Former St. Louis Cardinals outfielders Peter Bourjos and Jon Jay were teammates in St. Louis for a grand total of 740 days, but for those of us who spent that duration far too deeply immersed in the depths of Cardinals Twitter, it felt like they were teammates for 740 years. The center fielders were the source of loud, polarized takes on a seemingly daily basis befitting their differing styles.
Jon Jay had already been a Cardinal for four seasons prior to Bourjos’s arrival, and was perhaps the perfect embodiment of baseball adequacy. He didn’t hit for very much power, but he also hit an above-average number of line drives and didn’t strike out particularly often. During his time in St. Louis, the center field position throughout baseball had a wRC+ of 101; Jay had a wRC+ of 107. Of the 24 center fielders with at least as many plate appearances as Jon Jay in that time, Jay ranked 12th, with the median standing at 106.5. Defensively, Jay was much maligned for his arm, and his speed wasn’t great, but he got decent jumps on balls and rarely made errors, and by Ultimate Zone Rating, he was just slightly below-average: of the 17 center fielders with as many innings in center field as Jay during his time in St. Louis, Jay ranked 10th. On the bases, he was almost exactly average.
Peter Bourjos, acquired after a lackluster 2013 from Jay, was a more extreme player. He was a worse hitter than Jay by a fair amount–his career wRC+ is just 84, and of his five seasons with at least 200 plate appearances, he was above-average in just one of them–but he did it in a different way, hitting for noticeably more home run power but walking less and striking out far more. Bourjos’s most obvious skill was his speed, but in his MLB career, he only stole more than ten bases once–in their concurrent Cardinals career, Jay was a more efficient base stealer relative to his times caught stealing than Bourjos (though neither was particularly efficient at it), But for his offensive shortcomings, Bourjos closed the gap with Jay thanks to his defense. In 2014, the height of the Bourjos/Jay wars (each was on the team in 2015, but they took turns on the Disabled List, and by the time both were healthy, Randal Grichuk had taken over as the everyday center fielder), Bourjos was in the top third of center fielders with as many innings as him defensively, while Jay was just a tick above league average.
In terms of value, neither player played enough in 2014 to have his worth accurately portrayed–had either gotten the 600 plate appearances typically used as shorthand for a full season, either would look better than a raw Wins Above Replacement total looks. On the season, Jon Jay’s WAR per 600 plate appearances was 2.2 on FanGraphs and 3.6 on Baseball Reference. Per 600 plate appearances, Peter Bourjos stood at 2.4 on FanGraphs and 2.9 on Baseball Reference. Even the more extreme measure had the two fairly close.
For years, I had developed an affinity for Jon Jay that made me incapable of evaluating the two fairly, but I could understand the argument for Peter Bourjos. I couldn’t understand the argument for Peter Bourjos as, like, the clearly superior option. But 2014 was perhaps the beginning of what I like to call the Golden Age of Takes, so the extremity of opinion shouldn’t have surprised me.
The template of “incumbent outfielder loses job to the new kid in town, only to eventually retake the job” was hardly born in 2014, but it was a recent, high-profile example of it in St. Louis. And the first step of the story archetype occurred in 2018, when Dexter Fowler began to lose playing time in right field to rookie Harrison Bader. Fowler was woeful with the bat and, while defensive metrics over such a short period of time are hardly reliable, he didn’t (to put it generously) appear to have the glove to justify the lack of bat. Meanwhile, Bader was displaying unexpected defensive prowess and hitting better than Fowler was. Giving Bader more playing time and giving Fowler less was a move I defended.
At the time, Bader was still an unknown and Fowler’s horrific 2018 was still young enough that he could have easily bounced back (to an extent he did, but not to nearly the degree anybody had hoped), so my stance was more moderate–platoon them. By July, I was fully in the “play Harrison Bader pretty much every day, he’s clearly awesome” camp. When the Cardinals traded everyday center fielder Tommy Pham at the trade deadline, primarily to give Harrison Bader more playing time, Bader and Fowler was no longer a binary choice.
Harrison Bader continued to thrive in 2018 and entering 2019, Bader seemed fully entrenched in center field, with the only positional debate in the outfield falling in right, with Fowler, Jose Martinez, and Tyler O’Neill all having a credible argument for playing time. With Marcell Ozuna struggling in the first couple weeks of 2019 (this has since completely reversed itself), it appeared that Harrison Bader was actually the most stable outfielder on the roster. And Bader has played quite well in 2019–despite an unnaturally low (particularly for a player with Bader’s speed) batting average on balls in play of .250, Bader had an above-average 102 wRC+ through the conclusion of Sunday’s series against the Cincinnati Reds, and thanks to his still-excellent defensive metrics, Bader was on pace for a 5.5 fWAR season per 600 plate appearances (these numbers are a day behind for FanGraphs update reasons, but in the time I wrote this paragraph, Harrison Bader hit a home run, so that’s cool).
Dexter Fowler was an afterthought in the center field conversation entering 2019. Although the Cardinals had signed him to play the position before the 2017 season, he was moved to right field in 2018 and wasn’t particularly effective there, either. There was probably a bit of Small Sample Size noise in how lousy Fowler’s 2017 and 2018 metrics were, but for the overwhelming majority of his MLB career, Fowler has been a defensive liability who got by on the strength of his offense. Even if Fowler’s bat rebounded, why play him in the more strenuous defensive spot when the guy you’re planning to play there has demonstrated himself to be a potentially elite defensive center fielder?
But Fowler found himself back in center field after not only Harrison Bader but also Tyler O’Neill found themselves on the Injured List. It was the logical move–Fowler may have been a bad defensive center fielder, but the alternatives were latter-day Marcell Ozuna, corner outfield butcher Jose Martinez, and, um, Yairo Munoz or Drew Robinson? While an Ozuna-Fowler-Martinez outfield didn’t sound too promising on the defensive end, it was probably the least bad solution.
