Lars Nootbaar Is For Real

Lars Nootbaar
Jeff Curry-USA TODAY Sports

You know the basics of Lars Nootbaar’s story, because you know how the Cardinals seem to work. An eighth-round draft pick in 2018, he held his own in an increasingly tough set of minor league assignments, made the show in ’21, and is now leading off for one of the best offensive teams in baseball. He’s putting up more or less the best offensive performance of his career, and doing it in the major leagues after less than 1,000 minor league plate appearances. Nothing to it! Just a little devil magic, move on with your lives.

If you look a bit deeper than the basics, though, Nootbaar gets far more interesting. That same old story? It’s not really right. Nootbaar isn’t the same player he was when he was drafted. He’s a slugging corner outfielder who probably had a lot to do with the Cardinals’ willingness to trade Harrison Bader at the deadline. Let’s take a journey through his pro career and see if we can predict his future at the end of it.

When he was drafted, Nootbaar was an approach-over-tools prospect. He’s always had a good sense of the strike zone; the question was whether he’d be able to muster enough power on contact to keep high-level pitchers from knocking the bat out of his hands. In 2018 and ’19, that concern seemed pressing: in 265 plate appearances between Hi-A and Double-A, he hit only two homers and posted a .055 ISO. In other words, pitchers were knocking the bat out of his hands. He posted an average batting line anyway, but let’s face it: that’s an uninspiring start to a career.

Smash cut to 2022, and Nootbaar is hammering major league pitching. He has nine homers in 241 plate appearances already, more than he managed over 387 PAs in his 2019 minor league campaign. It’s not a matter of dinking a few over some nearby walls, either. Busch Stadium is one of the hardest places to hit homers in the majors, and Nootbaar’s exit velocity data suggests that his power is real; he’s in the 80th percentile for maximum exit velocity and the 79th for barrel rate, right next to Corey Seager and Daniel Vogelbach in both categories. In other words, he’s got pop.

There’s an easy explanation for that: Nootbaar isn’t the same player he was in 2019. Beginning in 2020, he worked with Driveline to overhaul his swing and add power to his repertoire. That’s reductive, and if you’re into the mechanics of baseball, I highly suggest reading the specifics of his transformation, but the bottom line: he’s swinging the bat 8 mph faster than he was two years ago.

Baseball isn’t a bat speed competition. Look no further than Oneil Cruz for proof of that: the Pirates’ wunderkind boasts off-the-charts raw power and an 80 wRC+. But the disciplined application of a ferocious swing explains Julio Rodriguez’s breakout season, as Mike Petriello detailed in unveiling Statcast’s new bat tracking metrics. Swinging harder might not automatically make you a superstar, but it doesn’t take a quantitative genius to realize that Nootbaar’s newfound raw power combined with his innate sense of the strike zone will combine well.

About that sense of the strike zone: it’s been as good as advertised in the majors. If you want to walk a lot and avoid strikeouts, there’s one easy trick: don’t swing at pitches outside the strike zone. Those are mistakes by pitchers — opportunities to get ahead in the count and either reach base for free or find a pitch to hit. Swinging at them snatches defeat from the jaws of victory; it’s the single worst thing you can do at the plate.

Nootbaar clearly got that message. He swings eight percentage points less than average at borderline pitches and nine percentage points less than average at chase pitches. Sure, that comes with some in-zone passivity, but to be frank, that’s fine. Justin Choi’s declaration that batters should swing less is borne out by the data and also obvious just from watching a game these days. Pitchers are so nasty and throw in the zone so infrequently relative to the past that a swing-first approach is a ticket to huge strikeout rates.

So far this year, Nootbaar is walking an absurd 14.9% of the time. That’s not going to continue. His plate discipline is excellent but not Soto-esque, and his newfound power is more plus than Stantonian, so pitchers won’t just throw him four wide ones and give him first base very often. But his ability to lay off balls and make average contact will play; projection systems peg him for a 10–11% walk rate going forward, which tracks with his career minor league numbers. Combine that with better-than-average strikeout numbers, and it’s clear that the patient approach is paying off.

There’s a sneaky second benefit to being patient, though, particularly if you make a league-average amount of contact. Swinging at a bad pitch has a huge, hidden downside. You might miss it, which is bad enough — but you might also hit it. Plenty of times, that’s worse. In his major league career, Nootbaar has been pretty bad when he makes contact outside the strike zone, hitting for a .307 wOBA (.294 xwOBA). In his defense, though, the league as a whole does even worse in those situations: a .291 wOBA and .284 xwOBA.

Put another way, 61.7% of the time that Nootbaar puts a bad pitch into play, he either hits a grounder or pops it up. That’s just far too much wasted contact; for comparison’s sake, he’s under 50% when he makes contact with a ball in the zone. Limiting wasted contact is hugely important when you have good power; every ball you hit on the ground or pop up is a wasted chance at extra bases. It’s less of a big deal the less thump you have — if your in-zone contact isn’t fearsome, it’s less onerous to sacrifice some — but for Nootbaar, patience and power go hand in hand.

