Harrison Bader is raking in his first full season of pro ball. The 21-year-old St. Louis Cardinals outfield prospect ranks second in the Double-A Texas League with a .351 batting average. Batting leadoff for Springfield, Bader boasts a .401 OBP and his slugging percentage is a sporty .554.
Last year, he hit the ground running after being drafted in the third round out of the University of Florida. Splitting his debut campaign between the New York-Penn and Midwest Leagues, the Bronxville, New York native put up an .891 OPS. This year he’s been even better, which he partly attributes to being a sponge.
Bader talked about his approach to the game, including his insatiable thirst for knowledge, earlier this week.
Bader on how he identifies as a hitter: “I don’t see myself as a power guy. Not by any means. I think that’s evident from where I’m batting in the lineup at this level. I’m a leadoff hitter, so I’m expected to get on base as often as possible. I’m expected to work a lot of counts, have a high level of plate discipline and a good understanding of the strike zone. I also need to know my hitting zone, where I can do damage.
“I’m gap-to-gap, but I do have the ability to run one out in any count. That’s not how I profile, though. I’m definitely not trying to hit home runs. There are guys in the big leagues getting paid a lot of money to drive runners in, and I’m the type of guy who will help them pump up their RBI totals.
“I’m also kind of a high-contact guy. I’m aggressive early in the count when I’m getting my pitch. I probably need to walk a bit more. I’m maybe a little overaggressive at times. But in my opinion, that’s OK within a limit. My primary goal is to make consistent hard contact.”
On working with hitting coaches: “The suggestions I encountered this spring weren’t like, ‘Change this.’ They weren’t about making me into a certain kind of player or a certain kind of hitter. That wasn’t their approach at all. It was more about the fundamentals side. It was working hand path, understanding where your barrel is at — using different tools to just kind of train my swing.
“I think I have a pretty concrete understanding of how a swing is going to work. There are certain things you maybe can’t change this late in the game. I think the hitting coordinators here are just mostly working on strengthening the things you do well as a player. My swing is pretty much the same now as it was in college.”
On watching baseball to learn: “As a kid, I’d watch the game as entertainment. I still do, but at the same time, I watch it very differently. I watch it as a student. I’m trying to learn different things from different guys. I’m a fan of baseball in general and a lot of its superstars, but I can draw as much information from a nine-hole guy as I can from a star in the three hole.
“I grew up a big-time Yankees fan, but when I went to college I got away from watching baseball casually. Playing and practicing every day… I think the thing that fascinated me most was my coaches and their experience level. A lot of the things they were teaching in the program at the University of Florida were things I’m seeing when I’m watching major-league baseball. Seeing a big leaguer doing what I was taught in college, how they go about their business, makes me even more of a sponge.
“The assistant coach there, Brad Weitzel, would say that Derek Jeter was learning the game until the day he retired. Who knows if that’s really true, but when you think about it, no one ever figures baseball out. I keep that mindset, day in and day out, understanding that there’s always something more to learn, something to separate yourself.”
On Derek Jeter and inside-outing the ball: “There’s a big difference between being late on a fastball and knowing how to manipulate your swing to hit it to the right side. Derek Jeter’s ability to consistently stay inside the baseball and drive it the other way — not just flare it, but hit it with authority — was just incredible.
“People who know baseball firsthand know how difficult it is to take an inside fastball and barrel it to the opposite field. I didn’t realize that when I was a kid. Looking back, I appreciate what he did even more, because now I understand the gravity of that difficulty. The way he was able to stay inside the ball… he put that on the map, big time.”
On his swing and his approach: “I don’t think I profile as having an inside-out swing. I do have the ability to stay inside the ball, although that’s more of a fundamental thing. Baseball is so pitch to pitch. You can take one swing this pitch, and on the next pitch it’s a completely different swing.
“My approach was simple in college, but that changed pretty quickly when I got to pro ball. You learn how guys pitch. Having a singular approach… not to knock anybody who does, but it goes beyond that. Your approach changes at-bat to at-bat, and pitcher to pitcher. You can take that a step further and say it changes pitch to pitch.
“As I’m maturing in this game, the direction I want to go in is to be able to adjust pitch to pitch. The ultimate goal is to be able to take a step back and understand what a pitcher is doing. Pitchers have a plan of attack. Recognize that is part of your process, so my approach is definitely more complex than it was at Florida. Sometimes if a guy is just flipping a curveball over… go out and get that curveball, first pitch. There’s no sense going down 0-1. It’s all situational.”
On his current level of success and how he’ll deal with adversity: “I was actually asked a question like that pretty recently. My response was that if I take even a second to dwell on an 0-for-4, that would be a second too long. I would never focus on that.
“I think I’d attribute the success I’m having on my ability to adjust and to how I’m trying to absorb everything. I’m trying to be a sponge. We have a tremendous coaching staff. They’re doing a great job with me and are allowing me to play. I’m thriving in that environment.
“Some balls, I’m not going to hit as hard, and some balls aren’t going to fall. I understand that. It comes down to pressing that reset button as often as you can. I’m a big believer in staying confident and staying positive. A hit in your previous at-bat means nothing to your next at-bat. They might come at you differently, or they might just make better pitches.
“You can’t worry too much about results. Obviously, they’re in my favor right now, and it feels pretty good. But it’s important for me to stay even-keeled. As much as you respect the ups, you have to respect the downs even more. Like I said, pitch to pitch, game to game. Right now that approach is working well.”
David Laurila grew up in Michigan's Upper Peninsula and now writes about baseball from his home in Cambridge, Mass. He authored the Prospectus Q&A series at Baseball Prospectus from December 2006-May 2011 before being claimed off waivers by FanGraphs. He can be followed on Twitter @DavidLaurilaQA.