Could Harrison Bader become the best defensive Center Fielder in baseball?

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Harrison Bader was a defensive wizard in 2019, but his contribution has largely flown under the radar.

In the old days of baseball, Gold Glove awards tended to be given to the flashiest, most
eye-catching players, or even at times to guys who voters seemed to like personally. For
example, Derek Jeter won the award five times despite his demonstrably atrocious defense. However, in the eyes of voters, his all-out hustle and willingness to put his body on the line to win was enough to fill his trophy case. This sort of voting has changed a great deal in recent years, as true defensive mastery has been acknowledged in a multitude of players, even if they are below-average offensive contributors; as is the case with Omar Vizquel and Andrelton Simmons, to give just two names.

This past season’s Gold Glove awards were handed out to well-deserving players,
as many of the league’s truly elite fielders such as Francisco Lindor, Matt Chapman and J.T. Realmuto took home hardware. However, I posit that one of the best defenders in baseball was somehow snubbed in the proceedings. Enter St. Louis Cardinals center fielder Harrison Bader.

While 2019 marked just his third MLB season, the then 25-year-old Harrison Bader was a
well-regarded prospect, as he had previously placed among the top-five Cardinals prospects on MLB.com in both 2016 and 2017. A true glove-first type of player, his speed and defensive chops fast tracked him to the big leagues, while his bat at times struggled to catch up with major league pitching. Appearing in 122 games last year, Bader posted remarkable defensive numbers during his 909.2 innings played in center field. With tremendous closing speed and an ability to take seamless routes to the ball nearly every single opportunity, Bader piled up 2.1 bWAR despite posting an underwhelming 90 OPS+ at the plate.

A good stat to start out with when analyzing Bader’s, or any player’s, defensive
contributions is Ultimate Zone Rating (UZR). UZR takes into account all aspects of a player’s fielding, and comes up with a total number of runs above or below average that he is worth to his team. In this instance, Bader put up a sterling 12.9 UZR over the course of 2019, meaning that he saved the Cardinals almost 13 runs that most other fielders would have allowed to score. Simply put, UZR/150 turns the same formula into a rate stat, simply determining how many runs a fielder was worth over a 150 game span. Bader’s 21.8 UZR/150 is even more impressive, highlighting how much of an impact he made on his team, despite only playing in 122 games.

In the same vein as UZR, Baseball Reference’s Defensive Runs Saved (DRS) uses
different metrics to quantify the same result, which is how many runs a fielder is worth. In 2019, Bader posted a terrific 14 runs saved, despite playing in only three quarters of his team’s games.

While these stats may be impressive on their own, they do not necessarily point directly
to Bader being definitively the best defensive center fielder in baseball. For that, we need to analyze his peers.

The 2019 National League Gold Glove award for center field was awarded to
Milwaukee’s Lorenzo Cain, who in his own right is a hell of a defender who had been criminally underrated for the better part of a decade. However, Cain had the benefit of appearing in 21 more games than Bader, and yet his numbers still do not stack up. In 2019 Cain posted a DRS of 22, handily beating out Bader. While some of this can be explained by the gap in playing time, 21 games is not enough to make up for all of the difference. However, where the argument for Cain falls apart is on Fangraphs, as his 7.0 UZR is rock solid, but nowhere near that of Bader, as well as his 8.7 UZR/150 being easily dwarfed by Bader’s 21.8. With a stronger arm and a-lot more speed than the aging Cain, it is safe to say that Bader got jobbed in the award voting.

This is not to take anything away from Lorenzo Cain’s brilliance as a player; I am more than happy that he finally earned recognition for his work. I just believe that despite his high level of play, there was an even more deserving player.

I would also like to analyze the play of Kevin Kiermaier, the Tampa Bay center fielder who took home the American League’s Gold Glove. He is also widely regarded as the best defensive outfielder in baseball. To that end, Kiermaier certainly passes the eye test, as his headline-grabbing plays night in and night out allow him to make the impossible look easy. You’ll get no argument from me that Kiermaier is an elite level defender, and most definitely a wizard on the outfield grass.

With that said, much like Cain, his numbers simply aren’t better than Harrison Bader’s.

Kiermaier played a similar amount of games in center field to Bader, appearing in 125 contests as opposed to Bader’s 122. However, Kiermaier gained a significant
advantage as he totalled 1,044.1 innings in the field compared to Bader’s 909.2. That 134.2 inning difference afforded Kiermaier the opportunity to collect a handsome 13 DRS; a terrific number to be sure, but still lower than Bader’s 14 despite having almost 15 more games worth of innings in the field. Along these same lines, Kiermaier’s UZR and UZR/150 fall well short of Bader’s, standing at 6.9 and 9.8 respectively. Again, I am not trying to write a hit piece against Kevin Kiermaier, as I believe him to be a truly outstanding fielder; I am merely making the case that in 2019 I believe he was bested by the man patrolling center field in St. Louis.

One argument that I believe is fair to levy against Harrison Bader is that of playing time,
as his anemic hitting over the summer forced the Cardinals to send him to Triple-A for a few weeks. This ultimately led to a 40 game absence. However, while it is fair to ding him for this, I do not believe it can be factored into voting, as Kiermaier played in only three more games and took home the award in the American League. The point is that Harrison Bader is an elite defender on the same tier as Kevin Kiermaier, only he gets half the recognition.

At only 26 years of age, Bader still has time on his side in order to hone and refine his hitting, and a jump up to even league-average offensive production would place him among the more valuable players in baseball. Hopefully a few years from now we can all look back at 2019 as one of the crucial junctures in the fantastic career of Harrison Bader.

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