Want a mathematical expression of that? I split up all the batted balls that Nootbaar has seen by attack zone (that’s heart, shadow, chase, and waste) and count to get an idea of how much each bad swing cost him and how much each good swing helped him. To do this, I took his wOBA after each count (after 0–1 means his wOBA in any plate appearance where the count reached 0–1, just to get the nomenclature straight). I debited him the change in count for a strike, credited him the change in count for a ball, and looked at the difference between his wOBA on contact and his wOBA after the given count when he put a ball in play. Here it is in terms of change in wOBA (don’t pay too much attention to the wOBA lost on waste swings, as he’s swung at exactly one pitch that far from the plate):

wOBA Change from swing by zone
Zone Take Swing Gain From Swing
Heart -0.068 .016 .084
Shadow .013 -.040 -.053
Chase .057 -.028 -.085
Waste .046 -.235 -.281
Lars Nootbaar, MLB career

Taking a pitch down the middle hurts, no doubt. But swinging instead of taking anywhere else hurts too, even in the shadow zone where some of the pitches are strikes. If 50% of the pitches Nootbaar saw were over the heart of the plate, it would probably make sense to swing more — but, uh, only 27% of the pitches he sees are over the heart of the plate, right at league average. Pitchers try to avoid there as much as possible! Heck, roughly 60% of the pitches he sees are out of the strike zone, period.

When you think about it that way, Nootbaar’s strategy seems pretty great. Wait it out, happen upon something he can drive once in a while, and profit in the interim from all those beneficial counts. But yet again, there are more reasons to like what he’s doing.

You don’t swing less by just saying to yourself, “I’m going to swing 10% less often at pitches in every zone.” In practice, most hitters do it by limiting what they’re looking for. If you want to swing less, a great way to do it is to look for, say, a fastball middle-high. If you instead get a fastball inside and low, you might take it. If you get a curveball in the dirt, you’ll probably take it. Looking at one area decreases how much you swing everywhere else, naturally.

As best as I can tell from the data, Nootbaar’s nitro zone has a standard lefty shape: he’s best either down and in, where he can pull and lift, or up and away, where he can get his arms extended. He’s also great down the middle, naturally. And by waiting for his pitch to hit, he gets plenty of those pitches. Nearly 30% of the pitches he’s put in play in his career have been in those zones; 20% have been right down the middle (league average is 15%).

Yes, everything is coming up Nootbaar in St. Louis these days. His newfound power is no mirage, which means his above-average production is here to stay as well. That makes the Cardinals’ outfield crowded; if Nootbaar, Dylan Carlson, and Tyler O’Neill all deserve everyday at-bats (and I think they do), that doesn’t leave much room for Corey Dickerson and Juan Yepez, never mind the departed Bader. The deadline trade that returned Jordan Montgomery has already paid huge dividends, and it’s reasonable to think that the Cardinals only made it because of what they see in Nootbaar.

In fact, Nootbaar is making me re-evaluate the way I consider prospects, and I bet teams are doing a similar thing. If you looked at his raw statistics in 2019, there was no reason to predict he’d turn into a slugger in the big leagues. It’s not like the Cardinals saw it, at least not exactly; he went off on his own to try to hit for more power rather than doing it with the team. But if teams can figure out a way to evaluate whether a player could unlock extra power through mechanical changes, there could be a bevy of good-eye, no-pop prospects out there just waiting for the Nootbaar treatment. These guys could be quietly going about their business, posting excellent walk and strikeout numbers in the low minors without much power, before suddenly bursting onto the scene.

To some extent, those prospects have always existed. José Ramírez and Mookie Betts are, in broad strokes, good plate discipline guys who developed power as they went along. That’s not to say Nootbaar is on their level, but who knows; maybe there’s more to his power than we think. More to the point, there are more Nootbaars out there, and teams would be remiss not to figure out who they are.

What a wonderful lesson! Baseball would be miserable if you could do all your scouting on a spreadsheet. Where would the fun in that be? Players developing new skills, ones you could see or at least imagine if you know what to look for, are tremendously fun. The world could use more Lars Nootbaars. If they’re named anywhere near as delightfully, even better.

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

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1 year ago

Have the Cardinals renamed one of their concession stands selling beer to the Noot Bar? And if not, why not?

1 year ago
Reply to  Phil

Have a Noot Beer from the Noot Bar?

1 year ago
Reply to  Phil

The “Nootbar” would be a best selling candy for sure.

1 year ago
Reply to  sadtrombone

I believe he actually has copyrighted the term “Nootbaar” for energy-bar related uses. No idea whether they’re currently in development but reports are that he owns the rights to it.

1 year ago
Reply to  Phil

They have not, but they do have a ton of merchandise centered around him already, and he was already a popular player pre-all star break breakout. So maybe they will soon.