Reining in expectations for Harrison Bader

Feb 7, 2023 - 6:00 PM
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Photo by Sarah Stier/Getty Images

In a trade deadline that featured a couple of big deals, the one that most exciting at the time (the Frankie Montas trade) has yet to pan out, while the head-scratcher has Yankees fans anticipating big things. Harrison Bader, who came to New York in exchange for Jordan Montgomery, is the one piece they acquired at the deadline that most agree they are looking forward to seeing in 2023. He’s a good player, one that will certainly help the Yankees. But his sensational postseason may have left expectations in an unfair place. The 35 plate appearances he recorded should only mean so much, but they may have left fans with an unreasonable perception of who Bader is as a hitter.

None of what I’m saying here is an effort to downplay how good his postseason was in 2022; he was awesome. Bader hit five homers in 35 plate appearances, and slashed .333/.429/.833 throughout. This is no small feat, and not one any ol’ player can throw together. That’s a legitimately great stretch during a time when the stakes are the highest.

At this point in his career, though, it’s mostly agreed-upon what kind of player Bader is. He is a premier (if not the premier) defensive center fielder, and likely something close to league-average at the plate. Up to this point, he has only two seasons in which he reached 400 plate appearances and was able to maintain a 100 or better wRC+ (107 in ‘18 and 110 in ‘21).

Overall however, Bader is a career 97 wRC+ hitter over parts of six seasons, mostly with the Cardinals. Seemingly, his excellent performance in the playoffs last season has changed expectations for the slick fielder quite a bit. Are those 35 (outstanding) plate appearances totally meaningless? No, but I wouldn’t count on very much changing in the bigger picture. After all, his regular season was nothing to write home about. It was his worst offensive season since 2019, and his time with the Yankees after the deal was particularly rough, albeit also in a small sample.

We’ll cover Bader’s exact profile and what it means going forward in more depth when it comes time for season previews, but he doesn’t exactly have the most promising overall offensive skillset. Not to mention his contact issues, he also set career lows in each of the last two seasons for walk rate.

All of this being said, I don’t think it’s impossible or even very unlikely that he can be a solid hitter. ZiPS has him projected for a 111 wRC+, and I could be easily convinced that there’s some real pop in that bat. However, Bader returning to his relative typical performance feels like the safer bet. Lest we forget that defense of his either, even if he’s just a league average bat, Bader is still an excellent starting center fielder to have.

There were similar conversations discounting Randy Arozarena after his historic 2020 postseason as well, and the best argument for these samples is that those impressive stretches mean just as much as any other, if not more because players are generally facing the best teams and pitchers in the postseason. While Arozarena hasn’t been as good as he was during those playoffs, he’s remained a good player after that breakout October, providing an example of a player who reached new heights after a shocking October. So, I don’t think Bader’s performance was necessarily a complete fluke, or meaningless, but the rest of his career up to this point still probably deserves to be weighted much more heavily.

As we head toward the 2023 season, Bader stands as an important part of this Yankees roster. Particularly in the field, but after being the team’s powerhouse in the postseason, we should temper expectations that he’ll be able to be lineup anchor going forward. As legitimate and impressive as that performance was, given Bader’s track record, high hopes for him at the plate might be unfair.

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