Harrison Bader Catches Them All

I know what you’re thinking: it’s a layup of a title. Harrison Bader is one of the best defensive outfielders in baseball. When he needs it, he can engage a little bit of turbo boost, turning his range from excellent to downright ludicrous:

Too easy, right? What a one-note title. We get it: he catches all the balls. If you thought that was what I had in store for you, gather around, because things are about to get exciting.

Bader, you see, collected Pokémon cards as a kid. Relevant? Not really. Unless you follow fantasy baseball forums and heard this whopper of a tale early in the season:

I’m not the first person to cover this story. Sami Alsado picked it up in May over at Pitcher List and wondered whether it should inform our opinion of Bader’s start. But it was still early in the year, and besides, Bader himself hadn’t said anything about it yet. Well, that surgery was real, and Bader is in the midst of a breakout offensive season. It’s speculation no longer — Harrison Bader is seeing clearly. Let’s see what removing some nasal polyps can do for you.

Before this year, Bader’s offensive game had been defined by high strikeout rates and a rough approach at the plate. It’s not so much that he was too aggressive, a frequent culprit when young players run high strikeout rates. Instead, Bader simply wasn’t making good swing decisions. He showed reasonable restraint, but simply swung at the wrong pitches. Aside from a cup of coffee in 2017, he swung too rarely when pitchers attacked the zone:

Harrison Bader Swing%
Year O-Swing% League Z-Swing% League
2017 26.9% 27.3% 70.4% 66.5%
2018 25.6% 27.6% 64.7% 66.4%
2019 24.1% 28.8% 57.9% 67.0%
2020 27.7% 27.3% 58.8% 66.4%

To be more precise, Bader had a problem with taking strikes when behind in the count. When he was behind in the count and an opponent obliged him by giving him something to hit, he let it go by 22.2% of the time, far higher than the league average of 14.6%. Taking a called strike when you’re behind is a lot worse than swinging at a ball; you might make contact with a bad swing, but you’re out of luck if you take a strike.

Even worse, Bader let 10.8% of two-strike pitches in the zone go past him. It’s hard to be that passive in the zone and make it work — but it’s especially hard if you don’t make a ton of contact, and Bader is decidedly average there. Add it all up, and he struck out a ton even though he didn’t put up awful swinging strike numbers.

Was that due to polyps? Was it due to some innate inability to judge balls and strikes? Was it some mixture of the two? We can’t know for sure, but take a look at what he’s doing so far this year:

Harrison Bader Swing%
Year O-Swing% League Z-Swing% League
2017 26.9% 27.3% 70.4% 66.5%
2018 25.6% 27.6% 64.7% 66.4%
2019 24.1% 28.8% 57.9% 67.0%
2020 27.7% 27.3% 58.8% 66.4%
2021 27.0% 27.3% 62.2% 67.3%

Every hitter wants to chase less. Not every hitter wants to attack in the zone more, but Bader clearly needed to. Those taken strikes when behind in the count? They’re down to 15.5% this year. With two strikes, they’re down to 6.3%. Whatever the cause, Bader looks like a completely new hitter this year when it comes to plate discipline.

That’s not to say that he hasn’t changed anything else about his game, or that all of his improvement has happened this season. Early in his career, Bader had a devil of a time with sliders. In his first two full seasons, he was 19.3 runs below average against sliders, versus 17.9 runs above average against every other pitch (per Baseball Savant’s classifications).

In fact, you can make a convincing argument that his two problems were one and the same. When pitchers threw him a slider in the strike zone, Bader watched it go by a full 35% of the time (28% league average). Even when he was behind in the count, he allowed sliders in the zone to pass uncontested 20% of the time (14.4% league average). It’s not like he was making hay on sliders outside the zone, either — he was below average there as well.

That was the old book on Bader, but things have changed. In an abbreviated 2020, he had a solid offensive season and put up positive numbers against sliders. His biggest change? Being less passive against them in the strike zone, particularly when behind in the count. It might seem like it’s just the same adjustment two years in a row — and it is! — but twice the sample size is never bad, and it’s starting to look like Bader has made a real change.

Want a visual example of what I’m talking about? Here’s Bader giving up early on a Corbin Burnes slider and taking a walk back to the dugout:

I picked a particularly bad one, but that’s basically what ailed him. Sliders — even down the middle of the plate — turned him to jelly, regardless of count. Other pitches turned him inside out, but nothing like those dang sliders.

This year, pitchers have thrown 12 sliders over the heart of the plate with Bader behind in the count. He’s swung at all 12, and made contact with 11. The old book on how to beat him simply doesn’t work anymore. In fact, you’re liable to have this happen:

Bader isn’t hitting grand slams on every slider he sees, but I can’t stress enough how much this change matters. A batter who doesn’t chase too much and makes solid contact should strike out less than average. From his debut until the end of 2020, Bader instead struck out 29.1% of the time, and it tanked his offensive value. This year, that’s down to 18.1%, and it’s no surprise that his .337 OBP is the best of his career despite a middling BABIP and a tougher offensive environment.

It’s not all sunshine and lollipops. His contact quality is down this year, which helps explain that BABIP. He’s running a shockingly low 15.9% line drive rate, and while that’s a noisy statistic, his Sweet Spot% — the rate at which he hits balls between eight and 32 degrees — is also a career low.

That’s not a disqualifying problem, and there’s still plenty of time for him to better figure out which pitches in the zone he can do the most damage on; he’s swinging more than ever at pitches over the heart of the plate, but hasn’t yet converted that into the line drives and barrels that often come from those high quality swings.

Is Bader suddenly a top offensive talent? I really don’t think so. But he’s completely overhauled the weakest part of his game, and that changes his outlook considerably. Since the day he debuted in the majors, he’s been one of the best defenders in the game. No matter which metric you look at — advanced, eye test, whatever you want — he’s adding huge value in the outfield. If he were merely an average hitter, he’d be a borderline All-Star year in and year out. With his newfound strike zone clarity, average offense feels like an exceedingly attainable goal.





Ben is a writer at FanGraphs. He can be found on Twitter @_Ben_Clemens.

newest oldest most voted
EonADS
Member
EonADS

Title made me want to do a rewrite of the original Pokémon theme song, but unfortunately I’m not lyrically talented.

mattybobo
Member
mattybobo

I wanna be the very best
The guy I never was
The strike zone is my real test
Some polyps were the cause

I will travel across the land
Get surgery for my nose
Teach baseball fans to understand
The power no one knows

(Bader-mon, Gotta catch ’em aaallll)
Now I can see
To hit is my destiny
(Bader-mon)
Eyes are my best friends
And the Zone, I will defend
(Bader-mon, Gotta catch ’em aaallll)
A swing so true
And defense will pull me through
Hit to me and I’ll catch you
Bader-mooonnn
Gotta catch ’em all
Gotta catch ’em all
Bader-mon

Lanidrac
Member
Lanidrac

♪♫ Every challenge along the way
With courage, we will face
We will play near everyday
To claim our rightful place

Play for us, the time is right
There’s no better team
Arm by arm, we’ll close out the night
Bader’s Cards will reign supreme!

{Repeat chorus} ♫♪

Well, maybe not this year, but with Flaherty back on Friday and Mikolas right behind him, who knows?