ST. LOUIS – In just a matter of a few seasons, Lars Nootbaar has grown from a St. Louis Cardinals fan-favorite on name recognition to a legitimate option as an everyday outfielder.
Nootbaar led all full-time Cardinals outfielders with a 2.2 WAR last season, bouncing back from a slow start with 10 home runs, 26 RBI and a .846 OPS in the season’s second half. The 25-year-old became a catalyst late last year in the leadoff spot and has proven capable defensively at all three outfield positions.
There’s a lot to unpack with Lars Nootbaar, but he provided some interesting insight on his offseason and future Sunday during his Cardinals Winter Warm-Up media session. He did it while also wearing a “314” hat in celebration of the St. Louis region.
1. Busy offseason
Nootbaar has taken reps for hitting, fielding and running at two special spots in California. He has some connections at UCLA that have given him access to a field and batting cage early in the mornings. He’s also made the trip to Nolan Arenado’s baseball warehouse in Orange County, picking up on some guidance from the perennial Silver Slugger.
“I went down there earlier in the offseason and didn’t look very good, quite honestly,” said Nootbaar. “Anything was going to look better than what I did early in the offseason. … What’s great about baseball is that you have that offseason to tweak stuff and work on it and when you find something you like, you can build on that for a while.”
2. World Baseball Classic preps
Nootbaar will make history during the 2023 World Baseball Classic. He will be the first non-native to represent Team Japan, though eligibility rules allow him to play because his mother is of Japanese descent. Nootbaar is learning more about the Japanese language and traditions, and there’s a lot of spotlight overseas on him and his mother. Adding to the excitment, Tokyo will also be one of the international competition’s four host sites.
“It’s a huge honor, and that’s an understatement,” said Nootbaar. “We’ve been reached out to by players that we’ve hosted in the past and Japanese teams, their national high school team. My mom’s kind of doing her own media tour, and I think she’s relishing the moment … I’m happy I get to do some special for my mom. Anytime I can kind of put a smile on her face, and do that for her, that’s pretty cool. … My mom’s singing the Japanese national anthem in the house, and I’m repeating it. We’re doing little stuff like that.”
On a squad filled with starpower and headlined by pitcher-hitter phenom Shohei Ohtani, Nootbaar hopes to play a large role in the tournament.
“I’ve seen videos [of the Tokyo Dome], and my mom went to some games there. … They have like the whole cheering section, and Japan loves baseball. So the fact that it’s Team Japan versus whoever we would play, it’s gonna be pretty wild. … I’m going to try to play really good defense because a lot of effort that just goes into defense. I’m going to try to have competitive at-bats. … I just want to go out there and play really hard and give my whole effort. The chips are going to fall where they may, but I’m gonna go out there and play really hard.”
3. The next level
Momentum is certainly high for Nootbaar in terms of fan support and recent results. He stays off Twitter to avoid distractions that may come with growing expectations, though shows confidence in his room for improvement.
“I still have to go out there and perform. The bar is set a little bit higher publicly. But for myself, I want to be a really good baseball player. Being able to help out Nolan or Goldy in the lineup, I want to contribute, help those guys and alleviate some of the pressure off them. Publicly, the expectations might be a little higher, but I promise they aren’t higher than the ones I have for myself.”
“I really appreciate the fans, but I’m just going to go out and bust my butt and play hard this year, help the guys, and keep the clubhouse loose. Do what I did last year, but obviously at a much better level,” Nootbaar adds.
4. Special autographs
Remember when “grinding the pepper” became a trendy Cardinals celebration last year? Clearly, it’s still a hit for fans. Nootbaar was asked to sign several pepper shakers Sunday. The Cardinals credit him for starting the celebration, as grinding pepper is symbolic of the way he wants to grind out tough at-bats.
“I’ve signed quite a few the past couple of days,” said Nootbaar. “It’s a little difficult, but it’s similar. I’ve learned to go lateral, longways, before it curves. Practice makes perfect. I’m not there yet, but I want to get there one day!”