This Is Your Regularly Scheduled Lars Nootbaar Hype Post

Lars Nootbaar
Jeff Curry-USA TODAY Sports

There haven’t been a lot of bright spots in St. Louis this year. The Cardinals are 14 games below .500, owners of the second-worst record in the NL. The bottom has fallen out for the franchise in a way that hasn’t happened in 30 years. I’d hardly blame fans for being a bit checked out; it’s hard to look for silver linings when the rain cloud is this dark.

If you’re so inclined, though, there are always things to be optimistic about. The obvious one: the Cardinals’ offense has performed at a high level despite the poor results. They have an aggregate 111 wRC+ on the year, the fifth-best in baseball, and underlying statistics that match that. As always in St. Louis, it’s an ensemble affair, but three stars stand out atop the WAR leaderboard: Nolan Arenado, Paul Goldschmidt, and Lars Nootbaar.

Wait, Lars Nootbaar? I know what you’re thinking: I’m the chairman of the Nootbaar Nutbar fanclub, and my preposterously biased take should be ignored. But the leaderboards don’t lie: He’s tied with Arenado for the most WAR on the team, and that’s despite a 100-PA deficit caused by early-season injury issues. He has the best wRC+ on the squad. It’s not just smoke and mirrors; Statcast thinks he deserves the vast majority of his production.

In fact, let’s take it just one step further. Nootbaar has flown under the radar on a lot of broad sweeps of the best players in baseball because of two things: he’s not playing at a best-in-game level, and he’s missed a lot of time with injury. That puts him in the vicinity, WAR-leaderboard-wise, with guys who play more but aren’t as good on a rate basis. He’s tied with Luis Arraez, Christian Walker, and Bryson Stott, just to name a few, for 2023 WAR, but he’s played less than any of those guys. So let’s ignore health, just for a minute.

Over the past two years, Aaron Judge has been the best hitter in baseball, both outright and on a per-600 PA basis. After that, it’s one superstar after another: Jose Altuve, Mike Trout, Yordan Alvarez, Freddie Freeman, Mookie Betts… I could go on and on. To be clear, I don’t think Nootbaar is knocking on the door of that tier. But let’s look at the next slice down, hitters 16–30:

WAR/600 Leaderboard, ’22-’23 (16-30)
Player Rank PA wRC+ WAR/600
Jose Trevino 16 521 80 5.3
Adley Rutschman 17 973 127 5.1
Wander Franco 18 835 124 5.1
Julio Rodríguez 19 1082 129 5.1
José Ramírez 20 1184 133 5.1
Paul Goldschmidt 21 1165 153 5.0
Shohei Ohtani 22 1188 160 4.9
Andrés Giménez 23 1017 121 4.9
Lars Nootbaar 24 723 129 4.9
Xander Bogaerts 25 1111 123 4.9
J.T. Realmuto 26 966 118 4.8
Travis d’Arnaud 27 624 118 4.8
Ronald Acuña Jr. 28 1074 141 4.7
Ha-seong Kim 29 1029 117 4.7
Kyle Tucker 30 1108 136 4.7

There are a lot of great players here, along with a few surprises. But my point is this: by production on a rate basis, Nootbaar has been right up at the top of the league over his last two years. Now, if you’ll permit me a digression, let’s talk about how he got here before deciding if it’s fluky or sustainable.

If you want a good comparison for Nootbaar as a prospect, think Steven Kwan. That might not make a lot of sense to you in the present: Kwan is 5-foot-9 and looks like a longshot to post a double-digit home run season; Nootbaar is 6-foot-3 and regularly posts top-shelf exit velocities. They’re pretty clearly different players. But when they were each drafted in 2018, they had very similar profiles.

Nootbaar played across three levels in 2019, and Kwan was in High-A the whole season. But take a look at their aggregate seasons:

2019 Minor League Numbers
Steven Kwan 542 .280 .353 .382 .102 3
Lars Nootbaar 387 .264 .349 .364 .100 7

Sure, Nootbaar showed slightly more home run power. But Kwan made up for it in doubles, and they had strikingly similar lines overall. They both walked a lot, and neither struck out very much. Both were plus corner outfielders who could fake it in center; to be fair, Nootbaar was sometimes listed as a first baseman, but he played the outfield almost exclusively in college.

