Harrison Bader: Rookie of the Year? by Jeff Sullivan August 28, 2018 Repeat something often enough and you start to take it for granted. For example, something I’ve taken for granted is that the National League Rookie of the Year race will inevitably come down to Ronald Acuna vs. Juan Soto. I mean no disrespect to, say, Brian Anderson or Walker Buehler or Dereck Rodriguez, but this is where I am, and I know I’m not alone. Soto and Acuna have been absolutely sensational, and they’ve drawn themselves a lot of attention. The Braves have a franchise player on their hands. The Nationals do, too. These are two guys who could one day end up in the Hall of Fame. Something I’ve realized, though, is my position has been unexamined. I haven’t looked at the competitors in a while. And this was brought to mind by something I read by Ken Rosenthal earlier this morning: The NL Rookie of the Year race is evolving into a showdown between the Braves’ Ronald Acuña and Nationals’ Juan Soto, but another outfielder — the Cardinals’ Harrison Bader — might receive some third-place votes. Some possible third-place votes for Harrison Bader. There’s no shame in not winning the Rookie of the Year. In last year’s NL voting, Rhys Hoskins finished fourth. Awards are secondary; on-field performance is what everyone cares about. But I’ve realized Bader deserves more credit than he’s been getting. We all assume the race will come down to Acuna vs. Soto. The race probably will come down to Acuna vs. Soto. But, should it? Bader has a surprisingly convincing case. Forget third-place votes. Bader maybe ought to finish first. So that it is said, and said clearly: The Cardinals would absolutely trade Bader for Soto. They would absolutely trade Bader for Acuna. Soto and Acuna are likely to have the better and brighter futures, if only because of how young they presently are. The Rookie of the Year award isn’t supposed to identify the rookie with the best chance of reaching the Hall. It’s supposed to identify the best rookie in a given season. This is the starting point. What matters is how these players are doing in 2018. All three of them have had roughly equivalent playing time. Bader has the lead in appearances, while Soto has the lead in plate appearances. And it’s pretty easy to understand why Acuna vs. Soto seems like a given. Acuna has a wRC+ of 147. Soto has a wRC+ of 145. Bader is down at 115. To look at things differently, Acuna’s hit 21 homers, and he’s slugging .570. Soto’s hit 15 homers, and he’s slugging .507. Bader’s hit nine homers, and he’s slugging .444. Hitting is a position player’s most visible skill, especially when it comes to hitting for power. Hitting has always been put on a pedestal, when it comes to voting for awards, when it comes to free agency, and when it comes to arbitration. Everyone likes a hitter, because the other skills seem easier to ignore. And they are, probably. But that doesn’t mean they’re irrelevant. The whole concept of WAR is that there are several different ways for a player to be good. Bader has the makings of a FanGraphs WAR All-Star. I’m going to show you three tables. I recognize that WAR doesn’t cover everything, but there’s no better way to present this argument. In this first table, you’ll see the three outfielders, and for all of them, I’ve given them zero credit for runs above or below average in the field. I’ve still included a positional adjustment — Bader, after all, has played the most often in center — but that’s it. The units are runs, except for the last column. Player Comparison, No Defense Player G PA Batting Base Running Fielding Positional Offense Defense WAR Ronald Acuna 79 341 20 3 0 -3 22 -3 3.1 Juan Soto 87 366 20 1 0 -4 22 -4 3.0 Harrison Bader 107 313 6 6 0 -1 12 -1 2.1 This is probably the closest to public consensus. Acuna and Soto are neck and neck, about a win ahead of where Bader is. Those wRC+ gaps translate to advantages of about 14 runs. Bader gets only a modest boost for playing in center. You’ll notice Bader also gets a modest boost in the baserunning column. He’s one of the fastest sprinters in either league. Here he is, recently scoring from second on an infield grounder: Baserunning is one of those secondary skills. You know what secondary skills are worth? Something! And speaking of secondary skills — we’re only just getting started. Again, in the table above, I zeroed out the fielding column. Here’s what happens when you replace those zeros with UZR numbers: Player Comparison, UZR Player G PA Batting Base Running Fielding Positional Offense Defense WAR Harrison Bader 107 313 6 6 11 -1 12 10 3.3 Ronald Acuna 79 341 20 3 -2 -3 22 -5 2.9 Juan Soto 87 366 20 1 -3 -4 22 -7 2.7 Just like that, Bader surges ahead. Not only does he most often play the most difficult outfield position — he’s also been an incredible defender. Want more beyond just UZR? Here’s the same table again, except instead of UZR, I’ve included DRS: Player Comparison, DRS Player G PA Batting Base Running Fielding Positional Offense Defense WAR Harrison Bader 107 313 6 6 21 -1 12 20 4.3 Ronald Acuna 79 341 20 3 5 -3 22 2 3.6 Juan Soto 87 366 20 1 -3 -4 22 -7 2.7 Bader’s lead is even slightly greater than before. UZR thinks that Bader has been amazing in the field. DRS thinks that Bader has been even more amazing in the field. And while I understand perfectly well that many of you view defensive numbers with skepticism, one thing I’ll say is that I trust outfield numbers far more than I trust infield numbers. And outfield numbers also come with some Statcast support. Consider Statcast’s Outs Above Average metric. In first place, among all outfielders: Harrison Bader, at +18. He’s ahead of guys like Billy Hamilton, Ender Inciarte, and Adam Engel. We find Ronald Acuna at +4. We find Juan Soto at -4. Soto has converted 82% of batted balls into outs, against an expectation of 84%. Acuna’s at 87% and 85%, respectively. Bader? 95% and 85%, respectively. Bader has been a batted-ball vacuum. There’s no other way around it. You might be familiar with Statcast’s star-rating system, where a five-star play is a play with a 0-25% chance of being turned into an out. Bader has made six of those plays. Acuna and Soto have each made zero. Bader has made nine plays in the next-most difficult tier. Acuna has made five, while Soto has made one. Bader leads across the board. He’s converted every single three-star play. He’s converted every single two-star play. He’s converted every single one-star play. I shouldn’t need to sit here and convince you that Harrison Bader has been a defensive wizard, but, whatever, it’s fun to look at highlights. Here are some! Another: Another: I could keep going, but I won’t. If you aren’t convinced yet, you aren’t going to get there today. You wouldn’t be wrong to be a little hesitant before believing in the defensive numbers. Just know that, with Bader, the defensive numbers are all pointing in the same direction. They all agree that Bader’s been amazing. Usually, players with great defensive numbers across the board are great defenders. I’ll remind you, the Cardinals aren’t crazy. Of course they’d rather have Ronald Acuna’s overall skillset. Acuna is 20 years old. Bader is 24, and he doesn’t hit the ball nearly so hard. Every single major-league executive would rather have Acuna in the organization. And while we’re talking about this, the regular season still has another few weeks to go, and there could be further separation. Maybe Bader’s bat will go cold. Maybe he’ll flub a defensive chance or three. Maybe, in the end, Bader won’t have the convincing Rookie-of-the-Year argument he has today. But today, I have to say, I do find it pretty convincing. We know that defense matters, and if you believe that Bader is a good defensive center fielder, you’re already basically there. This is a player who shouldn’t be flying so far under the radar. The Cardinals could have a peak Kevin Kiermaier on their hands. I’ve assumed for a while the NL voting will come down to Acuna vs. Soto. I still assume the same thing. Consider this an attempt to open some minds. I didn’t fully appreciate the state of things, myself, until I forced myself to look.