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Let’s Give This a Try, Because … Why Not? Defending Dexter Fowler

Is Dexter Fowler having a disappointing season?

Yes …

And no.

Disappointing because injuries have sidelined him too often. Fowler has been on the DL twice this season (heel, wrist) and also missed time with a jammed shoulder. He’s started only 67 percent of the Cardinals’ 112 games. You’d like to see him go to the post more than that.

Disappointing because of his defense in center field; he ranks 33rd at the position in MLB with a minus 12 for Defensive Runs Saved.

Disappointing to the baseball-card stat people who still live in the 1960s. They will see his .242 batting average, shake their heads and bemoan Fowler’s epic failure.

Disappointing because of a .335 onbase percentage that would be the lowest of his career, and Fowler was brought here for his OBP juice that helped propel the Chicago Cubs to the World Series title in 2016.

Disappointing because of his park-adjusted runs created (wRC+) of 106; that’s only six percent above league average offensively.

Disappointing — to some or many — because the Cardinals invested $82.5 million over five seasons to sign Fowler as a free agent last offseason. More money = higher expectations. This is a sports thing, and a Lou Thing.

With Fowler’s imperfections noted — both legitimate or imagined — I feel compelled to defend him.

The injuries?  Not good. And a concern. But let’s not get carried away … 

But unless this represents the beginning of a pattern that will put Fowler in the training room with injuries and too many DL stints and scratched starts going forward, this could be just one of those years. I’m not dismissing it. But I’m not ready to accept the premise that Fowler is an injury prone player who will miss a lot of time over the next four-plus seasons and will be a poor investment because he isn’t on the field enough. In other words, I don’t feel it’s fair to put Fowler in the same category of, say, Jacoby Ellsbury.

Let’s talk about the terrible defense in center field. It’s complicated … 

Here’s a question: do you blame Fowler? Or should we look more at the Cardinals’ front office and manager Mike Matheny? After all, Fowler has a rather depressing defensive profile as an MLB center fielder. He came to the majors in 2008 and has played CF, exclusively.

I wrote about this several weeks ago, but let’s review and update: as a MLB center fielder, Fowler is minus 76 in Defensive Runs Saved. That’s bad. That’s really, really bad. In 10 seasons (including ’17), Fowler has been credited with only two “plus” years defensively.

And in both instances, including 2016 with the Cubs, Fowler was +1 in Defensive Runs Saved. Fowler performed better defensively last season after the Cubs repositioned him to line up deeper in center. Count me among those who believed that the modest but encouraging improvement would lead to solid, average CF play in 2017.

Wrong. Fowler has gotten worse, and his extreme below-average defense is in line with his career struggles out there. Of course, there’s an obvious solution that would almost certainly give the Cardinals an enhanced outfield alignment. Tommy Pham who is a +5 defender in CF, has a superior arm, and should patrol center to give the Cardinals their best chance to save runs. Fowler should be moved to the flank, either left field or right.

Anyone can watch Fowler play center and know that his defense is a liability.  That isn’t the point.

Here’s the point: Who will have the onions to make the change? Fowler is a proud man. Center field is his turf. It’s been his terrain since 2008. He doesn’t want to move to a corner spot. I understand that. But what’s the priority here? Maximizing your team’s chance for success, or keeping a player happy?

I’m not nearly as down on Fowler’s offense as others are … 

Here’s why:

— The .242 batting average is distorted by Fowler’s hard-luck .266 average on balls in play (BIP.) The MLB-wide average on BIP this season is .299. Among hitters that have many or more plate appearances than Fowler this season (337), his .266 BIP ranks 150th on a list of 170.

— Fowler’s current hard-contact rate (36 percent) is six points above his career average. His line-drive rate (21.6 percent) virtually matches his career rate. According to the Statcast data at the wonderful Baseball Savant Fowler’s batting average should be .265 instead of .242. His career batting average is .266. So based on career norms Fowler hasn’t done anything to hurt that batting average except to hit into a lot of hard outs. And ground balls aren’t finding the gaps. This season Fowler has a .157 batting average on grounders. The MLB average on ground balls this season is .241. Last season when Fowler made hard contact for the Cubs, he batted .555. This season his hard-contact batting average is .500.

— Fowler’s .335 is lower than his career .365 rate and there’s a reason for this. First of all, his walk rate this season (12.2%) is virtually the same as his career 12.6 percent standard.  So if Fowler is walking as frequently on a rate basis, then why is his OBP 30 points less than his career mark? Answer: see the above paragraph. Batted-ball randomness is biting pieces out of his batting average and onbase percentage. According to Baseball Savant, Fowler’s weighted onbase average (wOBA) should be .355 this season. His career wOBA is .353. Fowler’s onbase skill hasn’t deteriorated.

— Not that this gets mentioned much, but Fowler is having his best power season. Fowler’s  .457 slugging percentage would be his second best in a season. But even that’s misleading; in 2012 Fowler slugged .474. That’s because Fowler’s slugging percentage was wildly inflated by the hitter’s shooting gallery at Coors Field, where he had a .553 SLG at home that season. Fowler’s ISO (isolated power) of .215 this season is well above his career .158 ISO … and until this year, Fowler’s previous high for ISO in a season was .174 back in 2013. Fowler is averaging a homer every 20.9e at-bats this season; his career HR is a homer every 43.7 at-bats. But with so many in the STL media yapping about prehistoric statistics like batting average, I can understand why it’s been so easy to overlook Fowler’s power boost.

– After a frigid start to the season, Fowler’s park-adjusted runs created is where it should be. Pressing and stressing to make a positive impression for his new team and fan base, Fowler had seven hits and reached base only 12 times in 58 plate appearances over his first 13 games (.132 OBP). He struck out 30 percent of the time. He had no extra-base hits. But in is last 279 plate appearances Fowler has a .267 average, .362 OBP, 14 home runs and a  .525 slug for an .887 OPS. His park-adjusted runs created (129 wRC+) over that time is 29 percent above league average … and 19 points higher than his career 110 wRC+.  I look at it this way: after two dreadful weeks to open the season, Fowler has been Fowler offensively since April 18 — but with only more power.

Thanks for reading …

–Bernie

More – Miklasz – Update: Dexter Fowler Is Hitting. A Bunch. So Stop Saying He ‘Needs to Get Going’