Long-term, I haven’t given up on Harrison Bader.
Bader is an inner-circle candidate for best defensive center fielder in baseball, and center field is a position where if you’re the best fielder at it, you can get away with more than a few shortcomings at the plate. An OPS+ of 80 is considered pretty lackluster (it makes a batter 20% below-average), and there have been sixteen center fielders who OPS-plused below it who were above-average (over 2 Wins Above Replacement) players. Just this year, two playoff teams had above-average center fielders with OPS-pluses of 79 (Kevin Kiermaier) and 81 (Lorenzo Cain).
I have no question in my mind that Harrison Bader will figure it out, to some degree. He may not, and probably won’t be, a superstar at the plate, but it’s not asking much to expect him to be a passable hitter. But yesterday, in Game 2 of the NLDS, Harrison Bader had the worst offensive game I have ever seen a player have.
It’s one thing that Harrison Bader struck out three times in three plate appearances–it’s not great, but it doesn’t necessarily mean the end of the world. The problem was that once Bader got to two strikes, his approach completely fell apart. Most batters expand their strike zones a bit upon reaching two strikes in the count. Harrison Bader’s strike zone extended to Athens. Three low sliders outside the zone, three swing-and-miss strikeouts. Bader would be the closest thing the series had to all-glove-no-bat center fielder Billy Hamilton if it weren’t for the minor detail that Billy Hamilton is already on the Atlanta Braves.
Replacing Bader with a below-average player, which would be the case in most cases of a player being benched, might be counterproductive. But in the case of the Cardinals, they have a consistently above-average player waiting in the wings who never got a chance to swing the bat in the team’s Game 2 shutout loss. Matt Carpenter should start Game 3 of the NLDS on Sunday.
From a sheer offensive perspective, it doesn’t take a ton of effort to justify that Carpenter is better than Bader. 2019 was easily the worst offensive season of Matt Carpenter’s career, and in it, Carpenter was still a nearly average hitter, with his offensive numbers being across the board superior to Bader’s. Digging deeper, by expected weighted on-base average, Carpenter was not only a better hitter than Harrison Bader, he was a better hitter than a solid half of last night’s starting position players–Bader, Yadier Molina, Paul DeJong, and Kolten Wong.
Although Carpenter is several years older than Harrison Bader, projection systems still view him relatively favorably going forward in terms of offense. By 2020 ZiPS (which, mind you, are projecting a season that is still six months away and thus factors in an additional six months along the aging curve), Carpenter projects as the second-best hitter by wOBA on the Cardinals, behind only Paul Goldschmidt. This may seem a bit out of line with his 2019 performance, but it absolutely is not out of line with expectations before the season. Matt Carpenter was a down-ballot MVP candidate in 2018 with good reason.
While Carpenter’s offensive struggles were concerning throughout much of the season, and it does give me some pause still, he did experience a noticeable offensive resurgence late in the year. Upon returning from an Injured List stint on August 4, Carpenter was an above-average hitter for the remainder of the season, posting an outright solid 115 wRC+. Although expecting a drop-off from one’s age 32 to age 33 seasons is completely reasonable, something along the lines of a 115 wRC+ is far more in line with normal aging curves than Carpenter’s early-season struggles would indicate.
Clearly, the biggest drawback to implementing Carpenter over Bader in the lineup is the defensive drop-off. The defensive shifting would consist of playing Carpenter at third base, Game 1 and 2 third baseman Tommy Edman in right field, and Game 1 and 2 right fielder Dexter Fowler in center field. This is a weaker defense, but what I would hypothesize is that it isn’t so much weaker as to not make the offensive upgrade worth it. The perception of Matt Carpenter’s defensive shortcomings largely exceed what the numbers suggest–he has a weak arm, which tends to be the first thing most people notice about any defender, but over the last six seasons (since he became a third baseman), he has been worth just -4.4 runs per 150 games at the position, and he has been better (not good, but adequate) over the previous two seasons. Despite Dexter Fowler’s atrocious defensive play in 2018, his numbers have been decidedly better in 2019–in center field, he has been almost exactly average. And while Tommy Edman in right field was criticized earlier in the season, this was more because he couldn’t hold his weight offensively than incompetence in the position. Edman hasn’t spent nearly enough time in the position to draw particularly confident conclusions, but he could easily be a defensive upgrade in right fielder over Fowler (though the overall defensive quality would decline with Bader out).
And none of this precludes Harrison Bader from having a role on this team. He’s still the team’s best defensive outfielder and arguably the team’s craftiest base runner. But his offensive struggles are becoming too much to ignore in the short term. Under normal circumstances, backup outfielder Randy Arozarena would merit consideration for playing time. But the fact that there is a recent MVP candidate waiting in the wings makes this a very simple solution to their offensive problem.