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Grading the Mets’ Harrison Bader signing

Who doesn’t love elite defense in the outfield?

New York Yankees v. Tampa Bay Rays Photo by Mike Carlson/MLB Photos via Getty Images

To kick of their 2024 slate of transactions, the Mets added another outfielder to the roster, inking Harrison Bader to a one-year, $10.5 million contract. The former Cardinal, Yankee, and Red is the latest in a series of short-term, mid-level signings made by David Stearns and the new Mets’ front office this offseason.

Let’s start with the good. Bader is an unquestionably elite center field defender. Since ascending to a mostly full time role in 2018, he leads the majors in outs above by a wide margin - eight more than second place Kevin Kiermaier, who is himself 11 outs better than third place Manuel Margot. Despite never accruing more than 427 PA in a season and averaging something like ~350, he’s never ranked outside the top-15 qualified outfield defenders in TOTAL defensive values. Met fans can look forward to the best defensive display we’ve had in the outfield since the days of prime Juan Lagares.

The bad all comes on the other side of the ball. Bader has posted only three seasons with a wRC+ above 100: 2018, where he had a BABIP of .358; the 2020 COVID-shortened season, and 2021, where he posted a reasonable-looking .267/.324/.460 line. Statcast suggests that even that performance was fluky, predicting a .295 xWOBA nearly 40 points below his actual .331 mark. There does seem to be a change in approach that has stuck in subsequent years; Bader used to strikeout ~30% of the time and walk ~10% of the time, but he’s cut those numbers down to ~18% and ~5% respectively in the past three seasons. However, he’s seen a significant decrease in power, suggesting that he made an active decision to go from a power-based approach with more passivity to one focused on contact.

The last two seasons have been particularly poor. His offense hovered around 10-15% worse than league on both sides of a 2022 trade from the Cardinals to the Yankees, and he bottomed out with a 76 wRC+ in the Bronx this past season that got him waived. Bader landed with the Reds briefly down the stretch and was even worse during his time in Cincinnati (blame the chili).

It’s notable that Bader suffered two nagging injuries in 2023; an oblique injury that cost him 30 games at the start of the season, and a hamstring strain that sent him to the injured list at the end of May. Bader essentially played through the latter injury for the rest of the season, and while his defense wasn’t affected it’s very fair to assume it took a toll on his batting. While he’s been somewhat injury prone throughout his career, a small bounce back due to improved health is a reasonable expectation.

Bader’s bat is also not absent any utility. Despite his below average offense overall, he’s hit lefties to the tune of a .262/.330/.494 line, good for a 121 wRC+. Even last year amidst the aforementioned struggles Bader posted a 153 wRC+ against southpaws. He’s a legitimately excellent hitter against left handed pitchers, and that alone makes him a leverageable piece next to Brandon Nimmo. Moreover, smart teams will find the right matchups to use short-side platoon players against same-handed pitchers, minimizing the platoon disadvantage by identifying specifically what a batter struggles with (i.e., velocity up in the zone, spin low-and-away). We won’t get into the weeds on exactly how Bader should be deployed in that way, but suffice it to say that the Mets should be able to find 350-400 PAs where Bader is at worst only slightly worse than neutral as a matchup.

While healthy, Bader will likely get the lion’s share of playing time in center field, pushing Brandon Nimmo to left. That will both improve the Mets’ defense and keep Nimmo’s legs healthier as he heads into his 30s. Against tough righties - be it at the start of the game or after being pinch hit for in a leveraged spot - Nimmo can bump back to center, protecting Bader from his worst matchups. This is a good, creative roster fit, making a desperately needed improvement to the Mets’ outfield without locking in the risks and opportunity costs of longer team deal. There’s also a non-zero chance Bader has an offensive bounce back that turns him into a true difference maker, with an outside shot to be good enough to merit a QO next offseason.

No real downside, clear utility, and a sprinkling of upside to boot? That merits a solid A-.