Harrison Bader, the St. Louis Cardinals’ Most Polarizing Player
By Brett Ramsey
For some people, St. Louis Cardinals outfielder Harrison Bader is a fan favorite. For others, not so much. What makes him such a polarizing player?
The St. Louis Cardinals have had many great center fielders throughout their history. Some fans are ready to include Harrison Bader in that mix. For others, Bader is not quite up to par yet. Whether you like him or not, there’s little question that Bader has quickly turned into perhaps the most polarizing player on the team.
I’ll take a look at both sides of the coin. I am going to avoid taking a firm stance on this myself, for two reasons. One, I am attempting to be objective. Two, I really don’t have a strong opinion either way. I am however interested in what makes Bader such an electrifying topic for so many in the fan base.
First, let’s look at why Bader is looked at so favorably.
Harrison Bader is Great
I think a reason a lot of fans like Bader is because he’s sort of a relic. His strengths are certainly defense and speed and so many historically great St. Louis Cardinals teams have used these as their pillars for success. When we see Bader lay out for a diving grab or sliding into second base after a steal, it’s a dose of nostalgia for those that admired the Cardinals teams of the 80s, the “Whiteyball” era.
He also seems like a confident player, and while his overall offensive game needs some improvement, he can run into a few home runs with some surprising occasional power. Currently 26 years of age, there is still time for his offensive game to blossom which could turn him into a more complete player.
In the meantime, his defense alone is worth playing time and anything he can contribute at the dish is an added bonus.
Now, here’s the other argument.
Harrison Bader is… Not Great
The Cardinals have been strong up the middle defensively for a while, but is Bader that much better in the outfield than, say, Lane Thomas? In limited major league experience, Thomas has shown flashes that would indicate he could likely produce better offensive numbers while playing above-average defense in center field.
For a St. Louis Cardinals team that has been lacking hitting for years, is it worthwhile to see if Thomas or someone else can offer more in that spot? I think some of the skepticism is that Bader has been in the big leagues since 2017 and been looking at mostly regular playing time since 2018. In that time he has yet to take a big leap forward offensively.
The naysayers, as far as I can tell, wouldn’t have a complaint with Bader serving as a 4th outfielder or late-inning defensive replacement. But maybe his (lack of) hitting suggests he should be limited to a reduced role and that he is in fact overrated by some of the fanbase.
What do the numbers say?
Bader’s career batting average is .234 and his career OPS+ is 93. Much of his WAR (wins above replacement) value comes from his defense, and with his exceptional speed he only has to date 31 career stolen bases, which might be some correlation with his struggles to consistently get on base.
His career .322 OBP reflects that, although that’s not a terrible on-base percentage. He will be 27 in June, so the time for him to take that next step could be here. There were some positive signs. In 2020 his OPS+ was 111, a meaningful bump. For comparison, his OPS+ was only 80 in 2019.
2021 could be an important season for Harrison Bader. If he is going to take another step forward on offense, this could be the time. The St. Louis Cardinals have not gotten much production from the outfield for the past few seasons. Everyone knows about Bader’s elite defense that could result in a Gold Glove award (or several) in upcoming seasons.
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Still, it is fair to say he is maybe a bit overrated by some. It seems he’s all but being handed the starting center field job this spring, but what if Lane Thomas impresses? Bader’s incumbency shouldn’t make him a lock to return as the starter in center field. That to me seems to be the rub.
He’s being regarded as a proven asset with not much left to prove, but in actuality, he still needs to earn the role. For what it’s worth, I don’t think there’s a big gap between Bader and Thomas. In some ways, I think they are similar players. I’m mentioning Thomas because he seems to be the most direct and immediate competition for Bader.
I absolutely think Bader should and will be the starting center fielder for the 2021 St. Louis Cardinals. I also think this is the season for him to prove he’s a long-term fixture of the team. He’s quickly turned into one of the most polarizing players on the team, and I’m not sure why. There seem to be two different perspectives on him.
Some are enthralled by his relentless defense, tendency for diving catches, and his growingly well-known hair flips. Others might see him as overly dramatic, and the hair flips as an example of his bold style and trying to draw attention to himself. They might look at his offensive numbers and scoff, ready to move on to another option. Again, I’m trying to look at both sides of the coin here. I’m genuinely intrigued by what makes Harrison Bader such a polarizing figure with the Cardinals fanbase.
There are a few things that I think all fans can agree with in regards to Bader. Firstly, he’s a St. Louis Cardinals player and thus we all want to see him succeed and help the team to win. Secondly, his defense is incredible and he can impact the game in so many ways even if he’s struggling in the batter’s box. Lastly, whether you like him or not, Harrison Bader has a lot to prove in 2021 to solidify his place as a part of the St. Louis Cardinals core.