If you imagine coming up in the minor leagues with Kwan-type production but a power hitter’s frame, you can think through how his game evolved. You need phenomenal plate discipline to walk a lot without striking out much with that kind of offense; pitchers won’t be afraid of you, so your walks will come due to taking everything you possibly can. And that thread has been a constant as Nootbaar moved up the ranks; he takes an absolutely enormous amount of pitches, whether balls or strikes.

That slap-hitting version of Nootbaar doesn’t exist anymore, thanks to years of working to improve his swing speed. But if you looked at his major league career, it was clear to see that it was still there under the hood. Nootbaar didn’t like to swing, when push came to shove, even as he was making better contact.

Hitting doesn’t happen in a vacuum, and pitchers get to react to hitters’ changing skills. As Nootbaar picked up power, pitchers started working him down in the zone to avoid letting him get a ball in the air. He’s seeing more pitches in the lower third of the strike zone than ever, and fewer in the top third.

Early in the season, that approach tied Nootbaar in knots. As I’ve already mentioned, he really doesn’t like to swing. He’s more passive than selective at times; only Juan Soto swings at fewer pitches than Nootbaar, but Soto swings less frequently at balls and more frequently at strikes, because he’s freaking Juan Soto. No one — no one at all — has a lower zone swing rate.

In my mind, it worked like this: Nootbaar learned the kind of pitches he could clobber, and since he’s always been a wait-em-out hitter, he came up with a plan: look for his pitch, and don’t swing if it isn’t there. That target area was, more or less, pitches middle and up. On pitches in the bottom third of the strike zone, he swung only 37.7% of the time, a huge decline from his previous career rate. That’s because, in my estimation, he set his sights higher for the first time to take advantage of his newfound power.

Hear me out, though: it’s bad to swing so infrequently at pitches in the strike zone. It gives pitchers too easy of a target, and it puts you in bad situations. Those are hittable pitches; even if you’re not popping homers on them, there are plenty of line drive singles and doubles to be had. You might think it’s hard to have one of the best chase rates in baseball, a piddling 6% swinging-strike rate, and still strike out 22% of the time. But you can do it! All you have to do is take enough pitches to end up in 1–2 and 0–2 holes all day. The first half of this year was a disappointment; a 108 wRC+ is still good, but it’s hardly what Nootbaar was hoping for.

Now comes the second half of this story: Nootbaar has been on an absolute tear since the All-Star break, and he’s done it by hitting the snot out of the ball. I’m talking about a .283 ISO, up from .123 in the first half, and seven homers in 118 plate appearances. He’s also striking out far less than before and walking just as frequently. The result has been a scalding 185 wRC+ in the last month or so, and while that’s obviously unsustainable, a guy walking as often as he strikes out and barreling the ball at an above-average rate is going to be a great hitter.

This is normally the part of one of my articles where I’d tell you about the one neat trick that has transformed his game. There’s just one problem: I don’t think there is one. Let’s look at a few numbers before and after the All-Star break:

2023 Splits
Split 0-0 Swing% O-Swing% Z-Swing% SwStr% GB/FB Barrel% Hard Hit% xwOBACON
Pre-ASB 15.2% 17.3% 54.4% 7.6% 1.91 8.4% 42.2% .398
Post-ASB 12.7% 18.3% 50.9% 5.0% 1.92 10.8% 32.5% .392

You can throw in the Pam meme here if you want; these are the same numbers. He’s hitting the ball hard slightly less frequently, but his average exit velocity on balls he hits in the air — the ones where that statistic matters most — are stable. Basically, his bad contact has gotten a little worse, but his good contact has gotten a little better (barrel rate, essentially), and the net result means little for his xwOBA on contact. I think it’s a better shape of production; I don’t particularly care how hard he hits his grounders, and if and when his line drive rate stabilizes, the more recent data is more promising. But for the most part, Nootbaar remains a powerful hitter on contact, just like he was in the first half of the year.

