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Who the Yankees have in Harrison Bader

The Yankees acquired a defense-first center fielder in a bit of a head-scratcher; what can they get out of him?

St. Louis Cardinals v Milwaukee Brewers Photo by John Fisher/Getty Images

Right before Tuesday evening’s trade deadline, the Yankees and Cardinals struck a head scratcher of a deal, at least from New York’s point of view. The Yanks acquired defense-first center fielder Harrison Bader, and shipped out Jordan Montgomery. Bader is a speedy outfielder with perhaps a hint of pop, who has long been heralded as one of the game’s premier defensive center fielders. The deal comes a little out of nowhere, as New York has a bit of a log jam in the outfield, and could use some solid starting pitching, but let’s look at the new guy brings to the team.

In 72 games this year, Bader has put up a 93 wRC+, slashing .256/.303/.370. He is also interestingly boasting career low walk rates and strikeout rates, 4.9 and 17.8 percent, respectively. In the field, he has kept up with his reputation, finding himself in the 92nd percentile in Statcast’s outs above average.

Perhaps the most unfortunate part of this season for Bader is that he is currently injured and in a walking boot due to plantar fasciitis (a sometimes nagging injury), and likely will be for at least another week. He doesn’t seem to have a definite timeframe for a return, but the Yankees have expressed optimism he’ll be on the field in September.

Bader came up for the Cards in 2017, hitting for a measly 71 wRC+ in 32 games. 2018 was a solid sophomore campaign, as he was able to claw himself above league average with a 107 wRC+ in 138 games, and was able to improve both his power and on-base skills. In ‘19, Bader was able to bump his walk rate up to a very solid 11.3 percent mark, but wasn’t able to muster much else. 2020 and 2021, however, were much better, as he tapped into that power without sacrificing all of the discipline, slugging .443 and .460, with 114 and 110 wRC+ marks. The question remains of which version of himself Bader will ultimately be in any given year.

Looking at his Baseball Savant page, I found almost exactly what I expected. My gut reaction to Bader was basically “he can’t really hit, but I know I’ve seen him get into a ball from time to time.” In three of his four previous seasons with significant playing time, Bader has been in the 78th percentile or better in max exit velocity, but never better than 32nd percentile in average exit velocity. His expected stats and quality of contact tell mostly the same bleak (and blue) story. But, the ability to hit a ball really hard, even if it’s just once, isn’t totally meaningless. Perhaps someone that can do this has a bit more to find in the tank:

The story has been close to the same in his disappointing 2022, as he is still above average as far as max exit velocity goes, but is seeing new lows in most quality of contact metrics. That has likely played a significant role in why this season has been what it has, on the heels of two very solid campaigns at the plate. Even if he’s capable of doing it at a high level, Bader just isn’t hitting the ball hard often at all.

This deal seems to be a confusing one to almost everyone. It makes some sense from the Cardinals’ standpoint, but not so much from New York’s. It seems safe to assume this is a move looking to the future mostly, especially considering the injury. But Bader has some of the tools to make himself a very valuable center fielder. Those tools have faded a bit in the 72 games he’s played this year, but hopefully, the Yankees can get the idealized version of Bader healthy and on the field come playoff time.