St. Louis Cardinals center-fielder Harrison Bader is expected to return April 24 after a brief spell on the IL for hamstring tightness. Should Mike Shildt return the slick-fielding and popular Bronxville Bomber to his starter role, despite the fact that all three current outfielders are providing superior offense?
Unsurprisingly, Harrison Bader was the starting center-fielder for your St. Louis Cardinals on Opening Day. Cardinals Hall of Famer Lou Brock recently called Bader the spark-plug of the team, someone who should play regardless of whether he is hitting. His return to the 25-man roster thus might normally create anxiety with Dexter Fowler, Marcell Ozuna and Jose Martinez all mashing in Bader’s absence.
But it need not be. Fortunately, there is a solution that makes logical sense: platoon Bader and Fowler in center field and make Bader the late-inning defensive replacement par excellence against righties. Of course, with left-handers making up 20% of starting pitchers, this means Fowler will get the lion’s share of the starts.
Fowler is a switch hitter with a career .290 batting average against left-handers and .253 average against righties. But in recent years, coinciding with Fowler’s struggle to find himself at the plate in a Cardinal uniform, those numbers have begun to reverse themselves.
In 2017, he was .252 against lefties and .268, against righties. In 2018, he was .161 against left and .185 against right. This year so far, as his bat has begun finding the ball a lot more (though not driving in runs), the split has become even more pronounced: .214 vs. .340.
Meanwhile, Bader is showing the classic split of a free-swinging right-hander: .250 against left, .161 against right, which is pretty close to his career split of .304 v. .231. But with Bader batting only .179 in 2019, plus possibly being hobbled by a hammy, can he really justify replacing any of the outfielders providing the hot hand?
If my idea of CF platoon is not accepted, then, pray tell, who should sit so that Bader can start?
Although Ozuna has only one hit in his last 12 AB, it is hard to say it is a slump because he has taken six walks in that span. What can’t be debated is that during the last road trip, Ozuna was on fire. Since foolishly climbing the outfield wall to create a ground rule double where there was none previously before, Ozuna has been taking his revenge on the opposing pitchers:
Indeed, Ozuna has solidified his role as clean-up hitter for the foreseeable future, and thus plays every day. So what about sitting Martinez for Bader?
Jose Martinez is a career .312 hitter, higher than the career average of anyone on the current Cardinals, Paul Goldschmidt included, by thirty points. This year he is hitting .355, which will be tops in the NL Central, after Martinez catches up on at-bats to qualify for the batting title. This is nothing new: he has actually led the team in AVG for three straight years (pace, not quite enough at-bats this year, or in 2017).
When does this guy finally get to play every day?
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Martinez is more of a power-hitter and run driver than Fowler, both historically and so far this year. Martinez has become the guy on the team whom, outside of Goldschmidt of course, you want up at the plate with the game on the line. Plus, both Ozuna and Martinez do not have platoon-worthy splits.
I realize that this creates one of the shakiest outfields defensively in all of baseball. But what can I say except offense plays? Your problems are only against right-handed pitchers too. Bader will be in there when the Cards face a lefty and in late innings with the game on the line. Although not having near the range of Bader, Fowler is a credible center-fielder who has played there for most of his career (indeed Baseball Reference still lists him as a center-fielder).
In late innings when the Cardinals are ahead, Fowler should slide over and take Martinez’s place. Shildt should return to a practice he was doing early on in the season of pulling Ozuna occasionally in the late innings for defensive reasons too. If Manager Mike looks at the spray chart of batters likely to face our relief squad and determine whether Fowler should slide to left for Ozuna or right for Martinez, the defense should be fine.
And this is all assuming that Bader’s hamstring is not compromising his fielding after he returns.
Bader is extremely popular with the fans. He is selling out whole sections near his position. Benching him – even partially – might cause front office heartburn, but the fruits of a postseason berth should be worth it. The Redbirds starting staff has not been exactly a quality-starts machine lately, so the Cards need to keep generating runs like they have until the staff settles down into its groove.
With this platoon, Fowler can focus on his left-handed swing and hopefully become the left-handed line-drive hitter the Cardinals have been craving for some time. Meanwhile, Bader will still be roaming his usual pasture quite often plus being available as a pinch runner which might finally jump-start his quest to repeat as team stolen base leader.
This platoon may not be best for the entire season, but for optimizing the current roster, this is a win-win for now.