I feel like it's important every once in a while to acknowledge I was a little late to the Lars Nootbaar hype train compared to others who follow the Cardinals. Now I feel like I may be toward the front of the train, finding every opportunity to talk about how excited I am about him.
Ben Clemens of FanGraphs had an excellent article a few weeks ago on Nootbaar's continued rise as more than just a fun player but a legitimate star in the making. Nootbaar is just shy of qualifying for leaderboards right now due to time missed with injuries, but he would rank 24th in wRC+ among all qualified hitters right now and could easily find himself in the top 20 with the way he continues to hit.
I've been digging in a bit lately on Nootbaar's meteoric rise over the last two years. Before he really became a popular name to watch this past offseason, Nootbaar was a Statcast darling. He hit the ball really hard, got on base a ton, had pretty good speed and above-average defense, and the baseball nerds saw him going up a few levels if those batted ball metrics could turn into more extra-base hits.
There's a player that kept coming to mind for me that had a similar profile early in his big league career, began having a lot of success as well, became an All-Star level player, and then eventually an MVP-winner. I started to dive into the numbers, and I kept finding parallels between Nootbaar and Milwaukee Brewers outfielder Christian Yelich.
Lars Nootbaar rise to stardom feels a lot like that of Christian Yelich
Player comparisons are a tricky game as it's very rare that two players have so much in common. While there are some differences between Nootbaar and Yelich early on in their careers, the things that made people believe there was star potential in Yelich are the same things that have people excited about Nootbaar.
If you think back to Yelich early in his career, he was an exciting young outfielder for the Miami Marlins alongside Giancarlo Stanton and Marcell Ozuna. Like Nootbaar, Yelich was a Statcast machine, a hard-contact king with a good feel for the strike zone, and he was a hot commodity on the trade market as teams thought he could turn into a true star as he turned those hard-hit balls into doubles and home runs.
Sounds a lot like how I described Nootbaar earlier. The biggest difference between the two is that Nootbaar was already tapping into some of that power potential early in his career, while Yelich was a high batting average guy but lacked in the power department until 2016 and beyond. If you compare Yelich from 2015-2016 to Nootbaar's 2022-2023 stretch, you'll see a ton of similarities in production while posting similar underlying numbers as well.
One important thing to note here is that I am comparing years three and four of Yelich's big league career to Nootbaar's years two and three. Yelich played 62 games in 2013 and then his first full season in 2014, while Nootbaar's first full season game in 2022 for St. Louis. Yelich by this point in his career had a lot more big-league seasoning to him, and yet, Nootbaar is already challenging the heights that Yelich reached early in his career about a year sooner than he did.
Nootbaar's sample size has grown to a point where he's no longer a "let's wait and see if this sustains" kind of guy. He's amassed a 125 wRC+ across his 755 plate appearances the last two seasons, and that's while also having to navigate working his way back from various injuries after he gets into a grove at the plate. In Clemens' story on FanGraphs, he found that Nootbaar ranks 16th in baseball since 2022 with 4.9 WAR/600PA, and I've found that he ranks 36th with that 125 wRC+ over the past two years.
Obviously, he'll have to keep those in check long-term to reach the heights we are talking about here, but the talent and production are already showing.
While I think it's a leap to say Nootbaar is going to be an MVP contender in a couple of years, I really don't think it's crazy to say he's on the trajectory to be like Yelich has a hitter in his prime. Yelich eventually turned his power into 36 and 44 home runs in 2018 and 2019, and I don't necessarily see that kind of power from Nootbaar. But could he find himself between 25-30 home runs if he remains healthy? Definitely.
Pair what with the on-base skills he has, and you've got a very similar player to what Yelich was for the Brewers when he truly ascended. Nootbaar relies more on walks than Yelich did early in his career, but Nootbaar could see his batting average continue to rise as those hard-hit balls become more line drives and fly balls.
Getting up to the 167 and 174 wRC+ seasons that Yelich put up in 2018 and 2019 is not a realistic expectation for Nootbaar. He'd really have to take it up another level than what I am expecting in order to do that, but he's already knocking on the door of being a 130 wRC+ guy in his second full season, so thinking he can be 40%-45% above league average in his prime is not crazy.
Between Nootbaar and Jordan Walker, the Cardinals have two stars in the making already. Throw in other young talent like Nolan Gorman, Brendan Donovan, and Masyn Winn, and the future is bright for the Cardinals' position player group. As for 2024, this ascending group paired with the likes of Nolan Arenado, Paul Goldschmidt, and Willson Contreras could make for a special offense next season.