St. Louis Cardinals: Is Harrison Bader’s 2021 season sustainable?

Harrison Bader had his best year yet in 2021 for the St. Louis Cardinals. A change in approach at the plate played a big part.

Harrison Bader has been a lightning rod for fan criticism since he debuted with the St. Louis Cardinals all the way back in 2017. He’s flashy, he’s got the swag, and when he can’t back it up on the field, it gives fans an easy place to land their criticism.

The one thing that never slumps for Harrison Bader is his defense. In 2021, Bader’s efforts finally earned him the NL Gold Glove in center, shining national light on what fans have seen for years out of the speedy center fielder.

Bader is valuable enough as the quarterback of the outfield defense, but to truly take things to the next level he needed more offensive consistency. As great as having an elite glove in center is, a great team can’t sacrifice a spot in the lineup.

In 2020, Bader had a great year if you look at his 114 wRC+, but this was a 60-game season where a hot final weekend propped up his numbers. In 2021 though, fans saw the best version of Bader at the plate yet.

Finishing with a 110 wRC+, Bader hit 16 homers and drove in 50 while hitting 21 doubles. His .785 OPS was the best of his career and the extra-base production was really the difference. This career-high in both doubles and homers also came in just 103 games.

This 3.9 bWAR performance out of the back end of the Cardinals’ lineup was huge and probably saved Bader’s career in St. Louis. The question moving forward is just about how sustainable this new Bader is.

To judge this, we need to find what changed to create this great year. J.P. Hill at Viva El Birdos did a great job breaking down a lot of what changed for Bader, but after my own trudge through the numbers, a couple things were clear. Bader found a way to perform better against offspeed and breaking balls without sacrificing his hunt for the fastball.

Bader had career-bests in strikeout rate and whiff percentage and even though he did chase more than he has in his career, his contact percentage when he chased went up. This sounds simple, but Bader also matched his zone swing percentage from 2018, his second-best full season. It would appear swinging at strikes helps. Making more contact and not striking out as much did a lot for Baer, but still he did outperform most of his expected stats. xBA, xSLG, and xwOBA all say that Bader should’ve been somewhat worse at the plate.

His quality of contact wasn’t great, but Bader’s speed lets him outkick his coverage some. In the long run, making better contact, in general, is going to be a huge help for Bader as 2021 showed. The underreported pre-season procedure to get polyps removed may have also done the trick to help Bader’s eye at the plate.

Plainly, Harrison Bader had his best year in 2021 and it won’t be simple to replicate. Heading into his age-28 season, he’s a ~4 WAR player which speaks mountains to the work he’s done to improve. He’s a big part of the heart and soul of the Cardinals and clearly loves all of you, even if the love isn’t always shared.

As far as sustainability goes, while it will be tough to replicate 2021, the gains that he made in contact and strikeout rates will be strong tools to try and keep improving.