JUPITER, Fla. — Sometimes in spring training, the worst outcome makes the best example.
By the time Harrison Bader stepped into the Roger Dean Stadium batter’s box for his final plate appearance in what would become Thursday’s tie with the Mets, the Cardinals’ starting center fielder wore a filthy uniform and a rising welt. He had reached base three times in three dramatically different ways, then punctuated each arrival with a steal the Mets saw coming yet could not stop.
Facing once-feared and still-formidable reliever Jeurys Familia in the eighth inning, Bader fell behind. There was a strike he did not like, and another he could not hit. Last season, this situation screamed strikeout. But Bader clawed, turning what could have become an easy K into a full count that produced a pop fly.
Bader stopped short of slamming his bat.
Don’t expect him to count a harmless fly as progress.
That doesn’t mean it wasn’t.
As if he had a sense Bader’s hard-charging style was about to define a game, manager Mike Shildt shared Thursday morning how the unimpressive spring training batting statistics Bader had not yet been able to outrun were not meshing with what the manager has watched.
Bader’s defense remains elite. The frame he packed muscle to this offseason has not diminished his dynamic speed. The Grapefruit League numbers that had raised some eyebrows outside of the clubhouse — especially when slugging fourth outfield candidate Tyler O’Neill began logging reps in center field — did not consider the increased competitiveness of Bader’s at-bats, or the hard-hit balls that found gloves. And no, Shildt insisted, this was not a case of Bader being affected by a newfound prominence marketed by both the Cardinals and MLB. In short, the manager wanted the world to know this: He’s bullish on Bader.
“He gets more attention, because he’s got a charisma about him that people appreciate,” Shildt said, joking that it might have something to do with Bader’s blonde mane.
“He trained hard,” Shildt said. “He came in in shape. He came in early to camp. He works his tail off. He has continued to improve his craft. His consistency has improved. He’s 20, whatever he is. He’s a good-looking young kid. He’s enjoying himself. I would hope to encourage that. And he’s responsible. So, go have some fun, man.”
In a recent chat between the two, Shildt encouraged Bader to reflect on where he was one year ago, to compare that scrambling hitter to this more confident one.
“It’s 180 degrees,” Shildt said.
“Consistency. Understanding. Routine. All of those things. If you look at his batting practice, this guy is hitting missiles everywhere. And not that he wasn’t taking good batting practice last year. But there is more method to the madness, more refinement, more understanding, more quality of work.”
Before Thursday’s game, Bader politely asked that an interview request be fulfilled after the game. He had a date with fun. Batting leadoff on an off day for Matt Carpenter, Bader unleashed his unique brand of madness upon the Mets, specifically their overmatched catcher.
Bader beat third baseman Adeiny Hechavarria’s throw to first base to secure an infield single in his first trip to the plate. He then stole second base, realizing along the way that catcher Travis d’Arnaud’s arm was no match for his wheels.
Bader gladly wore a pitch from starter Zack Wheeler his next time up, then swiped second again. No, the bruise on his back did not hurt.
“Curveball,” he said. “Luckily.”
Bader then became the first Cardinal to face Mets reliever Tyler Bashlor. He pulled a single to left field. You can guess what happened next.
Bader now has seven hits in 31 spring at-bats. His batting line in the majors last season read .264/.334/.422 after 379 big-league at-bats. That .756 on-base plus slugging percentage (OPS) was up from the .659 he posted in 85 major league at-bats the season before, and it ranked 14th among major league center fielders who had more than 350 at-bats in 2018. Combined with his plus baserunning and defense that graded out at 11 runs above average in terms of Fielding Bible’s defensive runs saved, Bader produced a 3.8 Wins Above Replacement last season. That ranked seventh among center fielders. He does not want to repeat it. He wants to improve it.
“I just know there is so much more in there that I have, and it’s not physical,” Bader said. “When you think about your physical aspects of a swing, you think about bat speed, hands, eyes. All of those things are where they need to be, and they are only going to get better as I continue to mature physically. The one thing you do work on is that mental side. Knowing that and having confidence in the repetition is going to allow me to open up my offensive game.”
Speed will remain a key ingredient. Bader’s third steal in Thursday’s game made him the first Cardinal in more than 25 years to swipe three bags in a spring training game. That came as news to the 24-year-old.
“There should always be an intention to steal an extra base,” he said. “My mind is on where that next base is, because I have the ability to take it. Some guys work more station-to-station. That’s fine. I have the ability to go out there and turn an infield single into a double in the blink of an eye.”
The game’s final box score showed two singles when Bader had raced into scoring position three times.
It overlooked entirely a pop fly that showed progress.
“That’s Harry,” Shildt said after the game. “That’s Bader.”