Harrison Bader is looking better by the day.
I’m not speaking of Harry’s recovery from his rib injury, though he’s clearly on the move in his minor-league rehab assignment, stroking four hits in 11 at-bats through Tuesday. Bader is on track to return to the St. Louis lineup in the near future.
The vision of Bader in center field and Dylan Carlson in right is appealing right now. I say that even though Bader was in a 1 for 20 slump and batting only .219 on the day of the untimely mishap that put him out of service.
That said, Bader was just a tick above the league average OPS+ when he went on the IL. He had nine extra-base hits (including four homers) in 73 at-bats, was striking out only 15.6 percent of the time, and had raised his walk rate to just under 10 percent.
When Bader went out on May 24 — busting a rib while attempting a diving catch against the White Sox — Carlson moved from right field to center and has stayed there, starting all 33 games in CF since that date.
And right field became a chasm, with the offense slipping into the abyss. The Cardinals have tried to fill the void in right field with a council of candidates: Tommy Edman (15 starts), Lars Nootbaar (6 starts), and four starts each by Justin Williams, Lane Thomas and Jose Rondon.
For more than a month, the offense from the position has remained in recession. Since May 25, St. Louis right fielders have combined to bat .198 with a .554 OPS, one homer and seven RBI in 133 plate appearances.
Of their 24 combined hits, 16 have been singles. Based on park-and-league adjusted runs created (wRC+), the Cardinals’ offensive performance by right fielders is 46 percent below the league average since May 25.
The other issue is defense. There’s a reason why Carlson was originally slotted to play right field; it’s a better fit for him defensively. Though Carlson has been adequate most of the time in center field, he ranks 29th at the position in the majors with a negative 4 defensive runs saved in 479 innings.
Before the crash in Chicago, Bader was near the top of the leaderboard in center with 4 defensive runs saved in only 186 innings.
Bader’s 27 defensive runs saved in CF since the start of the 2018 season ranks fourth in the majors at the position behind Lorenzo Cain, Kevin Kiermaier and Byron Buxton.
I’m not suggesting that Bader is the second coming of Joe DiMaggio. Heck, no. He’s still overmatched by right-handed pitching, and that’s a problem. The Cardinals have faced RH pitchers in 81 of their plate appearances since the start of last season, and Bader has batted .197 with a .640 OPS and 28.3% strikeout rate in 173 plate appearances against RHP over that time.
In 834 career plate appearances vs. RHP, Bader has a .222 average with a .666 OPS and a 29.5% strikeout rate.
But this is also true: against all pitching Bader is nine percent above league average offensively since the start of the 2020 season. He’s five percent below average for his career, which isn’t awful considering the other skills that he brings to the competition.
Without a more formidable in-house alternative in place, the Cardinals can do a lot worse than plug in Bader’s all-around game in 2021. He’s elite defensively. He’s a plus baserunner. Obviously his offense isn’t ideal, but he hits enough to justify his presence in the lineup.
I mentioned Bader’s total-package value. Here’s what I mean: Since the start of the 2018 season, among the 40 outfielders that have played at least 75 percent of their games in center, Bader ranks 7th on the list of 40 with 7.3 bWAR. (That’s the Baseball Reference version of WAR.)
If you want to expand the list to outfielders that have played 50 percent of their games in center field since 2018, Bader’s bWAR ranks 9th among 80 at the position.
Seriously … how is that bad?
Answer: it isn’t.
Over the last five seasons the Cardinals are +28 in defensive runs saved when Bader roams in center — and minus 20 when he doesn’t. That’s a massive gap in quality that can’t be dismissed because Bader flails against RH pitching.
The Cardinals must improve in many areas. Not only now, but in the future. The future isn’t the issue these days. The chief concern is the disorder and disappointment of 2021.
The Cards can’t remedy all of their flaws, but they do have ways to improve within. The must stabilize their lineup, squeeze more from their outfield, and save runs to compensate for an offense that doesn’t score enough runs.
STL ranks 29th among 30 teams in runs scored since the end of April, and this team will have to win a larger share of low-scoring games. In that context it’s imperative to improve their run prevention.
And given the bleak, depressing results by hitters manning right field during Carlson’s fill-in time at CF, Bader represents an upgrade offensively.
Bader might not be what you want, but you’ll just have to get over that.
Bader can help the Cardinals, who went 13-9 in his 22 starts before the injury.
Get back soon, Harry.
Thanks for reading …
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For the last 35 years Bernie Miklasz has entertained, enlightened, and connected with generations of St. Louis sports fans.
While best known for his voice as the lead sports columnist at the Post-Dispatch for 26 years, Bernie has also written for The Athletic, Dallas Morning News and Baltimore News American. Bernie has hosted radio shows in St. Louis, Dallas, Baltimore and Washington D.C.
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