SSTN Mailbag: More To Bader Than Meets The Eye?
I think we could all use a few deep breaths. It's been a crazy couple of weeks in the Yankee Universe, so I personally was relieved last night to not have a game or a lineup to think about, and learn some more about the behind the scenes career of Derek Jeter. So many of those stories and events feel like yesterday to me (though as my mother was a little too keen to point out, much of it was 15-20 years ago). Among my favorite scenes from yesterday's episodes of The Captain came in a moment that was devastating to me as a teenager: the 2004 loss to the Red Sox in the ALCS. Why was it my favorite? I recalled fondly the play that was the genesis of my hatred for the sacrifice bunt!!! In game 5, the Yankees led 4-2 on the back of a three-run double by Derek Jeter in the Top of the 6th off of Pedro Martinez. The Yankees held the lead into the 8th inning, at which point Jeter came to the plate with no outs and a runner on 2nd. Last night confirmed that Torre called for Jeter to sac bunt Cairo over to third. Long story short, the Yankees didn't score Cairo with one out, and we all know the rest of the story. Torre played for one run instead of letting the best pure hitter in the lineup (who had a 3-RBI double in his last AB) swing the bat. Torre may have been the best personality for the dynasty Yankees, but anyone who says Torre was a great baseball strategist is kidding themselves. I'm not always against bunting, but I learned to hate the sac bunt on that night in 2004, so I chuckled at the scene.
A quick housekeeping note: we had some great questions between last week and this week for the SSTN Mailbag, but one stood above the rest and deserves its own place. I'll answer one or two of the questions that came in for next week's Mailbag, and keep them coming to SSTNReadermail@gmail.com. In this week's SSTN Mailbag, we'll look to see if there is more to Harrison Bader than meets the eye. Let's get at it:
Steve asks: I hate the Monty for Harrison Bader trade. But I also am not like most fans and think that Brian Cashman and his people generally do a good job of acquiring talent and not giving away talent without good reason. I'm having trouble seeing that this time around so my question is - what am I missing, assuming Bader really does return to good health?
A lot of us fell into this bucket! In the immediate aftermath of the trade, I was sure something else was coming (in fact, Paul Semendinger and I were furiously texting back and forth at the deadline, and we assumed there had to be something else unreported coming...there wasn't). A few minutes after the Trade Deadline passed, I had to get in my car for a 25 minute drive, and I was initially angry about trading Monty for Bader. Halfway through the drive though, the analytical part of my brain took over and made a couple of quick deductions. Assuming good health (a big if when it comes to pitchers), Monty would not have made the playoff roster. There are ways we could squeeze him onto the roster, but Monty was at best a "break the glass in case of emergency" option in the playoffs. Secondly, the ability to turn Bader loose in the outfield and on the bases makes the Yankees a significantly better playoff team, particularly in the late innings. As we've seen, the playoffs are often won at the margins by doing the little things right, and Bader checks all of those boxes. I have seen some people say that Bader is only a slight upgrade over Hicks defensively; it's just not true. Even if you hate the trade, Bader is a huge defensive upgrade in CF by basically any metric you want to use. Even just with a cursory analysis, my brain began to realize that there was more going on here. So I dug deeper.
One common misconception is that Harrison Bader is a light-hitting centerfielder. That just isn't the case in recent seasons. While Bader has struggled at the plate in 2022 as he played through plantar fasciitis in his foot, Bader was worth 114 OPS+ in both the shortened 2020 season and in 2021, with surprisingly solid ISO figures of .217 in 2020 and .193 in 2021. Even this season, Bader's Max Exit Velocity is in the 60th percentile, suggesting above-average raw power, which combined with improved whiff and strikeout rates make him a good candidate for positive regression. But that's far from all!
One thing that was mentioned in passing was that the Cardinals' home park, Busch Stadium, is notoriously tough on right handed hitters. Here, I found a significant clue: Bader has a stunning reverse Home/Away split for his career.
Home: .210/.295/.339, .634 OPS
Away: .280/.344/.476, .820 OPS
This isn't small-sample size noise either, as these statistics were compiled over 850 plate appearances at Home and 865 plate appearances Away. Without any adjustment, it is likely that a simple change-of-scenery could do wonders for Harrison Bader's offensive output.
All of these are positive signs that point to more offensive output for Bader going forward...but all of this got me thinking about some other research I've been doing for a future article. Anecdotally, I have noticed that velocity seems to tick up in the postseason, both due to some pitchers throwing harder and more generally, there aren't a ton of soft-tossers on playoff teams. The statistics prove those observations.
Here's the average fastball (all fastball types) velocity in each of the last 4 seasons (including this one) across Major League Baseball according to Statcast:
Fastball velocity has generally risen over the last four seasons, putting a premium on the ability to hit velocity. That is even more true in the playoffs, where the velocity spikes:
Fastballs are thrown at 94 MPH and over in the playoffs, and pitchers utilize those pitches a little more than half of the time in the playoffs. Here's what the league hits against fastballs over 94 MPH in 2022:
The league is pretty good against those pitches, though maybe a hair below average by wOBA. With so many 94+ MPH fastballs being thrown in the playoffs more than 50% of the time, it stands to reason that you want to acquire hitters who are better than the league average against those pitches. Here's where Harrison Bader's batting line stands against such pitches:
Harrison Bader isn't just well above-average against 94+ MPH fastballs in 2022; he's elite in almost every way against these types of pitches, AND HE'S DONE IT WITH A BUM FOOT!!! His spray chart against such pitches looks good too:
Notice anything interesting with the above spray chart? I looked at his spray chart with Yankee Stadium as the venue. At Yankee Stadium, he'd have three additional home runs against 94+ MPH fastballs. A shift also doesn't make sense against Bader, as he sprays the ball all over the field.
The Yankee offense has been power-packed in 2022, so one would expect that Bader would rank beneath some of the boppers against 94+ MPH fastballs this season. Here's the rankings:
Bader ranks third behind Carpenter and Judge against 94+ MPH fastballs via wOBA and 100+ points above Aaron Hicks (it should be noted that Benintendi performs well against these pitches as well).
Brian Cashman himself stated that the Monty for Bader move was all about October. Even once we get past elite defense and great baserunning, Bader excels offensively at possibly one of the most important skills a hitter can have in October: hitting well against harder velocity. Bader's injury status is a risk, but I have to imagine the Yankees did their homework on that front, and feel good about Bader playing at least to his former level in 2022. I like this deal more and more as I evaluate it. Yes, there is more than meets the eye with Harrison Bader, and I think he makes sense for the World Series run in 2022 and beyond.