Let me get something out of the way right up front: Harrison Bader was not “overlooked” as a prospect. A 3rd round pick in 2015, Bader was widely ranked as one of the top prospects in the Cardinals’ system the last 2-3 years. He was not disrespected. He was not ignored.
That said, it sure looks like all of the prospect evaluators who work in the industry vastly underestimated just how fast Bader is and just how dynamic he is in the outfield. Everyone knew he could run and everyone knew he could play solid defense but I don’t recall anyone saying he’d be one of the fastest players or one of the best outfielders in the game…yet he has been both of those things this year.
Despite not having nearly the number of innings played as most regular outfielders, Bader is 2nd in “outs above average” with 16. The only OF ahead of him is Billy Hamilton with 17 and Hamilton has played a whole lot more. Keep in mind, this is a “counting” stat like home runs and not a “rate” stat like batting average.
According to MLB’s Statcast information Bader also has the best rate of making plays that he shouldn’t be able to make. His expected catch percentage (percentage of fly balls hit in his area that he should catch) is 85% but his actual catch percentage is 95%!!! No outfielder in the game with at least as many innings played as Bader has a greater differential.
In other words, of anyone who has received anything close to regular playing time, Bader makes the most plays that shouldn’t get made.
Bader also leads MLB in Defensive Runs Saved – also a counting stat, not a rate stat – despite having played 240 fewer innings than Jacoby Jones (currently #2 on the list) and more than 300 fewer innings that Lorenzo Cain (currently ranked #3).
Bader is tied with Cain for the most “5 Star” plays in the outfield – those are plays where the outfielder has a 0-25% chance of making the play. Bader also has the 4th most “4 Star” plays between 25-50% chance.
Bader’s sprint speed, according to Statcast data, is 30.0 feet per second. That puts him in the top 1% in Major League Baseball. He is the 7th fastest sprinter in the big leagues. I think being in the top 1% is elite, right?
To sum up, we’re talking about one of the fastest players in the game and arguably the best defensive outfielder in the Majors for 2018.
Yet none of the prospect evaluators who work at the best, most in-depth prospect publications had any clue he was this kind of runner or defender.
*Disclaimer: I am not ripping the outlets or the people who work at them. I deeply respect everyone who covers the prospect world because it takes time and dedication…and because it’s really hard to get everything right. I used to be the “Minor League Expert” for The Sporting News years ago so I know first hand just how difficult it is to get every evaluation right. It’s damn near impossible, especially when the players work to change their profiles over time (more on that below).
The problem is there is no Statcast info for the minor leagues. The people who cover the minors have to go off of small sample size viewings, scouts with stop watches, opinions of front office people or opposing coaches, etc. It’s not easy to get this stuff right.
Here are some samples (again, these are not pot shots – these evaluations were based on solid reporting and the best information available to the writers at the time they wrote the evaluations):
MLB.com – “He’s a better defender than people gave him credit for, with the chance to stay in center field long term.”
A chance to stay in CF? Hahahaha. He’s the best OF in the Majors despite not playing full time until recently. MLB.com rated his speed as a 55 on the 20-80 scouting scale where 50 is average and rated his defense as a 50. Ooops!
Fangraphs – “Bader was an above-average runner for me in the Fall League and plus during the season for some scouts with whom I spoke, so some orgs think he can moonlight in center field.”
Moonlight in CF. LOL. I’d say being in the top 1% of all Major Leaguers in sprint speed counts as “above-average.”
Baseball Prospectus – “A plus runner, he glides in the field and can be a plus defender in the corners, or an above-average one in CF.”
They were the closest on the speed side. Funny how “above-average” comes up again, this time about his defensive potential.
So let’s keep this tidbit in mind as well:
“Cardinals scouting director Chris Correa said the Cardinals believe he has the above-average speed necessary to try center.”
That’s from Jen Langosch in 2015 on MLB.com.
Even the Cardinals didn’t know exactly how fast Bader was or how outstanding his defense could be…and they had just drafted him!
Heck, in my own write up on Cardinals prospects this spring I underrated Bader. I never mentioned “elite” speed or “Gold Glove” defense. Oh, I said I liked his game and that he “runs well” and is “comfortable in all three OF spots” but I didn’t know he had this in him…probably because nobody else did either. At least nobody that was ranking prospects. Haha.
So what’s the point of all this?
Simple – Bader is a grinder who keeps getting better.
I’m sure those reports were pretty close to accurate when they were written but Bader has worked to improve his skills across the board. That’s a great sign, by the way. The guys who are driven enough to improve their running speed when they’re already considered good runners, the guys who work on the important details required to be an elite defender, are the kinds of guys who keep getting better.
Bader has some holes in his offensive game but if he’s proven anything to us he’s proven that he’s willing to work and that, my friends, is reason to believe we still haven’t seen peak Harrison Bader yet.