Harrison Bader Has Matured at the Plate

Harrison Bader is legitimately one of the best defensive outfielders in baseball. By whichever advanced defensive metric you prefer, he ranks in the top 10 among all outfielders since his debut in 2017. But while his elite ability with the glove is clear, the value of his bat has been a bigger question mark. Entering this season, in just over 1,000 career plate appearances, he had posted a league- and park-adjusted offensive line five percent below league average, which isn’t too bad considering his reputation as a glove-first center fielder. This year, though, his wRC+ is up to 108 in 70 plate appearances, and his approach at the plate is completely different.

Bader had shown some promise with the bat in the minors and in his previous four seasons in the majors, peaking as the No. 8 prospect in the Cardinals’ organization back in 2018 with a tantalizing power/speed profile. But the concern for him, as he quickly worked through the minor leagues, was a propensity to swing and miss that led to high strikeout rates. That inability to make consistent contact didn’t get resolved once he got to the majors: Prior to this year, his career strikeout rate was 29.1%, and last year, he struck out a career-high 32.0% of the time.

Bader missed all of April after suffering a forearm injury during spring training. But since getting back on the field at the beginning of this month, he’s provided some surprising production for the Cardinals as their everyday centerfielder, already matching his home run total from last year in almost half the plate appearances. The biggest change has come in his approach at the plate. His strikeout rate has tumbled from that career-worst 32.0% last year all the way down to 12.9%; among batters with at least 100 plate appearances in 2020 and at least 70 plate appearances in ’21, his huge decrease in strikeout rate is by far the largest in baseball. He’s also struck out in exactly as many plate appearances as he’s drawn a walk so far this season.

Back in his debut season in 2017, Bader had a similar stretch where his strikeout rate fell close to this level, but he ended up finishing that year at 26.1%.

This stretch to open this year has been nearly unprecedented in his major league career. Just looking at his granular plate discipline stats shows an approach that is nearly unrecognizable from his previous career norms. He’s swinging at pitches in the zone more often and he’s chasing pitches out of the zone far less often. And when he does chase, he’s making more contact with those out-of-zone pitches.

Harrison Bader, plate discipline
Year O-Swing% Z-Swing% O-Contact% Z-Contact% SwStr%
Career 25.5% 60.8% 51.4% 84.4% 10.7%
2020 28.1% 56.7% 47.4% 90.9% 10.2%
2021 19.2% 68.0% 64.0% 83.5% 8.5%

That’s a drastically different plate discipline profile. The net result is fewer swinging strikes and fewer called strikes, which naturally leads to a lower strikeout rate.

Bader’s plate discipline metrics get even better when he has two strikes on him. His swing rate in two-strike counts sat around 60% for his career, but he’s upped that rate to 77.4% this year. With so many additional swings in these situations, he’s bound to swing at a few more out of the zone pitches; his chase rate in two-strike counts is 52.2%, up from 14.8% in all other counts. But because he’s making contact with pitches off the plate more often, those two-strike chases haven’t turned into strikeouts at the same rate as before.

If you break down his approach by pitch type, he’s slightly improved his chase rate against breaking balls, but the biggest difference has been on fastballs, as he’s swinging at the hard stuff he’s seeing in the zone and leaving it alone when it’s off the plate. He has chased fastballs at an alarming rate when he has two strikes on him, but that likely explains how he’s been able to make regular contact with those out-of-zone pitches this year. His swing rate heatmaps show off this new approach well.

On the left is his career swing rate, and on the right is what he’s done this year. He’s done well to lay off pitches down and away from him while swinging at inside pitches far more often.

Attacking inside pitches more often has led to a big jump in Bader’s pull rate: He’s pulled half of the balls he’s put in play this year, an eight-point increase over what he was doing last year. During his minor league career, he was pulling the ball around 50% of the time and showing impressive power while doing it, and he finally looked like he was able to get to that power last year with a career high .217 ISO. His power output this season has been exactly the same, and with his new refined approach at the plate, he should be able to improve it even further.

What’s even more impressive about the four home runs Bader has already hit this year is that three of them came off of a breaking ball. He’s always struggled against breaking stuff throughout his career, with his career wOBA against sliders and curveballs sitting at .213, and had hit just seven home runs off a breaking ball in just over 1,000 plate appearances heading into this year. He’s now added three to that total in only 70 plate appearances, and his wOBA against them is up to .427.

With such a small sample, it’s hard to take anything away from Bader’s batted ball data that could be viewed as reliable. After all, his BABIP is an abnormally low .229, well below his career rate. With his elite speed and unchanged batted ball data, we should expect to see a bunch more hits fall in moving forward. But he’s at the point in a season where his plate discipline metrics are gaining stability. In the past, he’s had to rely on high BABIPs to offset all the strikeouts in his profile. With his strikeout rate cut by 19 points, he has so many more opportunities for his balls in play to do damage. The changes Bader has made to his approach at the plate look like they’re sticky. If that’s the case, it would be a major improvement to his offensive ceiling.

Jake Mailhot is a contributor to FanGraphs. A long-suffering Mariners fan, he also writes about them for Lookout Landing. Follow him on Twitter @jakemailhot.

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2 years ago

Once the scouts see this article and the chart, unless Bader makes adjustments, expect his k rate to go back up. Just pound the low outside part of the zone and throw balls out of the zone amd most likely if he doesnt strike out he will make an out. Then Bader will have to learn to adjust and hit the outside pitch and start laying off pitches not in the zone. If we expected him to be elite he should have already mastered the plate. Bader is 26 so if he can continue to improve at the plate he can be a more than servicable asset becuase of his defense.