Harrison Bader started the season on the IL for the St Louis Cardinals but since his return, his plate discipline has been fantastic.
The St Louis Cardinals were without their full team until April 29 when center fielder Harrison Bader was activated. A forearm issue in spring training kept the righty out since the end of spring.
In his absence, Dylan Carlson filled in well at center field, but they weren’t able to replicate the full defensive skill in the outfield as a whole.
Bader’s return to the field has brought his patented defense back, but the other thing Bader has shown so far this year is an improved approach at the plate.
In 2020 and before, Bader’s offensive profile has really been that he hits fastballs and lefties well, but breaking balls and offspeed pitches would tear him apart at the plate. Just to use batting average as a reference, Bader’s 2019 averages were .253 against fastballs, .132 against breaking balls, and .190 against offspeed. He’s had a career whiff percentage right at 27.5% and none of these are very good. However, his defense has kept him in the lineup.
This year though, Bader has looked different at the plate. In his 10 games since his return, he’s hit three homers — one off a slider, one off a knuckle-curve, and one off of a cutter. This is notable because from 2018 through 2020, Bader hit 28 homers and only five total came off offspeed or breaking pitches.
Now, if you were to just say that Bader has hit three mistake-pitch homers in 10 games, you would be right. However, plenty of major leaguers have made careers out of hitting mistakes from pitchers, and many didn’t have Bader’s defensive skill.
The more important point I want to draw attention to is what could be the cause of Bader being able to hit those mistake pitches. He’s not striking out like he used to. That 27.5% career whiff rate we mentioned earlier? That has dropped to 21% in 2021 so far. Bader is also hitting better against offspeed and breaking pitches than he is against fastballs (of which only 46% of his pitches seen have been fastballs).
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Through Bader’s first 37 plate appearances this year, he’s struck out just five times (13.5% strikeout percentage) and has three walks (10.8% walk percentage) with two steals. He’s at a 121 wRC+ which is more than enough production than the Cardinals need from him to make him a worthwhile starter.
I wouldn’t put any money on Bader keeping his strikeout percentage below 15% for very long, but if he can make any significant gains from his career mark of 28%, that could do wonders for his production.
In Bader’s best season (2018), he struck out 29.3% of the time, batted .264 with a .756 OPS and was at a 107 wRC+. This combined with his defense earned him a stellar 3.6 fWAR. If Bader can replicate that same average with say a 24-25% strikeout rate, his value will easily crack 4.0 fWAR. That would be the absolute best-case scenario, and with his new approach, it’s readily attainable.
Normally, I would wait to write on something like this until there was a larger sample size, but there is a very noticeably different Harrison Bader at the plate this year. There are no numbers to describe the eye test, but Bader is passing it with flying colors at the moment.
Again, it has been 10 games and these numbers aren’t sustainable, but if Bader just keeps hunting mistakes and lays off bad sliders, it could be a really fun year for the Cardinals’ center fielder.