cardinals have begun playing exhibition baseball games. And, while the games don’t count, there’s some intrigue for Cardinals fans in the form of a position battle for outfield playing time. There’s at least one (probably two, but should be three) spots up for grabs, and a combination of high-upside-but-flawed major leaguers and prospects hoping to fill it. Harrison Bader is one of those players and, for my money, one of the most interesting.

The last time I wrote about Harrison Bader I suggested that, while certain aspects of his plate discipline improved in 2019, he appeared to be patient for the sake of being more patient instead of more selective. In other words, he wasn’t better at identifying good pitches to hit or take, he just swung less often.

We can look at selectivity in a more precise way if we borrow a method from Tom Tango and Baseball Savant. First, we divide the strike zone into four pieces: the heart, shadow, chase, and waste zones. Then, based on actual performance, we measure a player’s offensive value in each of those zones. When they swing, they’re rewarded for hits and penalized for outs and whiffs; collectively, these are “Swing Runs.” Similarly, they’re penalized for watching strikes and rewarded for taking balls – these are “Take Runs” (no one ever accused sabermetricians of being creative). With those concepts in mind, check out Bader’s Swing and Take profiles between his breakout 2018 season and sophomore slump in 2019:

*EDIT: The original Strike Zone Graphic didn't update correctly and has been replaced. Apologies if these graphics aren't in sync.*

The common theory is that Bader suffered last year because he couldn’t adjust to pitchers throwing him breaking balls outside the zone. That theory has merit, but it’s not evidenced here. Bader’s combined value in the shadow, chase, and waste zones was +2 in both 2018 and 2019 (as shown in the top left K-zone graphic). Instead, his entire drop-off came from erosion in performance against pitches right down the middle. Against those, he lost seven Swing Runs and two Take Runs. In total, he went from one run above average to eight runs below.

There’s a lot in play driving that decline, but the first thing that pops is that his swing rate against heart zone pitches dropped from 67% to 59%. In fact, his Heart-Swing% was the fifth lowest among all players with 250 or more chances in 2019 (vs. league average of 73%) and the 8% decline in Heart-Swing% was the largest among all players.

Let’s take a moment to step back. Pretend you created yourself in MLB The Show 20. You’re up with two strikes in the ninth inning of a tie game and the winning run is on second. Also, your five year old niece (or nephew) has the controller. That child is going to swing at the next pitch no matter what or where it is. Your only hope is that the virtual-pitcher throws virtual-you a meatball down the middle, right? Make it easy, and your free-swinging niece has a chance. In fact, that child might even accidentally drive in the winning run! Swings on pitches down the middle are good!

If swings against pitches down the middle are good, then watching pitches down the middle is bad. The same is true for Harrison Bader: he owns an above average xwOBA and whiff rate (less whiffs than average) against balls in the heart zone. When he swung in 2019, he made better contact and got impressive results. So why stop swinging? Did he start getting a ton of breaking balls to this part of the zone? Nope. In fact, his swing rate against fastballs declined 12% compared to only 4% against breaking balls.

Breaking it down visually reveals just how drastically Bader’s approach changed. In the image below, an orange square represents a swing rate of 73%, the league average for the heart zone. The shift in approach from 2018 to 2019 is plain to see:

I don’t know why Bader changed, but he didn’t find a recipe for success. He swung less often at the pitches he (and everyone else) hits best but the same amount at everything else where he (and everyone else) is significantly less productive.

Armed with that data, @cardinalsgifs and I tried to find some of the more egregious examples where Bader left his bat on the shoulder last year. Take this one from September 10th:

The tying run was on third base. The Cardinals were in the middle of a division title chase. Carlos Estevez throws gas, but with Bader up 1-0 in the count he could sit dead red – Estevez threw fastballs 83% of the time in 1-0 counts last year. This pitch was located in a spot where Bader could at least elevate it, and probably do some damage. His bat never moved. He’d strike out four pitches later.

Here’s another example from the following week:

With a 2-0 count and a soft tossing lefty on the mound, I don’t know what else Bader could be looking for. This is the exact pitch you were praying the robo-pitcher from the show threw your niece. Bader didn't swing, and he struck out six pitches later.

And lest you think this was a habit he developed in September, take one from June:

Could you have asked for a better pitch to drive in that runner from third? Probably not. Luckily, though, Bader eventually got the run home with a sac fly.

Each of those plays were meaningful at-bats ripe for situational hitting where Bader did nothing with the best offering he was going to get. The examples are cherry-picked, but it’s clear this wasn’t just a 3-0 count or first pitch fetish. Count didn’t matter – Bader was among the stingiest swingers whether he was ahead, even, or behind. What about with two strikes? See for yourself:

Ten fastballs over heart of the plate, ten times caught looking. Only six players watched more fastballs go down the pipe for strike three than Bader last year. How bad is that? It’s “I-tried-to-send-Kyle-the-gif-but-it-was-too-large” bad.

So, did I write this whole article just to rag on Bader? Not quite! See, he did a thing in his first (and only as of this writing) spring training game. Actually, two things. The first was this:

The second good thing was the “double” over Tim Tebow. Both pitches were squarely down the middle, and Bader attacked. Two pitches, obviously, mean nothing, and two pitches in spring mean even less. Regardless, those two pitches were a good start for Bader if he’s going to get more aggressive after balls he can damage. Capitalizing on a dead-center Spring Training fastball might not seem like a huge accomplishment for a major league veteran. It sorta was for Bader, though, because he sucked against them in 2019.

We all know the saying that saying that hitters take what the pitcher gives them. Usually, we use it after a guy pokes a tough pitch for an opposite field single. Pitchers give you easy ones sometimes too, though, and you're supposed to hit them hard. Harrison Bader needs to take those rips when he gets the chances.

Credit to @cardinalsgifs for the cover art and work on the gifs, and to Baseball Savant for their data, metrics, and replay library.