St. Louis Cardinals: How long could Harrison Bader at leadoff last?

PITTSBURGH, PA - APRIL 03: Harrison Bader #48 of the St. Louis Cardinals rounds second after hitting a two run home run in the eighth inning against the Pittsburgh Pirates at PNC Park on April 3, 2019 in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania. (Photo by Justin K. Aller/Getty Images)
PITTSBURGH, PA - APRIL 03: Harrison Bader #48 of the St. Louis Cardinals rounds second after hitting a two run home run in the eighth inning against the Pittsburgh Pirates at PNC Park on April 3, 2019 in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania. (Photo by Justin K. Aller/Getty Images) /

With the struggles that have befallen Matt Carpenter this season, St. Louis Cardinals manager Mike Shildt has an opportunity to slot speedster Harrison Bader as the team’s leadoff hitter. But with Bader’s spotty hitting history, how long would it last?

In an ideal world, the St. Louis Cardinals wouldn’t even have to blink in regards to who the leadoff man should be. When you are looking for a guy who can get on and run for your best hitters to in essence guarantee a run off an extra base hit like the St. Louis Cardinals are, there is one guy who has the opportunity to fit that mold.

Harrison Bader has been among the fastest players in the league, and his ability to get on base has been missed by many Cardinals fans. If Bader was more versed on the base paths, this would be less of an analysis and more of a “what are you idiots doing just let Bader lead off” kind of thing.

But if I were to ask who the top 3 players on this St. Louis Cardinals team, would you believe me when I reveal that Harrison Bader is one of those three players, with a .383 OBP that only trails Dexter Fowler and Paul DeJong.

Now, the leadoff spot is special in that it is the role where OBP is by far the most valuable. Drawing a walk and getting on base might not feel as good when you have a runner on base that you would like to advance, but the one spot where that isn’t the case for the most part is as a National League leadoff hitter.

Right now, Harrison Bader is just outside the top 50 in BB% at 12%, and while the more obvious leadoff choice in Dexter Fowler is one of 4 St. Louis Cardinals that have outpaced Bader in walk rate this season, but Fowler falls in the 69th percentile of speed in the majors, which, while above average, seems paltry when looking at Bader in the 93rd percentile.

Another thing is that Bader hasn’t been hitting the ball particularly hard, making it difficult to slot him in an RBI heavy spot in the order. Bader is currently in the 3rd percentile in exit velocity and the 28th percentile in hard hit %, which isn’t good in any sense. Fowler doesn’t slot much better, but a rise from the 3rd to the 23rd percentile where Fowler currently lies in exit velocity is significant.

Ok, so before I go into this next part, please understand this: I get that what I am about to bring up doesn’t matter and even upsets many people, but please bear with me as I do believe this matters. Now that that’s out of the way…

Bader’s launch angle this season has limited the spots in the lineup that he would be most effective in. If your eyebrows just furrowed in confusion, or you just said an incredulous “what” at your computer screen, then I am sure you aren’t alone. But just give me a chance to explain.

I get where all of the hoopla over using launch angle to make these decisions comes from, but I make in exception in this case for one reason. At some point, if your launch angle is low enough, it means you are hitting a ridiculous number of balls into the ground.

So when you see that Harrison Bader has a 5.7 degree launch angle, even the most traditional of pundits will take something from that. While a ground ball % of 40 isn’t particularly high, Bader’s combination of low exit velocity and low launch angles have resulted in 19% of his hits being infield hits.

But what does that mean for Bader’s spot in the order?

Bader’s Options

Despite not grounding into any double plays so far this season, Bader’s matrics are a recipe for a huge number of lead runners being thrown out. Bader’s speed might neutralize the double play threat, but losing lead runners when he is lower in the lineup defeats the purpose.

This basically limits Bader to two spots in the current St. Louis Cardinals batting order. The first is where he has mainly been slotted: right in front of the pitcher at the eighth spot.

There are a couple of reasons why the eight spot in the St. Louis Cardinals order is particularly fit for Bader. Being at the lowest point of the lineup and essentially being part of a reset to the top of the order for a majority of the game minimizes the damages that come with his aforementioned flaw: the infield ground ball.

The second is his close proximity to the best hitters in the lineup who can take advantage of his speed. If Bader does in fact get on base close to the top of the lineup while mitigating the cost of any rough luck grounders, he can become a dangerous threat with his wheels.

In general situations, coming up with two outs is generally a neutralizing factor with the pitcher up, but anything less and you suddenly become a threat with the top of the lineup coming on.

If we are looking late into games, the St. Louis Cardinals generally have a formidable pinch hitter no matter the lineup. When the outfield of Fowler, Bader, and Marcell Ozuna play as they are tonight, the Redbirds have Jose friggin’ Martinez as their pinch hitter, who is more than capable of threatening opposing managers with the ability to score Bader from first effectively.

This is the best case scenario for Bader as the eighth hitter, which could be part of the reason why it is Dexter Fowler who is leading off. Fowler has certainly proved himself capable of that role and other roles later in the order, which allows me to be comfortable with him as leadoff, despite being on record in the past saying I didn’t like Fowler there.

That’s why I say that in an ideal world, if Bader was just a bit better at making true solid contact or just a bit more savvy on the basepaths, this would be an article wondering exactly why hw isn’t leading off.

But with Fowler’s success this season in the lead off metrics this season and the general view of Fowler as a leadoff hitter, he has a legitimate case, one that is probably stronger than Bader’s at this point in time.

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However, Bader’s build as a potential prototypical leadoff has its merits as well, and I feel they are enough to give him some run as the leadoff. As we know, Bader is much better against lefties than righties, and this shows. While his general BB% trails a few Cardinals, the situation changes when looking at the left handed matchup specifically. Fowler draws walks at an 18.8% rate against lefties, while Matt Carpenter is currently around 20.5%, so can you guess where Bader lies?

If you guessed better than Fowler and barely below Marp, you are correct. While he has only had 25 plate appearances against left handed pitching this season, he has drawn walks in 5 of them for a clean 20% BB% against left handed pitching.

I think you know where this is going. Based on all the evidence, if Matt Carpenter is not leading off, the St. Louis Cardinals would be best served to allow Harrison Bader to lead off against lefties, while Dexter Fowler should top the batting order against righties.

If things work out as they have been, the St. Louis Cardinals would have an effective lead off duo to take them through 2019, even without Matt Carpenter.

With the St. Louis Cardinals floundering a bit, it is no secret to anyone that the lineup needs to be tinkered with. Allowing Harrison Bader to leadoff in certain situations is just one of the many options Shildt has to try and rejuvenate this talented Cardinals lineup.