Harrison Bader has not been very good at the plate in 2023. After an electric postseason run last year, his first chance at a full season in pinstripes has not gone as planned. In fact, the 29-year-old has followed it with his worst offensive season in the big leagues, particularly in the second half, and has been placed on waivers as a partial result. His plate discipline hit a wall in 2023, and while the elite defense is still the main attraction, his offensive struggles may point to an unfortunate truth, while making his future with the Yankees—and in general—all the more uncertain.
After being sent to the Bronx in exchange for Jordan Montgomery’s services at last year’s deadline, Bader worked his way off the IL from plantar fasciitis and struggled in 14 regular season games, but blew the roof off during the postseason. Across nine games, he homered five times, en route to a 1.262 OPS on the game’s biggest stages. This was undoubtedly promising for someone who had already experienced at least some success with the bat in The Show. He does also have some real raw power, even if he can’t access it quite often enough to be a serious threat.
But, inevitably, as someone with just two 100-game above-average offensive seasons, expectations were set fairly high for 2023. If my tone has not been clear enough, Bader has not met them. His 75 wRC+ this year is his worst ever (outside of his 32-game debut in 2017), and it’s not exactly a secret what’s mostly behind it.
The righty is currently posting a 4.2-percent walk rate, the lowest of his career, and less than half of what it’s been at his best (11.1 percent across 2019-20). Unsurprisingly, it came with a career-worst 36.4-percent chase rate entering play on Tuesday, and bad enough to put him in the bottom 11 percent of batters.
Obviously, the diminishing ability in regard to plate discipline is not a good thing. On top of the plain issue of not walking very often, as a partial result, Bader is also making some of his worst contact as a major leaguer, fueling a diminished .269 BABIP. When you’re swinging at more pitches out of the zone, there’s reason to believe you’re going to make contact with those pitches more often (56.2 percent for Bader as of yesterday morning) and as those are much more difficult pitches to do damage with, weak contact becomes more frequent.
Now, his peripherals have never really been good, and his 2023 exit velocity and hard hit rates are even lower than they have been at times, as he is also slugging below .375. But, even with exact possible causes aside, Bader’s 75 wRC+ simply won’t do the trick. As unfortunate as it may be, this sort of performance may be closer to the truth than some of the bright spots we have seen.
At the present moment, Bader owns a career 94 wRC+, and only once has he posted back-to-back seasons with a number over 100. He also has only played 100 games in three of his MLB seasons, including two different significant IL stints this season. With all of this considered, as he enters free agency this offseason, Bader’s future, particularly after being placed on waivers, feels quite uncertain.
It should not be forgotten in this discussion, that Bader is still the elite defender he has always been in center field, and that is his primary attribute. This helps raise his floor as a player, and mostly ensures that he’ll never be a total liability. But with an increasingly concerning offensive season in progress, keeping him around does not feel as exciting as it might have last November.
Bader has already seen a drop-off in playing time of late, amidst his struggles, and things aren’t trending up. The outfielder has homered once since the beginning of June, and his 50 wRC+ in the second half is the third-worst among players with at least 130 plate appearances. The talent is visible, though, and a team taking a low-risk flyer on him for the final stretch of the season would not be surprising in the least.
A turn-around final month of the season would be helpful in Bader’s free agency pursuits, with the Yankees or otherwise, but where he is or how he’ll do is no longer a sure bet. With a shaky-at-best track record at the plate and his career-worst 2023 thus far, despite his electrifying play at times, the Yankees will have to look elsewhere if solid offensive production at the position is a priority. And as a team that has run out a middle-of-the-pack lineup at best in 2023, offensive thump should be a priority for 2024.
This isn’t to say Bader is not a worthwhile player at such a vital defensive position, but any real offensive contribution increasingly feels like it would be an impermanent bonus.
Earlier today, OF Harrison Bader was claimed off waivers by the Cincinnati Reds— Yankees PR Dept. (@YankeesPR) August 31, 2023
Bader is indeed gone. We wish him luck in Cincinnati.