St. Louis Cardinals: Harrison Bader has earned a spot in 2021

48 of the St. Louis Cardinals catches a fly ball in the fourth inning against the Milwaukee Brewers during game one of a doubleheader at Miller Park on September 14, 2020 in Milwaukee, Wisconsin. (Photo by Dylan Buell/Getty Images)
48 of the St. Louis Cardinals catches a fly ball in the fourth inning against the Milwaukee Brewers during game one of a doubleheader at Miller Park on September 14, 2020 in Milwaukee, Wisconsin. (Photo by Dylan Buell/Getty Images) /

Harrison Bader may not have the best batting average, but the St. Louis Cardinals center fielder has done enough to earn another year in the outfield.

Oh batting average, how shallow are thee. In the year 2020, I would hope that a growing majority of fans know that there are much better numbers to gauge performance on than just batting average. Even St. Louis Cardinals’ President of Baseball Operations John Mozeliak has said that he doesn’t really look at batting average much.

I say this because Harrison Bader is batting .210 this year, but has done enough to keep his job with the Cardinals for 2021. Let me tell you why.

Way back in 2017 when Harrison Bader came up, he hit .235 with three homers in a 32-game cup of tea. We saw the personality, we saw the defense, but his batting average wasn’t paired with much else in terms of offensive production. He had a 71 wRC+ and just a .279 wOBA in that small sample.

Fast forward to 2018 and fans got to see a much better Bader. In 138 games, the elite defense was there and he hit .264 with a .754 OPS good for a 107 wRC+ and .326 wOBA. That was by far Bader’s most productive season so far as he put up a 3.6 fWAR. The problem is that the league hadn’t adjusted to him yet.

In 2018, Bader faced 58.3% fastballs. In 2019, that number fell to just 52% while his breaking ball percentage jumped from 31.1% to 37.2%. Bader didn’t make the adjustment and ended up hitting just .205 with 12 bombs and a .680 OPS. His 81 wRC+ and .293 wOBA were awful but despite that, he still generated 1.8 fWAR on the year because of his defense.

It was at this time that there was a discussion around Bader by the majority of Cardinals fans. Sliding past the angry fans screaming for his removal from the team, the general population of reasonable Cardinals fans agreed that if Bader could sit between a 90 and 100 wRC+ at minimum, his elite defense would provide enough value for Bader to be a starter.

This argument comes from the many glove-men around baseball that do just that. Looking at Tampa Bay, Kevin Kiermaier has been a starter on the Rays for seven seasons, winning three Gold Gloves while averaging just a 97 wRC+. Moving over to Andrelton Simmons, he has long been regarded as the best defensive shortstop in baseball but has averaged a 91 wRC+. There are more out there, but the premise is the same. If they can be within 10% of the league average offensively, they are worth starting.

Well, when you look at Bader’s numbers this year, he has done just that. Still facing just 53.9% fastballs, Bader has added three homers and currently sits at exactly a 100 wRC+ on the year. It’s one metric, but that says he is average. Looking over at wOBA, Bader’s .317 wOBA sits just barely below the .320 mark that is regarded as average. Bader’s defense has still been there as well.

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Bader is striking out at an obscene 32.8% rate, but his ISO (pure power) has jumped up from an average .161 last year to an above-average .180. Sure, Bader is still slugging just .390, but his power has rebounded back up. Metrics agree that he more or less has earned it.

Bader sits in just the 12th percentile in average exit velocity at just 86 mph, but he is 3.3% above average in barrel percentage at 9.7%. What this says to me is that Bader is just more of an all or nothing batter. He either hits it hard or not well at all.

By all of our own marks set for Bader, he has played well. The problem for the St. Louis Cardinals is that they don’t quite have the same lineup as the Rays or the Angels do. When the rest of the lineup is solid, hiding a glove somewhere is easy to do. The 2020 Cardinals can’t exactly get away with that with Bader currently sitting at a better wRC+ than Tyler O’Neill, Paul DeJong, Kolten Wong, Tommy Edman, Yadier Molina, and Matt Carpenter.

I’m not saying the Cardinals won’t, shouldn’t, or couldn’t make a move to upgrade Bader this winter. What I’m saying is that in this no-good, spoiled season, Bader has stepped up and improved his offense to a point where if he was on a team with a better offense surrounding him, he would fit in just fine. The Cardinals have plenty of other places they could upgrade the offense.

This might be a good sales technique to give to other teams, but it’s clear the team’s offensive woes aren’t on Bader right now. This may just be a good 50-game stretch for Bader too, but it’s all we have to judge him on this year.

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Bader has taken a step back in the right direction and will have a good chance to finish the year at least average offensively. If he can work to drop the strikeout rate back down to even the 25% range, Bader will continue to become more valuable. In my eyes, Bader has more than earned his spot back in center heading into 2021.