The plate discipline stuff is more of the same. He hasn’t changed what he’s doing, at least not really. He’s started to swing slightly more at low strikes, but it’s not like he’s having a ton of success against them; I think that’s mostly about keeping pitchers honest. It appears to me that he’s done that not by making a concerted effort to swing more, but merely by lowering his target a bit. That’s a neat little change, but it’s not much more than shuffling deck chairs. The key details of his game are still extremely similar.

That’s a funny thing about baseball analysis: the outputs have changed a lot, but the inputs are shockingly similar. Which one is the real Nootbaar? They both are, but then neither of them are: the real Nootbaar is the aggregate of the two. I was always surprised by his strikeout numbers early in the season and thought they’d stabilize downwards; likewise, his second-half home run pace hardly seems credible for a guy hitting so many grounders.

Let’s think of this from a bigger picture. What’s the deal with Nootbaar? He has two carrying tools on offense: patience and power. He’s yet to find a happy medium between them, though the intermediate step is still producing excellent offensive numbers. The old Nootbaar is still there, working counts and running high OBPs to offset his inability to make impactful contact. The new Nootbaar is trying to club pitches for home runs and still working out which pitches are best for that.

These are really hard skills to synchronize, and even more complicated when you consider them in the context of opposing pitchers. How many pitches can you afford to take while waiting for the exact one you’re hoping to bop into the right field seats? How willing should you be to open up your target zone early in the count, potentially dropping into walk-hostile counts in pursuit of dingers? Stitching this style together at the major league level is easier said than done.

My read of this season: we have a pretty good idea of what a baseline Nootbaar result looks like going forward. The decline in hard contact is a bit of an illusion; it’s just another way of saying that he’s hitting more grounders this year while his swing is still geared to put the ball in the air. The walks and strikeouts feel steady. His BABIP probably won’t be as high as it was this year, but it probably won’t be as low as it was last year. If you told me that Nootbaar’s future was as a 120 wRC+ kind of hitter — a very poor man’s Soto — I think I’d believe you.

The interesting part is extrapolating what might happen as he starts to further hone his game. His plan from last year — wait for something up and tattoo it — probably won’t keep working now that pitchers know it’s coming. He gets to adjust to their adjustment now, though. One possible change: he could attempt to adapt his swing to hit low pitches with more authority. To some extent, I’m talking about putting a little uppercut into it, but I’m also imagining a swing tailored for line drives on low pitches and fly balls on high ones. Mis-hit grounders on low pitches are dragging his line down, so why not adjust your swing a bit more to those balls and try to sky them?

Another possible change: he might lean into the power aspect and accept more strikeouts as a consequence. To be honest with you, that’s a boring change. There are a lot of hitters with that general profile already, and I think that it wouldn’t be a great fit; the hesitance to swing seems more built into Nootbaar’s game than the power at this point. But you could imagine a version of him that ends up as an off-brand Cody Bellinger, or something along those lines.

Either way, I’m pretty excited to see the next evolution in Nootbaar’s game. This season gives me a lot more confidence that he’s going to be an excellent player. How exactly that excellence manifests itself? I’m excited to find out.

All statistics in this article are current through games of August 13.

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

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9 months ago

Lars Nootbaar now looks like a capable center fielder who is going to run wRC+’s in the 125 wRC+ range and at least average baserunning, which makes him a roughly 4.5 win player over the course of a 600 PA season. If he did that, it would make him the #4 or #5 center fielder in baseball in in every full season we’ve had since 2018, and typically #6 or #7 from 2010-2017.

If that’s not a star, I don’t know what is. But the world isn’t going to see him as a star–at least not unless he keeps mashing like he has the last seven weeks–because he is not the best at anything. But he’s at least average in power (by ISO+) and defense (by DEF) and baserunning (by BsR), and he’s just outside the elite in getting on base (#16 in OBP+). That adds up to a roughly Top-30 position player, driven mostly but not entirely by his hitting.

9 months ago
Reply to  sadtrombone

It always amazes me how much “non-elite” prospects have to out perform their expectations to be considered a star. It’s like people are so hesitant to admit they may have gotten it wrong on a guy. Keith Law is still saying Nootbaar is a 4th outfielder. It’s like, what else does the guy have to do to show he developed far beyond what he was in the minors.

9 months ago
Reply to  leftycurve66

Has Law said this recently?

