BERNIE BITS 

Let’s begin with a relatively quick look at another intriguing Cardinal for 2021. Today: center fielder Harrison Bader. And because we know he’s exceptional defensively, I’ll focus on his offense. And Bader’s hitting performance looms as a key factor in the St. Louis offense. And offense will determine Bader’s MLB profile going forward: is he just a very good glove guy? Or can he improve offensively and become an all-around asset?

What we know:

— The Cardinals would love to play him just about every day in center for his defense and speed.

— Bader isn’t a kid. He’ll be 27 in June. He broke into the big leagues with the Cardinals in 2017 and has competed in 332 MLB games with 1,050 plate appearances.

— Bader bats from the right side and can hammer LH pitching. In 292 career plate appearances vs. lefties he has a .517 slugging percentage, 853 OPS and is 25 percent above league average in park-adjusted runs created.

— Bader is often overmatched against RH pitchers. In 758 career PA he’s hit .223 with a .352 slug and .669 OPS. He’s 17 percent below league average in park adjusted runs created when facing RH, with a strikeout rate of 30.7%.

— Despite his troubles against RH pitchers, Bader has been slightly above average in two of his four seasons based on park-adjusted runs created. (Known as wRC+, and 100 is league average.) In 2018 Bader had a 107 wRC+, and was 113 wRC+ last season.

— And we know this: Bader must conquer sliders, curve balls and changeups thrown by RH pitchers to become a more complete and dependable hitter. That’s his most glaring weakness.

It really is that simple. With data culled from Brooks Baseball, here’s a look at how Bader has performed against major-league RHP in at-bats that end with non-fastballs:

Changeups: .243 average, .324 slug. In 37 at-bats that ended with a RH throwing Bader a change, he struck out 17 times (or 46%.)
Sliders: .187 average, .298 slug. In 198 at-bats ending with a RHP throwing a slider, Bader struck out 79 times (just under 40%.)
Curves: .171 average, .207 slug, and 29 strikeouts in 82 at-bats completed with a RHP curve ball (47.5%.)

And here’s the thing: Bader hasn’t really improved in this critical area. Granted, the Cardinals played only 58 games last season and Bader was limited to 125 plate appearances.

On the plus side, he flashed some power against sliders thrown by RHP, with a .448 slug in 29 at-bats ending with the pitch. But he batted .200 vs. the RH change, .241 against the RH slider, and .143 on a RH-looped curve.

Bader struck out on 60% of the at-bats (only five) that finished with a RH change. He had 13 strikeouts on 29 at-bats (44.8%) culminating with a RH slider. And Bader struck out four times in seven ABs ending with a RH curveball (57.1%.)

In 2019 Bader struck out 40.3 percent of the time on at-bats that concluded on a curve, slider or change thrown by a RHP.

In 2020, that percentage was 48.7 percent. Moreover: Bader struggled against four-seam fastballs and sinkers offered by RH pitchers last season. He batted .172 in his at-bats finalized by the four-seam, striking out at a rate of 48.2%. His average against the RH sinker (only 11 ABs) was .091 with five strikeouts. And Bader was much, much better against those pitches when RH served ‘em up in 2018 and ‘19. (Including a .493 slug on the four-seam, and a .616 slug vs. the sinker.)

So … yes, I think it’s fair to simplify this and state the obvious: even if H. Bader reestablishes his effectiveness against four-seamers and sinkers fired by RH pitchers in 2021, he’ll still be an easy mark when those pitchers pitch to his history and mess him up with sliders, curves and changeups. This is his most serious flaw as a hitter and has been there all along. He has to fix it if he can. And as we said earlier, he’s no longer a kid, a nervous newbie, in the bigs.

READING TIME 5 MINUTES:

Happy 23rd birthday to Jayson Tatum, the Chaminade Prep alum and two-time NBA All-Star in his four seasons with the Boston Celtics. If Tatum celebrates he’ll probably throw down a bag of his signature “Flaming Hot BBQ”Ruffles chips. Tatum said that his personal line of Ruffles is a nod to his St. Louis childhood and love for spicy food.

“It’s been great,” Tatum said in a Zoom conference set up by Rufflees. “I enjoy doing things that are genuine and are organic. I love chips. I’ve been eating Ruffles since I was a kid, and seeing (LA Laker) Anthony Davis partner with this and have his own chip, that was pretty cool. So if the opportunity presented itself, I would jump at that, and I did and I’m excited about this.

“I genuinely love eating Ruffles. I like being a part of the creative idea, seeing it come to light. I love spicy food. Anything I eat, I can make spicy and give it that extra kick, and I’m going to do it every time. Being from St. Louis, one thing we’re known for is barbecue, making the combination was a no-brainer.”

Albert Pujols: will he play ball in 2022? Maybe.As he prepares for his 21st MLB season, Pujols doesn’t rule out a 22nd campaign. If anything one of the all-time great Cardinals seems to be warming to the idea, based on comments made in an interview with USA Today’s Bob Nightengale.

