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Benjamin Hochman is a sports columnist for the St. Louis Post-Dispatch

Cardinals start Royals series

Cardinals center fielder Harrison Bader questions a call after striking out looking against the Kansas City Royals on May 22 at Busch Stadium. (Post-Dispatch photo by Colter Peterson)

If this were football, Harrison Bader would be a superstar.

But it’s baseball, and the same guys who play on defense also have to play on offense.

And so, now there’s talk about whether Bader should play at all.

This upcoming July stretch could determine his future as the Cardinals’ starting center fielder.

That’s how badly he’s batting.

The Cardinals are quintessentially average, 44-44, but just two games out of first place in the National League Central Division. A lot went wrong in the first half for the Cards, but a lot also did for the preconceived impervious Cubs (47-43) and Brewers (47-44). The Cards are in this thing. But they have to start hitting more.

So, you bench your worst hitter, right?

Sounds easy enough. But in the field, Bader is a run-prevention fiend. In Major League Baseball, Bader ranks 12th of all players in Fangraphs’ defensive rating (8.3). Only one outfielder ranks higher, and that’s Minnesota’s Byron Buxton (10.4). He’s first in the league in numerous fancy stats on Statcast, including “actual catch percentage added to expected catch percentage” and “five-star catches.”

The Cards traded Tommy Pham last year essentially to give Bader a chance in center field. Bader was great in 2018. Should a shoddy 2019 end his era before he reaches even 180-90 career starts?

This season, Bader is batting .205 with a .316 on-base percentage and a .349 slugging percentage. An advance stat, OPS+, has him at 80 for the season, or 20 percent worse than the average big-league hitter.

It hearkens an old Tony La Russa philosophy. The former manager said he’d put a superb catcher in the lineup even if the guy was batting .000, because the catcher brought so much to the game defensively.

So, just how poorly can Bader hit but deserve to start because of his glove and legs?

If the Cards were hitting better, maybe they could afford having Bader in the lineup. But the clock is ticking. As is the clock for the July 31 trade deadline.

“He’s an elite defensive center fielder and an elite baserunner,” Cardinals general manager Michael Girsch recently said. “The margin of error at the plate for a guy who’s elite in other parts of the game is a lot wider than someone who is a bat-only, defensive-liability in the corners, right? There are ways Harrison can contribute to the team outside of the batter’s box that make him valuable regardless of how he (hits). Obviously, we need him to hit better, we need him to get going, he’s in a slump, but he brings so much other value.”

The Cards return to action on Friday, back at Busch Stadium, against Arizona. Outfielder Dexter Fowler is hitting better lately — and he’s statistically a much better hitter after All-Star breaks. Fowler, incidentally, has started 29 games in center this season.

As fielders, the only thing Jose Martinez and Bader have in common is the uniform. But Martinez, yet again, is hitting well. And when Marcell Ozuna returns from his broken hand, his hitting prowess will beef up the lineup from left field.

As for Bader, the 25-year-old Florida Gator, he tallied three hits (and two doubles) in the June 13 game against the Mets. From that point until now, he had only five more hits. No extra base hits. He’s hitting .096 since June 13 (52 at-bats).

His overall strikeout rate is 27.1 percent, highest of any Cardinal besides Tyler O’Neill. And yeah, if you thought things were bad for Bader, they might be even worse for the outfielder O’Neill, who hasn’t fared well in stints with St. Louis. It’s eye-popping, really. The Cards traded Pham — who, let’s not forget, was really struggling — to open opportunities for Bader and O’Neill. Both could be bench players by August.

Bader’s offensive stats are particularly bad against lefties, at home, with runners in scoring position . . . and against basically any pitch that isn’t a four-seam fastball. Asked in the last homestand about his offensive approach, Bader said, “I’ve always just stayed on the fastball in the middle of the plate and it’s kind of just being athletic and adjusting from there. There are so many counts and different analytics that factor into it, and a pitcher and catcher’s approach against us, so you really just kind of stay short (with your swing). See the ball, react there, just not chasing. Staying over the heart of the plate is the approach.”

The Cards’ ultimate “wild card” in center might be Randy Arozarena, because he isn’t even on the team. Or even the 40-man roster. The 24-year-old outfielder can play in center, and since being promoted to Class-AAA Memphis on June 12 his OPS is 1.007. That’s thanks in part to three homers and eight doubles.

His Memphis slash line is .388/.445/.561. In Class-AA Springfield, he slashed .309/.422/.515 (.938 OPS). He also has 10 total stolen bases, which could fit into manager Mike Shildt’s version of the Runnin’ Redbirds . . . though he has also been caught stealing seven times.

Bader has the makeup of a weapon off the bench. A guy who can guarantee you late-innings defense, exuberant hustle and can pinch-run, too. That would be a luxury if other guys were hitting and healthy. That’s not the case now. So the Cardinals likely will start Bader, at least until Ozuna is back, and hope that his glove can steal the runs his bat can’t create.


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