(In the time I was writing that last sentence, Harrison Bader slid off second base after otherwise successfully stealing it, a move that Friend Of The Bullpen @VanHicklestein and I both associate almost entirely with Peter Bourjos. I promise this analogy is going to eventually come full circle)
Meanwhile, Dexter Fowler has been a pleasant surprise. Maybe “surprise” isn’t the right word–he’s been an above-average offensive, below-average defensive outfielder for basically his entire career and that’s what he has been this season, particularly in Bader’s absence. But through April 28, Fowler is rocking a 135 wRC+, 33 points ahead of Bader. Following Bader’s IL stint, Fowler was even better at the plate, posting a wRC+ of 202. For those of you who don’t have a great instinctive feel for how good a wRC+ is: Mike Trout has never had a wRC+ that high in a season. Dexter Fowler has been incredible.
I covered this last week, but I can’t stress this enough: Dexter Fowler is not going to keep this up. Besides the basic logic of “Dexter Fowler isn’t suddenly the best hitter in baseball”, everything about his run smells like luck. This season, Fowler has just one home run, with an Isolated Power even lower than his 2018 mark. During the 12-game stretch in which Fowler had a 202 wRC+, he also had a completely ludicrous BABIP of .486. On the season, Fowler has a somewhat-more-but-still-definitely-not-sustainable BABIP of .414. Fowler had, prior to last season, been a typically high BABIP hitter, and I don’t question that he can be again, but not this high.
I assumed Harrison Bader would immediately return to the Cardinals’ starting lineup in center field upon his return from the IL. But following a Lane Thomas start last Wednesday, in Bader’s first game back (Bader ended up pinch-hitting and remaining in the game as a defensive substitution), Dexter Fowler started three consecutive games against right-handed Cincinnati Reds starting pitchers, while Harrison Bader started on Monday against the left-handed Nationals starter Patrick Corbin. One of three things has been happening (and whenever today’s lineup is announced, we may reach new conclusions): Bader has still been nursing an injury and he’s healthy enough to play partial games but not full ones at full strength, manager Mike Shildt is playing what he perceives as the hot hand, or Mike Shildt has been satisfied enough with Dexter Fowler’s defense that he is willing to platoon him with Bader, who has shown a pronounced handedness split throughout his MLB career (in wRC+ terms, Bader has been better than Mike Schmidt against lefties and worse than Keith Lockhart against righties).
So for the second time this half-decade, the Cardinals have a choice between a contact-happy guy with a so-so glove and a defensive stalwart who strikes out more than would be ideal? Five years ago, I stood as a volunteer private in the Jon Jay Army, so is this where I offer up my services to the BABIP-happier player?
Absolutely not. Harrison Bader should start.
But you didn’t think I’d write 1600+ words in which I heavily rely on describing a now-irrelevant position battle from 2014 only to conclude my verdict with six words, did you?
Like I said, I was a Jon Jay supporter throughout much of the 2014 season, but like I also said, this was more about me having positive feelings about Jay than having negative feelings about Peter Bourjos. But by the time the 2014 playoffs rolled around, although Jon Jay had firmly cemented himself as the everyday center fielder, I was taking the position that Peter Bourjos should start.
Remember before when I said that, per 600 plate appearances, Jon Jay was worth 3.6 bWAR and Peter Bourjos was worth 2.9 bWAR? Well, the cut and dry version of this is that both of these were quite useful players. Neither was a superstar but both were above-average starters and certainly players worthy of starting on playoff teams. Here is where the other players who received material playing time in right field stacked, in chronological order of when they received the bulk of their playing time.
- Allen Craig: -0.9 bWAR/600
- Oscar Taveras: -2.9 bWAR/600
- Randal Grichuk: 1.0 bWAR/600
That Jon Jay spent most of the 2014 season in center field gave his WAR numbers a boost, but Jay was also decisively better strictly at the plate than Craig, Taveras, or Grichuk. You could make an argument (I wouldn’t, but you could) that the Cardinals could have played Peter Bourjos in right field and had a more productive hitter at that point than the alternatives. But regardless, the Cardinals could have, and I believe should have, gone with undeniably their best defensive center fielder in Bourjos while continuing to give Jon Jay considerable playing time in right field. As a long-term solution, it perhaps wasn’t ideal, but given the personnel involved, I supported it.
At this point, the right field analogy hasn’t come completely to fruition, thankfully, as Jose Martinez continues to crush baseballs to the tune of a 122 wRC+ so far in 2019 despite a slow start. And with Tyler O’Neill presumably not still irreversibly broken from his current injury stint, I expect that eventually, either of these players will be a superior right field option to 2014 Randal Grichuk. But the fact that Harrison Bader should (and I believe will, perhaps as soon as this afternoon when the newest lineup comes out) win out in the Cardinals’ center field battle doesn’t mean that Dexter Fowler has lost. This is a player who is on an unsustainable tear but who is showing real signs of real improvement–over the last half-month, Fowler has walked in 13.7% of plate appearances while striking out in just 11.8%. Even if he never truly finds his power stroke again, that kind of contact should make him playable.
And that’s not even to mention last year’s trade of Tommy Pham to make room for Harrison Bader. Even if you agree with the premise that Bader was better than Pham, the real battle was between Pham and Dexter Fowler or Tyler O’Neill or Jose Martinez. Particularly at the time, I disagreed vehemently. But as was the case in 2014, the Cardinals treated their center field competition as a binary choice. And with Dexter Fowler having potentially refound his form as a Major League Baseball player, my hope is that the Cardinals don’t do it again.