Lars Nootbaar: The Sabermetric Stud
Lars Nootbaar playing in college
Lars Nootbaar is known for having one of the best names in baseball. His name also picked up a bunch of attention at the trade deadline last year when the Cardinals elected to trade CF Harrison Bader to the Yankees and failed to land Juan Soto. This led to Nootbaar becoming an everyday OF for the Cardinals in the 2nd half and a lot of people questioned whether betting this much on a young OF with little to no experience would be worth it. Nonetheless, Nootbaar quickly became a fan favorite of the Cardinals and ended up putting together a solid year if you just look at his baseline numbers. However, if you dive just a little deeper it is easy to see that Nootbaar had an elite season by sabermetric standards and he is looking like he will have an extremely bright future.
Lars Nootbaar first started as a middle-of-the-road prospect coming out of High school. He was ranked 500th in the Country and 146th in the state of California in the HS class of 2015. He committed to USC and saw early playing time as a freshman as he appeared in 33 games and posted a .634 OPS. He continued to be a solid player at USC over the next 2 years as an OF/1B that was sound defensively and could hit well enough. He was able to play well enough to leave USC after his junior year and enter the MLB draft. Nootbar was selected in the 8th round by the Cardinals in the 2018 MLB draft. After getting drafted, Nootbaar was seen as a project kinda guy. Despite him being a big guy at 6’3, he was much more of a singles guy who was very good at avoiding strikeouts. He was also seen as a nonathlete and his defensive ability would be limited to first base. So to say the expectations from Lars Nootbaar as an MLB player were low is an understatement.
Nootbaar’s first year in the minors (2019) was better than most people expected as he was able to maintain a high BA and get on base at a very solid clip while keeping a very good BB/K rate. He was able to make it up to AA in 2019 where he continued to be a productive player. Another big surprise was that he was able to play OF and did it very well, which was big for his development as it helped him gain more value among the Cardinals organization.
These numbers are not exactly elite but they were still solid enough. However Nootbaar was still non seen as a big prospect, he was not on the Cardinal's top 30 prospect ranking and never did appear on the ranking. After not being able to play in 2020, Nootbaar started the 2021 season in AAA. The 23-year-old was quickly going to put his name on the map with his performance in 2021.
Nootbaar was going off in AAA Memphis and eventually due to some injuries and rough performances got a call to the big leagues. Just to show how crazy this quick rise or Nootbaar was let's review real quick how impressive this early call to the bigs was. Nootbaar was an 8th-round pick and seen as virtually a non-prospect, and his first season of professional baseball was by all means solid but did not even raise enough eyebrows to put him on the Cardinal's top 30 prospect list. Then after taking a year off due to covid, he comes back and mashes at AAA and finds himself on the MLB roster by June of 2021. Nootbaar was able to make his debut after less than 150 minor-league games despite being a very low prospect. This is incredibly rare and some people even questioned what warranted this call-up so early, but the answer is simple. Nootbaar has shown throughout his baseball career that he can put the bat on the ball and avoid strikeouts. This on top of the acceptable outfield play that he had been displaying led to his early call-up. The Cardinals needed someone to put the bat on the ball and play solid defense and Nootbaar seemed like he was the perfect guy for that. However, after his first 2 call-ups, there was still some question as to whether this guy had what it took to play in the majors.
These numbers are not good but there was still some promise there. For example, he was still keeping his strikeouts low and he was also hitting the ball very hard and getting unlucky. The first ball he hit in the majors posted a 108.4 Exit Velo and was a flyout. In fact, in these 30 PA, he hit 4 balls with exit velos of 95 or greater that ended up being outs. If even 2 of those hits fall his BA goes to .230 and his OBP goes to .333 and this is much more solid. So it is safe to say the Nootbaar deserved a 2nd chance at success and he was going to get it. The Cardinals traded away their 4th outfielder Lane Thomas which led to Nootbaar getting a promotion to the big leagues at the end of July 2021. That trade on top of Harrison Bader’s injury concerns resulted in Nootbaar playing a lot of the 2nd half of the season. Nootbaar took this opportunity and ran with it and was able to earn his spot, to say the least.
Nootbaar was amazing in the 2nd half for the Cardinals and earned his spot on the team for the next season. He was used a lot as a defensive replacement and pinch hitter a lot which he saw success in. Nootbaar was able to take a small amount of playing time and do the absolute most with it. Diving into the small amount of advanced stats he produced this year; Nootbaar had a far above-average sprint speed and arm strength and also had a solid max exit velo. Another positive thing seen from Nootbaar was the fact he was able to hit lefties very well on top of being decent against righties.
Heading into the 2022 season Nootbaar was seen as a 4th OF for the Cardinals who could be used for pinch-hitting and late-game defense if needed. However, due to an injury to Harrison Bader and later his trade, Nootbaar became the Cardinal's full-time RF by the end of June. As mentioned early the Cardinals were rumored to be in the Soto sweepstakes however the Cardinals were not able to land which led to more pressure being put on Nootbaars shoulders. Yet again, he was able to step up to the competition and played very well in 2022, to say the least.
These numbers are very solid and were a surprise to most. He kept up his high walk rate while also cutting down on strikeouts from his rookie year. His power surge was unexpected, to say the least, as he went from a guy that had zero to no extra-base hit potential to a guy who was doing it at an elite level. Nootbaar did this while also playing elite defense on the field. However, despite these numbers being very respectable, they do not capture how good Nootbaar was. To that, we must look deeper into advanced analytics to show his true value.
These numbers are incredibly impressive and nearly unheard of for someone of his age and experience. He hit the ball very hard which we saw out of him his rookie year but after gaining a full season he was downright amazing. The combination of hitting a ball that hard that often, his high walk rate, and his low chase rate is rare. To show how impressive this is, Nootbaar was 1 of 6 players to post an avg exit velo and BB% in the 90th percentile or higher. Those other 5 players include 3 of the best players in baseball: Judge, Yordan, and Schwarber, and then 2 of the most underrated players in baseball: Yandy Diaz and Ji-Man Choi. It's safe to say that what Nootbaar did this year was extremely impressive and very rare; especially for a player with his lack of experience.
Heading into this next 2023 season; Nootbaar is projected to start for the Cardinals in the RF and likely will be a key piece. Streamer has Nootbaar projected as a 124 wRC+ and 2.5 fWAR which would be very solid from him. Expect him to regress slightly at the plate, but with his contact/power/defense/patience combo, he should still be an elite player. A lot of people know Nootbaar because of his name, but he needs to start being known because he is amazing at baseball.