Last week, the St. Louis Cardinals made noise for the first time this offseason by striking a deal with the Tampa Bay Rays. The swap, centered around former Rays pitching prospect Matt Liberatore and former birds José Martínez and Randy Arozarena, provided offseason fodder that Cardinals fans were missing. First and foremost, the Cardinals acquired an exciting (and risky) talent who will be ranked highly in the Dirty 35. Without José, the Cardinals clubhouse got more boring, and we’re left to wonder what the Rays know about Randy that we don’t. Regardless, this trade alone doesn’t make the Cardinals better team in 2020, and it actually might make them a little worse. The remaining in-house outfield options have risks, and the room for error just got smaller.
Last offseason, the Cardinals pointed to Harrison Bader as a potential face of the franchise after a breakout campaign in which he ranked fourth among qualified rookie position players and second on the team in WAR. The sequel was less enticing, featuring a demotion to Memphis and a batting average (.204) near the Mendoza line. Yet, after shipping out Arozarena, the Cardinals appear to be doubling down on Bader to hold down center field.
On the surface (and frankly even after writing this), that sounds like a big gamble. Bader’s 2018 line was buoyed by a .358 BABIP. When luck swung the other way, Bader’s bat was bad. He was still unlucky – his expected BABIP (.305) was almost 40 points above his actual BABIP (.268) before accounting for his speed – but even normalizing to league average or slightly above would only have made him a .220 to .240 hitter. In addition to any issues after contact, Bader’s drawn comparisons to Grichuk for his propensity to waive at the outside slider, and Grichuk is more of a fourth outfielder than a starter. Bader’s defensive ability will keep him treading water longer than Grichuk, but he’ll need to hit a little more to avoid being platooned or shuttled between the MLB club and Memphis.
The good news, at least, is that despite a wRC+ which cratered from 107 (7% above average) to 81 (19% below average), Bader actually showed signs of development at the plate. Throughout the minors and in 2018, Bader was always a better hitter when he had the platoon advantage – the question was whether he could hit righties enough to play everyday. His OPS of .693 against right-handed pitchers in 2019 was virtually unchanged from the prior season. His BABIP declined from .354 to .289 (causing his batting average to drop), but he made up for those losses by walking more often. His production against lefties is where he really fell apart, and I’m not inclined to put much weight on 106 plate appearances when forecasting his future. Bader probably didn’t forget how to hit against lefties, and he’ll likely revert back to hitting them well again in 2020.
So far, we basically have the same hitter getting lucky one year and unlucky the next. Steamer’s current projections split the difference and project him for a 91 wRC+. They think he’ll strike out at the same frequency, walk a little less often, and hit for the same amount of power. That’s fine, and it makes Bader’s bat serviceable enough to keep him in center.
There might be hope for better than that, though. Take a look at a few other indicators from his first two seasons:
To simplify, I’ll highlight the following:
Bader walked more often;
He swung and missed less often;
When he swung and made contact, he barreled more balls and hit more balls harder;
He swung at sliders outside the zone at a lower rate;
Despite seeing more sliders overall.
Not bad! How much of that is real improvement or not remains to be seen (a 1.3% increase in contact rate over one season might not mean a thing). Maybe this was a step forward that didn’t show up in the results.
The improvements above weren’t without tradeoffs, though. For example, Bader’s swing rate at pitches in the zone declined more than his swing rate at pitches outside the zone (i.e. he was patient for the sake of being patient, not because he was more selective). He fell behind in the count a little more often. His contact quality on sliders in the strike zone dropped.
So maybe this was a step forward. Maybe it’s a step sideways, or even backwards. If he had better luck on balls in play, maybe I’m writing how an average bat with Bader’s defense makes him an All-Star caliber player. In any case, it looks like Bader started making an adjustment at the plate in response to how he was being attacked. Hopefully next year, the process will yield better results.
(Unless he's traded for Nolan Arenado, then you can cancel this article.)
Credit to @cardinalsgifs for the cover, and Baseball Savant and FanGraphs for the stats used throughout.