Although not as obviously so as catcher or shortstop, center field is a position at which a player can excel without being an elite hitter. At first base or a corner outfield position, for instance, even if one is an elite fielder in the spot, he must be a decent hitter to be considered a good player. An obvious example with local roots is Jason Heyward’s first season with the Chicago Cubs, in 2016, in which he was best defensive right fielder in the National League but because his offense went rapidly south (his wRC+ for the season was 71), he was a clearly below-average player.
But at a premium defensive position, a great bat isn’t necessary. Bad hitters can survive; average hitters can become superstars. Take first-ballot Hall of Famer Ozzie Smith, a terrible hitter who turned into an above-average one but was still a bit below-average for his career (his career wRC+ was 90, or 10% below league average). But because he was such a tremendous fielder, he had considerable value (76.9 Wins Above Replacement per Baseball Reference, equidistant between Joe DiMaggio and Paul Molitor).
This decade, six center fielders have managed 4+ WAR seasons despite being below-average hitters. Most prominently was Kevin Kiermaier of the Tampa Bay Rays, who in 2015 was a tick below average (97 wRC+; 99 OPS+) at the plate but was worth 7.5 WAR, third in the AL behind Mike Trout and Josh Donaldson, because his defense was so impactful.
Kiermaier, of course, is an example of a truly elite center fielder, and Harrison Bader, who began the 2018 season in AAA, certainly has not reached that level of acclaim. But in spot duty in Major League Baseball since being promoted on April 3, Bader is showing upside that has been rarely spoken of in the last year or so of prospect-watching.
The common refrain of Harrison Bader was that he was in the vein of Randal Grichuk, a solid player who could play all three outfield positions and was a prototypical fourth outfielder but lacked the upside of the other top Cardinals outfield prospect, Tyler O’Neill. But Bader has shown impressive talent that suggests he may be more than organizational depth, another 2 WAR-ish outfielder that seemingly grow on trees in Memphis, but rather a player with potential to be special.
Entering Sunday, Harrison Bader had started only nine games, appearing in the field in eleven. Defensive numbers, barring something ludicrous (like, if a player makes five errors in a game, there’s legitimate cause for concern), take years, not days, to stabilize, though some of the more immediately telling numbers hint that the eye test, which shows Harrison Bader playing a strong defensive center field in the early parts of the season, being accurate.
One of the quickest metrics to stabilize is sprint speed–poor power hitters will occasionally hit home runs, but it’s not as though a slow base runner will occasionally look like Billy Hamilton flying to first base. And at a peak speed of 29 feet per second, Harrison Bader has been the fastest player on the St. Louis Cardinals this season. He is half a foot quicker than Tommy Pham, and more than a full foot per second quicker than the next-fastest Cardinal (Kolten Wong). By peak speed, Bader ranks in the top third of players classified as center fielders per Statcast data.
Per Inside Edge Fielding data, Bader has never once botched a “Likely” or “Routine” play (anything with better than a 60% catch probability) in his career–he hasn’t had enough opportunities to draw substantial conclusions from this, but it doesn’t hurt his case. Statcast’s Catch Probability data for 2018 has Bader at four Outs Above Average on the season, tied for second with more established outfielders (and outfielders with more innings logged) Mookie Betts, Odubel Herrera, and Ender Inciarte, and trailing only Nationals center fielder Michael A. Taylor. Bader has had three “5-star” catch opportunities (catches with a 0 to 25% chance of conversion), and he made two of the catches. He is the only player in Major League Baseball with multiple chances and a better than 50% conversion rate.
Offensively, Bader struggled in 92 MLB plate appearances in 2017, but in 2018, he has shown strides in his plate discipline, walking in 12.5% of his plate appearances. When he makes contact, Bader had hit the ball well, and he has been above-average as a hitter, but he has been moderately unlucky as well. His expected weighted on-base average is higher than his actual weighted on-base average (the gap was .043 points before Sunday’s games)–while he hasn’t been unlucky to the extent of, say, Matt Carpenter, Bader has hit the ball as hard as Eric Hosmer. Hosmer has been good as a first baseman; that level of offense from a slick-fielding center fielder is an MVP candidate.
These are all overreactions, of course. It’s far too early to declare Harrison Bader a good hitter, or a great fielder, or really anything. But good, promising signs are there, and while expecting Harrison Bader to become a superstar is unfair to him, he has shown enough promise that it isn’t crazy to dream.