The rookie campaign of St. Louis Cardinals outfielder Harrison Bader is as bewildering and unexpected as any Cardinals debutante since, well, I guess Paul DeJong last year. And Aledmys Diaz the year before that. And most people weren’t expecting young Allen Craig or Matt Carpenter to be such certifiable Professional Hitters as relatively old rookies. And if we want to go back a little further, I don’t think most expected the #42 prospect in baseball to be an immediate MVP candidate/best hitter of his generation.
Only with the absurd Devil Magic history of the St. Louis Cardinals could what Harrison Bader is doing being considered anything less than totally absurd. In a way, with the hyper-intelligent front offices across the sport seemingly giving the vibe that they have solved the puzzle that is baseball, that those who analyze it whiffed so badly on Bader suggests that there is still a mystery to the sport, and that while teams may be getting smarter, they sometimes miss.
The consensus on Bader was that he was a fine, steady, but in no way transcendent prospect. He was never (or at least very rarely, and by very few sources) a top 100 prospect and was never close to the most highly regarded prospect in the Cardinals system–when A.E. Schafer of Viva El Birdos ranked the organization’s prospects before this season, he slotted Bader seventh (four spots lower than last year, when ranking him third was considered aggressive) and echoed the comparison to Randal Grichuk that was frequently made. Schafer also threw out the name Michael Taylor, the Washington Nationals center fielder whose speed stood out among potential Bader comps.
It turns out, at least in 2018, this comparison pretty solidly underestimated Harrison Bader’s speed. By the measure of Sprint Speed, as gauged by MLB’s Statcast, Bader is tied for the fourth fastest player in baseball this season, trailing Minnesota Twins center fielder Byron Buxton and, by 0.1 feet per second, Washington Nationals shortstop Trea Turner and Cincinnati Reds outfielder Billy Hamilton. Speed is a statistic which stabilizes very quickly–if one wants to argue that Bader isn’t actually the fourth fastest player in baseball, that’s plausible, but it would be a rigorous uphill battle to try to argue that he doesn’t have incredible wheels.
Bader’s speed has translated and made him not only one of the most valuable players on the Cardinals, but one of the most valuable rookies in Major League Baseball. Through August 18, a game in which Bader ignited the crowd with a two-RBI triple and an incredible diving catch in center field (a new Busch Stadium tradition, replaying Bader web gems as R.E.M.’s “Superman” plays in the background, is exquisite symbolism of Bader’s ascension from AAA outfielder to start the season to arguably second to Yadier Molina in terms of loudest ovations from the home crowd), the 24 year-old rookie leads all MLB rookies with 2.8 FanGraphs Wins Above Replacement (a 0.2 fWAR lead over Los Angeles Angels pitcher/DH Shohei Ohtani and Atlanta Braves outfield Ronald Acuna Jr.) and 3.9 Baseball Reference WAR (a 0.8 bWAR lead over Acuna).
There have been several excellent rookie campaigns in the National League, including those of Dereck Rodriguez and Brian Anderson, but the two frontrunners for the award have not only had excellent seasons, but were among the most acclaimed prospects in baseball before the 2018 season–the aforementioned Ronald Acuna Jr. and Washington Nationals outfielder Juan Soto. The 19 year-old Soto made his MLB debut on May 20 and has obliterated MLB pitching ever since, doing so in a way which feels very sustainable–he is walking nearly as often as he is striking out and he appears to have very real 25-30 home run power. He may be Joey Votto for the next generation. The 20 year-old Acuna didn’t get off to as torrid of a start as Soto, but over the course of the season, his overall numbers have gotten to that level. He strikes out more and walks less but he has shown even more power (prorated to a full, 600 plate appearance season, Acuna is hitting home runs at a 37 home run pace in his first go-around in the bigs). They are neck-and-neck as the best rookie hitters in the National League–their dual 149 wRC+ put them on the same level this season as Freddie Freeman, who is among the favorites for National League MVP.
But despite these can’t-miss prospects very much not missing, it is the far less acclaimed Bader who leads the pack by total value metrics. While we as a baseball culture have more or less gone past the Edwin Starr headlines when discussing WAR, it is still usually presented with the “it’s not perfect, other stats still matter, it’s just a good snapshot” types of caveats. And when it is Harrison Bader competing against bigger names like Acuna and Soto, it’s easy to try to find points that lean in favor of the latter candidates because it is generally believed that while Harrison Bader might have a very good career, he is not going to be the kind of transformational superstar that Acuna or Soto could be.
And as exciting as Bader is, and as much I’ve come around to the idea that Bader isn’t just a good fourth outfielder waiting to happen but rather a future mainstay of the Cardinals lineup, if the Cardinals were offered Acuna or Soto in a trade for Bader, they would do it in a heartbeat. And they should. And again, that’s not even a knock on Bader–it’s praise for the two most dynamic co-existing rookie seasons since Mike Trout and Bryce Harper in 2012. And if one were to poke holes in the long-term sustainability of the season of any of the three, Bader is the easiest. His .376 BABIP is the highest of the group–yes, he’s also the fastest, so that should be expected, but a BABIP that high is a bit ambitious. Offensive statistics tend to stabilize more quickly than defensive ones, and while Bader has been a good hitter, he hasn’t been Acuna/Soto good (though who among us?). And most importantly is Bader’s defense–the eye test says he is very, very good, to put it conservatively, but unless his defense is capital-E elite (and defense tends to deteriorate pretty much immediately, particularly in positions where one’s performance is largely predicated on speed), he isn’t leading the pack in WAR.
But the case for Harrison Bader for Rookie of the Year, despite all of this, is strong, not because of expectations of what he can be, but because of what he has been. The purpose of the Rookie of the Year award is very simply to honor the player who had the best rookie season. Perhaps Harrison Bader’s excellent defensive statistics are largely circumstancial, the result of his talent but also the result of luck–a disproportionate number of difficult-but-not-that-difficult balls to retrieve hit in his general direction. But he did make the plays. Had the unexceptional defensively Acuna or Soto been thrown into center field, they would look like worse players than how they appear in corner outfield positions.
But is treating circumstantial evidence of Bader’s excellence as the basis for his Rookie of the Year case just a new-age version of treating a player’s RBI total as proof of his offensive excellence? I’ve been grappling with this possibility for a while now, but ultimately I think this is an apples and oranges comparison. At most, what Bader is doing in the field is the equivalent to a player having a high BABIP season (which Bader is also doing, but let’s put that aside for now) at the plate. There are probably already proprietary defensive metrics which better gauge a player defensively than Ultimate Zone Rating or Defensive Runs Saved, ones which offer higher granularity in evaluating fielders than just what we saw them do. But at this point, voters will have to use what they have at their disposal.
I don’t think Harrison Bader, if the season ended today, would come particularly close to Acuna or Soto in Rookie of the Year voting (though he might finish third), and ultimately this isn’t going to be the hill I die on. But Harrison Bader, based on his 2018 body of work, does belong in the discussion.