That’s just a cuckoopants take.

9 months ago

Yep. He said this just last week on his radio spot on 101 ESPN in St. Louis.

Last edited 9 months ago by leftycurve66
9 months ago
Reply to  leftycurve66

Which statement is more wrong?

“Lars Nootbar is a 4th outfielder”

“Lars Nootnar is the 4th best outfielder in MLB”

9 months ago
Reply to  leftycurve66

That’s just bananas.

I’d love to hear Law give a list of even 50 outfielders he’d rather have than Nootbar.

EDIT: Just looked at the leaderboard for OF. Even at a list of 25 you start getting into absurd selections for ‘better than Nootbar’. Law couldn’t be more wrong.

Last edited 9 months ago by soddingjunkmail
9 months ago

Just for fun, I decided to make a list of everyone in front of him that I’d take.

Judge, Betts, Acuna, Soto, J. Rodriguez, Alvarez (I’m not so sure he’s an outfielder for much longer though), Trout, Tucker, Carroll, Tatis Jr, Harper, and Robert for sure. So that’s 12 ahead of him.

I’d take Adolis Garcia and Michael Harris, but I’m not as certain on those. That gets to 14. I think you could make an argument for Bellinger and Yelich if you think they’ve recovered enough from their injuries to keep things up, and Nimmo if you think he stays healthy. That would be 17, but that one is pushing it for me.

After that, it’s kind of hard to make an argument that anyone is clearly ahead of him. Maybe you could make an argument for Kwan, Yoshida, Varsho, Grisham, Springer, Mullins, Greene, or Buxton, but I I’d take Nootbaar over them. That’s 25. I certainly wouldn’t take Ian Happ, Randy Arozarena, Bryan Reynolds, or James Outman, but those are the next guys down. That’s 32. Maybe Bader if you think he’ll ever be healthy again, but he won’t be.

Cool Lester Smoothmember
9 months ago
Reply to  sadtrombone

Greene doesn’t belong in the same category as the Varshos, Kwans, and Yoshidas of the world.

9 months ago
Reply to  sadtrombone

Where would Chas McCormick fall in there? He’s not a 150 wrc+ guy but hes most certainly in the 125 range as well! Is the lack of hype for McCormick similar to Nootbaar’s?

9 months ago
Reply to  baseballfan115

Maybe, I’d have to think about it more. I think the big difference is that McCormick is outperforming his batted ball stats by a lot. It’s hard to know what’s real here. The other issue is that I think he sits against right handed pitching occasionally, so he might be hidden against tough righties and that might be propping up his rate stats.

But…he’s probably still a 115 wRC+ guy at least, right? That’s what he was last year and he’s showing more home run power this year. That’s hard to fake. And his BB/K/HR numbers aren’t that different against lefties and righties, so I would think he could add a lot more PAs against right handed batters without totally tanking his rate stats.

If you just take his ZiPS projection, he’s a 3-win player over 600 PAs. That puts him around the #55 position player in baseball–a very good player, although maybe not a star. If he’s more of a 125 wRC+ guy, then he’s right up there with Nootbaar as a secret, unhyped star.

9 months ago
Reply to  sadtrombone

McCormick’s EVs are…not awesome. In a sense, he could be faking the HR power.

Cool Lester Smoothmember
9 months ago
Reply to  sadtrombone

Marcus Semien of OFs.

9 months ago

Semien is an All Star accumulator. A 4.6 WAR/600 bat (which is really great!) buoyed by terrific resiliency and a wonderful lineup position that earns him a prodigious 700+ PAs per season.

That’s not really what Nootbar is doing

9 months ago
Reply to  HappyFunBall

The Cardinals have been leading off with Noot of late, so he could actually start resembling Semien soon. He’ll need to prove his health for a while first, of course.

Cool Lester Smoothmember
9 months ago
Reply to  HappyFunBall

I mean…Nootbar is at 4.51 WAR/600 on his career, haha!

It’s almost exactly the same archetype – Semien has just accumulated more value because of his durability.

Last edited 9 months ago by Cool Lester Smooth
9 months ago
Reply to  sadtrombone

So, are we 100% sure he isn’t Brandon Nimmo moonlighting as a Cardinal?