Defense wins championships. There may be no other saying in sports that is more accurate. But fans want to see flashy home runs and big offensive performances. Not everyone, including myself, appreciates an old-fashioned, 1-0 pitcher’s duel, and defense has never been a factor when talking heads discuss who should win the MVP award. This is exactly why St. Louis Cardinals rookie outfielder Harrison Bader is getting overlooked.
Bader won’t win the National League Rookie of the Year award, and I’m not here to convince you that he should. I simply want to make sure that his performance this year doesn’t go unnoticed. The former third-round pick of the Cardinals, out of the University of Florida, doesn’t have the bat that Soto or Acuna do. Below is a comparison of the three rookies and their offensive production:
|Harrison Bader||Juan Soto||Ronald Acuna Jr|
* Stats acquired from Fangraphs. WAR stat encompasses more than just offense.
Just looking at those numbers, it’s impossible to make a case for Bader as ROY. Coming up through the minor leagues, Bader didn’t project to have this sort of bat at the major league level. Most evaluators projected him as a solid fourth-outfielder, not an everyday starting center fielder who could put up those types of numbers.
The near 30% strikeout rate is concerning, as is his .372 BABIP. He doesn’t hit the ball very hard (86.8 average exit velocity), which means he’s had a lot of luck on his side. In fact, according to Baseball Savant, his Expected Batting Average is just .229. Ouch.
Harrison Bader’s claim to fame is his defense.
Let’s get back to the old saying, “defense wins championships.” If we’re talking defense, Harrison Bader may be one of the best in all of Major League Baseball.
Per Statcast’s Sprint Speed Leaderboard, Bader ranks tied for second as the fastest player in the majors, covering 30.1 feet/second. Minnesota Twins’ outfielder Byron Buxton leads the league with a 30.5 ft/sec sprint speed, while Adalberto Mondesi, Billy Hamilton, Roman Quinn and Trea Turner are all tied with Bader at 30.1 ft/sec.
That elite speed has translated to a number of spectacular defensive plays. He leads the league in Outs Above Average with 19. Only nine other players have a double-digit mark in OAA.
His expected catch percentage in the outfield is just 84%, however, Bader has tracked down 93% of balls hit towards him in the field, a +9% difference, the second highest in MLB.
You can probably assume where the rest of this piece is going. Bader leads the league in 5 Star catches made, per Statcast (0-25% chance of making the catch). He’s made seven of them, six more than the entire roster of the San Diego Padres.
There are still four more weeks left in the regular season and the Cardinals are in the thick of an extremely competitive National League playoff hunt. There’s still time for Bader to make many more plays like the one above.
Bader joins elite company in his rookie season.
Since Statcast began tracking this sort of data (2016), only five players have finished with 19 or more Outs Above Average and only Billy Hamilton has made more 5 Star catches in the outfield in one season (10 in 2016). Harrison Bader is in elite defensive company and may be on the verge of being in a class of his own.
I’m going to leave you with a few more numbers. Defensive metrics are still debated and seen as an inexact science when evaluating players, however Bader has put up his fair share of elite numbers in these metrics.
Playing at all three outfield positions, Bader has 22 Defensive Runs Saved and has posted a 10.8 Ultimate Zone Rating, the two most respected advanced defensive metrics. His 22 DRS is two more than second place on the league leaderboard and five more than the potential American League MVP, Mookie Betts. However, Betts has Bader beat in UZR, recording a 13.0 UZR during his unforgettable season.
Again, I’m not saying Harrison Bader deserves to win the Rookie of the Year Award. If I had a vote, it would go to Juan Soto for two reasons: nothing is more valuable than the ability to get on base, and he is only 19 years old. My mom still made doctor’s appointments for me at 19 as I struggled to maintain a passing GPA at a liberal arts college. It’s truly unbelievable what Soto is accomplishing at such a young age.
Just remember the name Harrison Bader, and if you’re a fan of defense, enjoy watching one of the best in the game.
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