NEW LIFE FANTASY

It’s Time We Acknowledge the Rise of Harrison Bader

Sep 27, 2020; St. Louis, Missouri, USA; St. Louis Cardinals center fielder Harrison Bader (48) celebrates after hitting a solo home run off of Milwaukee Brewers relief pitcher Freddy Peralta (not pictured) during the fourth inning at Busch Stadium. Mandatory Credit: Jeff Curry-USA TODAY Sports

When it comes to early round fantasy baseball draft picks you aren’t so much focused on finding surplus value as you are simply expecting bankable numbers. You don’t take Trea Turner or Jose Ramirez first overall because their ceiling indicates more is coming, but because their floor is considerably higher than any other player available. And then there are players you take because their projected performance and draft position don’t quite add up – these players are where there is ample room for profit during your draft. One such player is Harrison Bader, who is much better than you realize.

There is a coveted combination of skills that makes for an early round draft pick – power and speed. When analysts are asked about a given player’s ceiling we often see broad stroke projections of he’s a 20/15 guy longterm. Do you know how many players actually went 20/15 last year? Only 14. Lowering the threshold doesn’t make it much more common, either. Between the 2020 and 2021 seasons 42 players hit 20 or more home runs and also stole 12 or more bases. Double-digit power and speed is rarer than we give it credit for. Luis Robert did it in the fewest plate appearances, going 24/15 in just 523 PAs. Next up is Bader with 20 home runs and 12 steals in only 526 PAs. 

You may have missed it, but Bader has also produced at an above average clip since the start of the pandemic season with a 111 wRC+ during that time. But most importantly he has reached double digit home runs and steals in a little less than a full season’s worth of PAs. Bader is an exceptional defender and so there’s no reason he won’t play a lot for the St. Louis Cardinals going forward. The big questions remaining are 1) “Is this real?” and 2) “Who can I pass up early to take Bader late?”.

To tackle the first question I looked at Bader’s batted-ball data. Not much  stands out. He has even distribution between fly balls and ground balls without much year-over-year change. So he isn’t the product of the recent trend of increased fly balls. He doesn’t have exceptional statcast data, aside from 80th percentile max exit velocity and his xwOBA being .295 suggests he may have over performed by a solid margin last season. What did stand out is that Bader posted a 3-year high in pull percentage and his xwOBA on batted-balls to his pull side was .455. This makes the uptick in pull% meaningful. Among all batters who pulled at least 100 balls last season Bader nicely sits at 69th in xwOBA – ahead of sluggers such as Nick Castellanos, Xander Boagerts, and JD Martinez. When Bader pulls the ball in the air he’s even more impressive with a .733 xwOBA, which exceeds that of Castellanos, Matt Olson, and George Springer.

Between the 2020 and 2021 seasons 42 players have 20 or more home runs and also stolen 12 or more bases.

I don’t have wild ideas that Bader is all of a sudden an elite power hitter like those mentioned above. What I do think is that some of Bader’s power uptick is sustainable as long as he continues pulling the ball. There will be times when pitchers attempt to exploit this and attack him differently and it will be on Bader to adjust. But I think that’s what we’ve seen the past three seasons and Bader has adjusted his approach to match his strengths. 

If you’re still with me you’d be comforted to know that as far as speed goes there’s no question the double-digit steals are real. Bader has elite spring speed in the 97th percentile and a home-to-first speed that puts him among the fastest runners in the game. His career 162-game pace puts him at 14 steals. I’m not arguing that he’s Juan Pierre all of a sudden, but I think there’s little doubt he can steal at least 12 in 2022 with an outside chance of swiping 20. 

Question two is perhaps the most interesting: who is being taken ahead of Bader because of their name value but projects to produce similarly, even worse, than bader in 2022? Looking at Steamer projections for 2022 and three names stand out to me: Jarred Kelenic, Trent Grisham, and Andrew Benintendi

Grisham has the best recent track record for power and speed and Kelenic has that bright prospect shine. But is it worth nearly 100 spots in ADP? Benintendi was once where Kelenic is now but crashed rather quickly before rebounding into competency last season. Is he really 40 picks better than Bader is, though?

NAMEHRRRBISBAVGOBPSLGADP
Jarred Kelenic22626911.231.303.433141.5
Trent Grisham20816916.247.341.433143.5
Andrew Benintendi17696711.268.335.437192.7
Harrison Bader21757014.246.323.428235.8
2022 projections courtesy of Depth Charts at Fangraphs.com

There is value in drafting for floor with guys like Grisham and Benintendi. And Kelenic’s ceiling is tremendously high. But you cannot deny that since 2020 Bader has developed his own track record as well and recent production makes him the better option of the four.

NAMEPAsHRRRBISBAVGOBPSLGwRC+
Harrison Bader52620666112.258.327.457111
Trent Grisham779251038823.245.335.427109
Andrew Benintendi5901767749.263.323.419101
Jarred Kelenic3771441436.181.265.35073
Stats since 2020, courtesy of Fangraohs.com

Taking Grisham or Kelenic as a top-150 player means you’re passing up on starters such as Tyler Mahle, Chris Bassitt, and Nathan Eovaldi. Taking Benintendi in the top-200 means you might miss out on relievers such as Scott Barlow, Blake Treinen or Gregory Soto

I won’t deny there is risk in banking on double-double production from Bader – he has an injury history and there’s whispers of the Cardinals heavily platooning. Which of these four doesn’t have warts, though? Grisham took a huge step back in 2021, Benintendi has been up and down for a handful of seasons now, and Kelenic might not hit better than .200. 

My conclusion is that Bader is a hitter on the rise that deserves more attention than he’s getting. That can start with you! What do you think? Let me know in the comments or hit me up on twitter @JoeyThomasD!

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