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Is Harrison Bader’s offensive breakout real?

The glove-first centerfielder is experiencing easily his best season at the plate.

MLB: St. Louis Cardinals at Cleveland Indians Ken Blaze-USA TODAY Sports

I have a policy that whenever a fellow Florida Gator is succeeding at the Major League level, I have to write about it. And as much as the St. Louis Cardinals have been mired in a season-long offensive funk, Harrison Bader has managed to steer clear of that.

Despite somehow not winning a Gold Glove before his outfield mate Tyler O’Neill, Bader has always been thought of as an elite defensive centerfielder without quite as much on offense outside of the occasional hot streak. One of those guys. A too-inconsistent type who might be better served in a role as a fourth outfielder or late-game defensive sub.

And there are a few reasons for that perception. For one, Bader hasn’t been able to stay on the field. He appeared in 138 games in his first full year (2018), and managed just 128 in the following season before appearing in 50 of 60 last year. Even this year, one plenty worthy of praise, he’s only appeared in 48 games, most of which have come in the last couple of months. This year in particular has featured a forearm issue, a hamstring injury, and a fractured rib.

Health concerns aside, Bader’s always had tools on offense but has never been able to deploy them in conjunction with one another. Bader didn’t generate a ton of power in those first two years (.160 ISO between the two) but has done so at a much higher rate in each of the last two seasons (ISO figures of .217 and .214). He wasn’t demonstrating the on-base chops to utilize his speed on base, either. Even with reasonable BABIP figures, he was at a .328 OBP across those three seasons. Bader’s last “full” season, 2019, was a particularly awful year. He posted a wRC+ of 81, reached base at just a .314 clip, and struck out almost 29 percent of the time.

In a general sense, Bader should be a quality offensive player. He’s got plenty of speed to burn, and there’s enough power in his skill set to keep him relevant when he can’t utilize the wheels. The issue has always boiled down to contact. Even with an uptick in power in 2020 (.217), he K’d at a 32 percent rate. The two years before that? 29.3 & 28.8 percent. His CSW% regularly hit at least 30 percent, while every season saw a contact rate at or below 75 percent. If he could just make a little more contact, the Cardinals might just have something in center.

Which is exactly what has transpired in 2021.

Bader’s slash is easily the best it’s ever been, at .286/.348/.500/.848. Those all easily trump his totals in their respective categories prior to this year. He’s followed up on the power increase from last year with a similar ISO, with it all culminating in a career-best 123 wRC+. It’s an uneven comparison, given Bader’s much smaller sample, but the wRC+ is in the top 30 among almost 150 outfielders with at least 150 plate appearances. His ISO ranks 28th among those same players.

Want to guess where Bader has seen the biggest uptick in performance, though? Correct. It’s in the contact game. While Bader hasn’t seen a significant change in swing trends, he’s making contact at an 80.9 percent clip. He’s at 69.6 on pitches outside of the strike zone as well, which is almost a 10 point leap; that’s also a positive trend given the minimal difference in O-Swing%. As a result, he’s managed to cut down on his K% as well. At 18.2 percent, it’s the lowest rate of his career by over 10 percent. He isn’t walking anymore, but the ability to put the bat on the ball is all a player like Bader needs to do to generate a certain level of success.

Where Bader is especially improving is in his approach against breaking pitches. His batting average against breaking balls has leaped exactly 100 points (.205 last year, .305 this year). He’s slugging .559 against that pitch type, which is an exactly 200 point jump. While the expected metrics don’t favor him quite as much, they do each represent a fairly significant increase from anything he’d turned in against breaking pitches previously.

J.P. Hill at Viva El Birdos took a nice look at Bader and some of the improvements that he’s making. One extremely noteworthy element in there is the fact that Bader had polyps removed from his sinuses, which had grown increasingly difficult to manage; they manifested in sight and balance issues. There are some other things in there about the improvement he’s demonstrated, but one thing that is impossible to quantify (but also impossible to overstate the importance of) is, quite literally, seeing the baseball.

Interestingly, though, Bader’s increase in contact is not necessarily correlating with any kind of quality contact. In reality, the contact increase has led to a decrease in those quality numbers. His Barrel% is down to 6.6 (a five-point drop) and his HardHit% has slipped up about three percent, down to 32.4. He’s hitting the ball in the air slightly less while putting it on the ground slightly more. Yet, he’s still managing a .307 BABIP and has bumped his HR/FB ratio to 16.4, yet another in a long line of career highs for Bader.

The issue with answering the question that the headline presents, though, is that there’s so little context to genuinely evaluate Harrison Bader moving forward. He was fairly light-hitting early in his career, with speed and defense providing his most notable assets. He added some power last year. This year, he increased the contact and massively cut down on the punchouts. Does this mean we’ll see yet another development in his game in 2022?

And the somewhat paradoxical nature of a player like Bader is that it might not matter. The increase in contact alone is extremely valuable to his overall game. He isn’t necessarily the type of player that has to mash. As cliché as it is, putting the ball in play and making the defense work is very much a legitimate asset when it’s being done by a player with this skill set. In any case, this year’s development has been an essential one for Bader in his role as the team’s starter at the eight spot. Perhaps next year’s will begin to unite all of these separate skills that Bader possesses.

Randy Holt is a contributing writer for Beyond the Box Score.