Pujols, the Angels’ DH and first baseman,  has 662 career homers. Only three MLB players have reached 700: Babe Ruth, Henry Aaron and Barry Bonds. And if Pujols can get within range of 700 this season …

“If I’m close to it, why not?” he told USA Today. “I don’t try to chase numbers, but 700 is a big number. If I don’t re-sign with the Angels, I’m going to have to find a team that will give me that opportunity. I just wish I had been able to stay healthy and didn’t have those injuries. Can you imagine if I had kept the pace I was on when I was in St. Louis? I’d have 800 homers by now.”

After moving past Willie Mays (660) last season and into 5th place all-time,  Pujols needs 35 homers to go ahead of Alex Rodriguez, who ranks 4th all time with 696 home runs. Pujols hit only six homers in the shortened 2020 season. Before that he averaged just under 22 home runs over three full seasons (2017-2019.) Pujols, 41, is entering the final year of the 10-season, $240 million contract with the Angels.

This season the Blues (12-8-2) aren’t as stingy about allowing goals: From the start of the 2011-12 regular season through the end of the 2019-2020 campaign, the Blues ranked No. 1 in the NHL in yielding the lowest average of goals per game, 2.49. Through 22 games this season the Blues rank 24th with 3.14 goals given up per contest.

That’s a pretty big deal. Here’s why: from 2011-12 through the end of last season, the Blues allowed four or more goals in 26.1 percent of their regular-season games. That was the lowest, as in best, percentage among NHL teams. But this season the Blues have been hit with four or more goals in 45.4 percent of their games.

In an updated report card, Jim Bowden (The Athletic) gave the Cardinals an “A” grade for their offseason work.  “The Cardinals pulled off one of the greatest heists in baseball history this winter, acquiring Nolan Arenado from the Rockies along with $51 million in cash for left-handed starter Austin Gomber and four mid-level prospects, a deal that, by itself, guaranteed they’d receive an

‘A for their offseason,” Bowden wrote.

“Arenado is the best overall third baseman in baseball,” Bowden continued. “He’s won the NL Gold Glove Award all eight years he’s been in the majors, showing tremendous range in all directions, incredible body control, a strong arm, quick feet and reactions, and soft hands. He’s hit 37 or more home runs five times and drove in over 110 runs per season from 2015-19. He’s a five-time All-Star and won four Silver Slugger awards. His make-up, character, passion, energy and enthusiasm are all off the charts. To acquire a player of this magnitude without giving up a top prospect is mind-boggling.”

Bowden added: “The Cardinals were also able to bring back their two most important leaders in catcher Yadier Molina and pitcher Adam Wainwright, both at one-year reduced salaries.”

Illinois was a straight-up bully Wednesday in its stunningly easy 76-53 victory at No. 2 Michigan. The Fighting Illini had nothing to prove; this is an excellent, smart, resourceful and deep team. And a fearless team too. I mean, seriously. Ayo Dosunmu is no ordinary player. He’s one of the best players in America, and a great team leader who can do anything that Illinois needs on the court. And this season he’s taken 31.7 percent of the Illini’s shots from the floor.

Ayo has missed the last three games with a facial injury (concussion) and Illinois handled that test of toughness by beating Nebraska at home and winning on the road at No. 23 Wisconsin and No. 2 Michigan. The average score in the three wins: 79 to 64. Illinois made 50 percent of its shots from the floor, and held the three opponents to 38% shooting. The rebound average per game: 40.7 for Illinois, 25.3 for opponents.

No one is saying it was easy for Illinois to roll through these three games … but they made it look easy. It’s not only big man Kofi Cockburn and the impressive freshman guard Andre Curbelo. It’s not only senior guard Trent Frazier, who may have had his best all-around game of the season at Michigan. It’s also unheralded senior guard Da’Monte Williams, and his splendid mix of savvy and skill. Williams entered the lineup and started all three wins over Nebraska, Wisconsin and Michigan. Illinois was a +46 in the three games with Williams on the floor, and he supplied 9 pts, 6 rebounds and 2 assists per game — with two blocks and four steals in the three victories. All of that while committing only one turnover and winning his battles defensively. Williams is a superb 3-point shooter but plays a complete game. On offense, too. According to the KenPom offensive rating, Williams ranks 11th in the nation with an ORtg of 133.8 this season … in other words, he’s just under 40 percent above average in offensive efficiency. But how many people know that? I didn’t. Stealth!

Dosunmu and Cockburn are special players. Frazier has found his game at the right time. Curbelo already is doing spectacular things, and the best is yet to come. Another starter,  Jacob Grandison has a 128.3 ORtg this season but doesn’t make big splashes that draw raves. But the Fighting Illini have a chance to win it all because of guys like Da’Monte Williams.

Thanks for reading …

–Bernie

Please check out Bernie’s sports-talk show on 590-AM The Fan, KFNS. It airs Monday through Thursday from 3-6 p.m. and Friday from 4-6 p.m. You can listen live online and download the Bernie Show podcast at 590thefan.com  … the 590 app works great and is available in your preferred app store.