Comparing Lars Nootbaar with other St. Louis Cardinals heroes

St. Louis Cardinals outfielder Lars Nootbaar is a fan favorite in 2022. Let’s look at how he compares with two other players who captured fans’ affection.

It’s becoming clear that St. Louis has fallen head over heels for Cardinals outfielder Lars Nootbaar. While at first merely a curiosity because of his unique name, Nootbaar has become much more than that with his stellar play and is now a phenomenon within St. Louis. As fans grow enamored with the newly christened everyday right fielder, I’m thinking of how he stacks up to two other contemporary Cardinals who set fans’ hearts aflutter, however briefly.

The first Cardinal who comes to mind when thinking of Nootbaar’s popularity is second baseman Bo Hart. Hart was drafted in the 33rd round of the 1999 MLB draft, 20 rounds after the Cardinals grabbed a college third baseman named Albert Pujols.

Hart replaced an injured Miguel Cairo in June 2003, and he instantly became a sensation. Hart hit over .300 through Aug. 7, and St. Louis was quickly infatuated with the rookie from Oregon. Unfortunately for Hart, his success was fleeting, as pitchers eventually figured out he couldn’t hit a curveball, and his career was dead in the water soon after.

A more recent comparison for Nootbaar is 2016 Spring Training and early-season wonder Jeremy Hazelbaker. While Hazelbaker never reached Hart’s height in terms of cult hero status, his seven years spent in the minor leagues for the Boston Red Sox and Los Angeles Dodgers made for a feel-good story when he exploded in Spring Training and forced the Cardinals to find a spot for him on the Opening Day roster.

Hazelbaker rewarded the Cardinals for about a month. hitting .300 in his first 70 at-bats before fizzling out and receiving a demotion to Memphis on June 15. He struggled again upon his return to the Cardinals on July 19, hitting .235 during his year with the big club.

In contrast to Hart, Hazelbaker found a bit of success after his first year, hitting .346 in 41 games with the Arizona Diamondbacks. Nevertheless, he never saw the majors again and spent stints in the KBO and an independent league before calling it quits in 2020.

Nootbaar didn’t burst onto the scene as quickly as Hart and Hazelbaker did. While those two were successful immediately upon debuting, Nootbaar was mostly a bit player in 2021 and hit an unspectacular .239 for the year. He was fast and played decent defense, but there was little on the surface to suggest he’d become more than a part-time player.

At the start of July 2022, Nootbaar began finding a groove at the plate. From July 1 through Aug. 5, Nootbaar hit .327. In two games against the New York Yankees on Aug. 5 and 6, Nootbaar made critical, possibly game-preserving acrobatic snares in right field.

The lore of Nootbaar grows each game as he is prepared to roll out protein bars and possibly merchandise, but does he have the staying power? If Hart and Hazelbaker are anything to look back on, this could be his career’s pinnacle. But a few stats provide hope that Nootbaar could be the real deal.

While Hart played before the Statcast era and there thus aren’t many advanced metrics available to peruse for him, we can take a look at Hazelbaker’s 2016 for comparison.

Nootbaar’s average exit velocity is 91.3 mph this year, 3.6 mph higher than Hazelbaker’s average exit velocity of 87.7, which is a large difference. This solid contact is reflected in their line drive percentage: Nootbaar’s is 26.1 this year, while Hazelbaker’s was 21.8.

The most stark difference I can see, though, is in the chase percentage. Nootbaar is an incredibly disciplined hitter, which is difficult to teach. He has chased only 19.3% of pitches out of the zone this year, an elite number. Hazelbaker, on the other hand, flailed at 32% of pitches out of the zone. This batting eye suggests Nootbaar will be much trickier for pitchers to solve.

There’s a reason Hart and Hazelbaker were only cult heroes and not something more: They didn’t have the staying power to become universally beloved and known outside St. Louis. I would imagine that while Nootbaar gets a kick out of the “NOOOOT!” chants and the marketing opportunities he receives, he hopes to transcend that status and become a Cardinals stalwart. It’s still early, but the stats seem promising.