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Untapped Potential: Lars Nootbaar

Lars Nootbaar has an appealing skillset of power and patience that foretell a breakout is coming, and it might already be here.

Before he set the baseball world on fire in the World Baseball Classic, OF Lars Nootbaar was quietly becoming one of the biggest sleeper picks in Major League Baseball. A week one injury found Nootbaar on the Injured List, but with 140 games still to play, the sky remains the limit for Nootbaar’s 2023 campaign. He is looking to build off a productive WBC where he won it all with Samurai Japan.

He returned to the field recently and has hit the ground running, but a crowded outfield in St. Louis could take away some playing time.

On the Surface

2022 was Nootbaar’s sophomore season, where he played in 108 games and slashed .228/.340/.448, good for an OPS+ of 126. Lars also scored 53 times, stroked 14 homers, and drove in 40 runs while walking 51 times, striking out 71 times.  More famous for the vowels in his name than his on-field performance, most casual fans did not know who Nootbaar was until this spring.

A pedestrian batting average and unremarkable run production might make a Lars Nootbaar breakout seem more of a pipe dream than a real possibility, but it takes a look under the hood to see why Nootbaar is right where he needs to be. There is a good reason why he is an analytics darling.

Under the Hood

Nootbaar hit the ball hard at an elite level in 2022, recording an average exit velocity of 91.7 mph, placing him above the likes of OF Mike Trout (91.6), 3B Manny Machado (91.5), and OF Ronald Acuña jr. (91.2). At the same time, however, his batting average on balls in play was a disappointing .248, placing him in the company of 0F Anthony Santander (.248), C Carson Kelly (.247), and 2B Wilmer Flores (.246).  For reference, league-average BABIP is around .300, meaning Nootbaar was unlucky.

If Nootbaar keeps smoking the ball around the yard, some regression to the mean is in order. Lars’ hitting profile (combination of quality of contact, walk rates, and strikeout rates) in 2022 was most similar to C Sean Murphy, SS Carlos Correa, and OF Ronald Acuña Jr.

Beyond the batted ball, Nootbaar posted a 92nd percentile chase rate and 98th percentile walk rate, showing off his patience and ability to pick his pitches. Combine Nootbaar’s good eye and patience with a turn for the better in BABIP luck, it would not be surprising to see Nootbaar in the lineup for the National League in this year’s Midsummer Classic.

Despite stealing only four bases in 2022, Lars posted a 74th percentile sprint speed, and with MLB’s new rules promoting action on the base paths, an increase into the mid-teens or even 20 bases could be in the picture. Nootbaar’s speed is not on par with the elite speedsters like OF Corbin Carroll or SS Bobby Witt jr., but his 74th percentile places him firmly amongst players like SP Shohei Ohtani (75th), 1B Jake Cronenworth (73rd), and SS Anthony Volpe (73rd).

Going Forward

Nootbaar’s skillset is remarkably well rounded. Lars Nootbaar hits harder than Mike Trout, chases fewer pitches than OF Mookie Betts, draws more walks than OF Yordan Alvarez, and runs as fast as Shohei Ohtani. That sounds like a future star to me.

Lars Nootbaar finds himself on a loaded Cardinals roster where playing time can be hard to come by. Fellow outfielders Tyler O’Neill, Dylan Carlson, and Alec Burleson compete with Nootbaar for at-bats, a competition which just got much hotter following the promotion of top-prospect OF Jordan Walker. Walker came up as a third baseman but has moved to the grass since the hot corner is obviously blocked. If Nootbaar can continue to get consistent at-bats, it’s only a matter of time before his elite skillset translates to a breakout season.

Jordan Walker might prove Nootbaar’s biggest competitor for outfield reps. The rookie has started in seventeen of St. Louis’s nineteen games in right field and rode a twelve-game hitting streak to begin his career.  That is tied for the longest ever with OF Eddie Murphy (no joke) and higher than OF Ted Williams.  Walker understandably needs to work on his defense, but he should be a force in the Cardinals lineup for years to come alongside Nootbaar.

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