Harrison Bader reflects on his incredible 2018 defense

Credit: Flickr Creative Commons

Credit: Flickr Creative Commons

6-Minute Read

There is a difference between stellar defense and stellar defense achieved in an unusual way. In 2018, Harrison Bader was the only qualified outfielder in baseball with 11 or more outs above average and less than 300 attempts. On a per-attempt basis, it’s easy to argue Bader was the best defensive outfielder in baseball. Outs above average (OAA) is a Statcast metric with simple parameters. Each fly ball into the outfield has a catch probability based on the distance, direction and speed of the batted ball. If Cody Bellinger hits a fly ball to center field with a 60% chance of being caught and an outfielder makes the play, he is awarded .40 in OAA. If he fails to make the play, he is given -.60 OAA. Conduct this exercise for every play and you have a player’s total OAA and a simple barometer for the player’s defensive ability. Bader made enough exceptional catches in 2018 to place him in the 97th percentile among qualified outfielders.

Credit: Baseball Savant

Credit: Baseball Savant

Bader’s uniqueness doesn’t stop at quantity. You can also break OAA down by direction, showing on what angles—in to a fielder’s right, back to a fielder’s left, etc.—a player has accumulated the most value. To the left is his 2018 directional OAA chart.

In 2018, Bader was the only outfielder in baseball with 6+ directional OAA on balls directly in front of him and in and to his right. The OAA leader, Lorenzo Cain, had 7 OAA going back and to his left. Other players like Billy Hamilton and Ender Inciarte were balanced going back and to their left or right. Bader posted over 50% of his total OAA on balls in front of him, something no other outfielder in the top 9 of OAA could say. “I think everybody kind of has their natural direction, especially on defense,” Bader told me at Wrigley Field in early May. “So I guess that’s just kind of mine, I haven’t really thought about it.”

Even more unusual is something else Bader admitted. “I find it easier to catch to my left,” Bader said. “Cross-body [catches], I sometimes get my throwing shoulder in the way... to my left, you have more space to track the ball into your glove.” As a right-handed thrower, Bader’s glove on his left hand means restricted motion when he dives or ranges to his right to make a catch. It makes sense he finds it easier to catch to his left. Yet that exact range of motion—the one Bader says is harder for him to do—is also the one he essentially stands alone as the king of. Bader is fantastic at ranging in and to his right, extending his glove across his body and making a catch. So what gives?

“As an outfielder, your first read is always going to be back just when the ball goes up, unless you get a nice angle where you can just tell right away off the bat that it’s going to be in front of you,” Bader said. “For the most part, I do play like a touch back just because I have good closing speed… so I can give myself a little bit more on the front side as opposed to having to go back on a ball.”

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Bader’s closing speed might be even better than he thinks. His starting position in center field was exactly average compared to every center fielder in 2018. Yet he still displayed an uncanny ability to snag balls in and in and to his right. We can confirm this closing speed with a new Statcast metric called “burst.” Burst is the amount of feet a player covers in any direction between the final 1.5 seconds on path to a ball in the air. Among qualified outfielders in 2018, no outfielder had a higher burst total (2.3 feet above average) than Bader. The second closest was nearly .5 below with 70% of qualified outfielders falling between either -1.0 or 1.0. Bader’s closing speed may have neutralized any issues created by a cross-body motion.

Credit: Baseball Savant

Credit: Baseball Savant

With only three and one-half seasons of OAA data dating back to 2016, there is only so much comparing we can do year to year. Bader in 2019 has shown a few changes. He is once again performing at an elite rate despite underuse in the center field. Bader is the only outfielder with greater than 5 OAA and less than 100 attempts as of June 17. But while his defense is still near elite, Rays outfielder Kevin Kiermaier has overcome him on the burst leaderboard and his directional OAA chart looks a little bit different (left). He has already exceeded his OAA from 2018 on balls in and to his left, giving some credence to his theory that catching balls without a cross-body reach are easier for him. He is excelling, however, on balls over his right shoulder (shown as the 2 in the top left pie slice above), another kind of cross-body motion.

Perhaps his extra edge aside from closing speed comes from how he reads balls off the bat? “Every major league hitter pretty much has 20/10 vision from what I’ve heard, I’m in that range, 20/10, 20/15,” Bader said. “I just try not to strain my eyes too much, I mean like watching my phone too much late at night, in bed trying to fall asleep, I try to stay away from keeping the phone super close to my face, but besides that I just treat them pretty naturally… I’m not crazy with it, you still have to be a normal human being.”

To make the catches Bader does, you cannot be normal. In fact, he might be one of the more abnormal outfielders in baseball. If the Cardinals played him every day, we might see how much value one of the most unique outfielders in baseball would produce.