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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’

  • Tarzan

    Ask Fowler one, simple question:

    Would you rather play Left Field the rest of the year and Win the Division, or Play Center the rest of the year and Miss the Playoffs?

    We know Dexter was signed to play centerfield, but what’s best for the team should come first, Right? Right?

    • BenDover

      Win the division??? HAHAHAHAHA with that lineup.

      • Tarzan

        In a ‘normal’ year, I’d agree… but nobody is running away with this division. Are you ready to throw in the towel being 3 1/2 games out with 50 games left to play? Not me.

        If Matheny can/will put the right people in the lineup and in their best position, I think we can make a strong run at first place. If it’s not a mirage, the offense looks like it’s ready to score some runs… We have the best starting pitching in the Central, and lots of reinforcements in the minors. The Cubs, not so much… Their minor league surplus of pitching is (as Jack Buck used to say) “Thin as boarding house soup.”

      • Big T

        Are you from Chicago?

  • Tom L

    Well, Matheny did have the cojones to move Dex to #6 in the batting order last night, for the first time in his career.
    Could it be a small step toward moving his defensive position as well?
    Maybe?
    I’m probably too much of an optimist.

    • BenDover

      That’s a lot of money for little production and only 67 games.

      • Tom L

        Yes.
        The Cardinals might be paying for a leadoff hitter and center fielder while actually getting a #6 hitter and corner outfielder.

        Of course, Dex could still be a pretty good leadoff man, but the Carpenter problem stands in the way. Carp is below average on defense at all positions, has to play first base although he is not the power hitter you really want there, so he blocks any real first-basemen in the organization from advancing. He also apparently can’t bat lower in the order than first, which is really strange. This hamstrings the team’s approach.
        I like Carp as a person, but his limitations are having a sort of domino effect on the team.
        He would make a great DH.

        • plato2

          Interesting analysis. Tough to read because I like Carp as well, but looks about right.

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  • flood21

    Jury still out on the guy. He needs to stay healthy and put this team on his back and carry the load the rest of the year. He is getting paid that kind of money.

    • BenDover

      Absolutely not that kind of player. He is a role player. he was a good leadoff man until this year. He is not capable of carrying a team. St. Louis fans would have it wrong if they though he was a star.

      • flood21

        No argument from me, but MO decided to pay him elite ball player type money so he needs to get things going starting with games played. Put some decent numbers up and play every day. If not then it goes down as another bad decision by MO and these types of decisions seem to be the norm lately.

        • Taylor

          $16M in AAV is not elite type money.

          • plato2

            $16M is not elite type money? This is what we’ve come to in baseball? $16M is the kind of money that says this player will play a dominant role on this team. He has not lived up to expectations. (I don’t care if there are other OF making much more money, $16M is big money).

          • Taylor

            No, $16 million is not elite type money. I’m not sure what else to say here. He has been unlucky with balls in play and had problems with injuries. Other than his defense, which can be mitigated with better positioning, he’s been exactly what they paid for.

  • BenDover

    #s do not LIE. He is a terrible center fielder. Should be playing left. His stats at plate stink as well. #s do not lie.

    Fowler gets hurt ALL the time…little injuries. Ones that make you question. He has only played more than 125 games now in ONE season in the last FIVE. He has already not played in 45 games this year. He is always injured at some point in the season. Except 2015 when played in 156 games.

    Again – missed significant time 4 out of the last 5 years.

    This is why the Cubs did not invest in him again. Age and injuries. Injuries maybe catching up.

  • Scott Warren

    Fowler is who he is – an average at best Major League player. So the reality is the Cardinals knew this before committing $82.5 million and still did it anyway. Ridiculous. If there is any opportunity to move him in the offseason, they need to take advantage of it and get that contract off the books.

    • Taylor

      He’s an above-average player and they aren’t moving him.

      • JeremyR

        He’s not above average. His career says he’s dead average and at age 31, he’s not going to be getting better.

        • Taylor

          He has a career wRC+ of 110. So…above-average. Thanks for contributing to the conversation, though.

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  • Anti ruling class

    What you’re saying (I guess) is the results thus far for Fowler have been mixed, which is easy to detect with basic observational data. Further, he appears to not be a good fit overall, which is a more subjective assessment than normal given the jumbled makeup of the team.

  • Big T

    Numbers are not good. No doubt.

    But I believe they do not say it all and he is a good ball player who will help this team in a significant way. I see him needing more time to adjust to the Cards/St. Louis and maybe even stop pressing to “prove his worth”. There is a reason the Baby bears are scoring a lot less this year and it is largely due to Fowler not being there.

    The type of pitches a batter sees is determined largely by who is batting after you and/or is anyone on base? Currently he is not batting in front of Bryant and Rizzo. Therefore he is not getting the same pitch selection. I trust the process! Go Dex!! and Go Cards!!!

  • JeremyR

    Counterpoint: Baseball Reference has him at .2 WAR for the year. Yeah, that’s a decimal point in front.

    He was a player they didn’t need, signed to a contract that will only get worse every year as he ages, blocking younger more exciting and more valuable players.

  • Mike Novack

    Great analysis, he really hasn’t been as bad as people suggest. If you strip out his horrid start, he’s been good and certainly worth the AAV. Now if only we can get management to stop being so obstinate on his defensive positioning….

  • rightthinker4

    Cardinals pinned their hopes on Carpenter hitting 3rd, Fowler leading off, and playing well defensively in CF. None of that happened, and won’t happen. They should have known Carpenter wasn’t a #3 hitter and Fowler wasn’t a good defensive CF. Fowler showed signs of being fragile last year, and in the past. If Fowler stays healthy and moves to LF, the signing could still be a good move. Lots of if’s.

  • June Jones

    “But what’s the priority here? Maximizing your team’s chance for success, or keeping a player happy?”
    The above statement should be applied by everyone in the Cardinals management group to every player in the organization.
    I don’t care who is on the field as long as the “W” column is higher than the “L” column.

  • LawrenceKScardsfan

    I agree – Fowler is not the problem with this team. However, Matheny should grow a pair and move him to LF. What is he going to do? Quit? LOL. If and when Fowler gets healthy, he should produce more effectively and his norms should return.

  • James Berry

    BABIP is every bit of a mixed bag stat to hold up to the light as is batting average. Both are no more than somewhat useful gauges in seeing if a player is having a good season or not. I know you love using it to explain away select player having down years, Bernie, but it’s becoming a tired excuse. If Fowler was to finish the season at a .285 average and Goldenboy finished at .300, then you would hold those stats up as credible.

    Fowler was a bad signing and Carpenter is a one trick pony. Both have better, or at least possibly better, players blocked and that is a big concern. Or at least it should be. Even if Fowler is moved to LF(he hasn’t the arm for RF), he’ll still be blocking others. If he were a 30+ home run guy and had the .365+ OBP, then there wouldn’t be much to gripe about. But he’s not that type of hitter.

    It’s going to be an interesting off season. Hopefully it’s a very productive one as well, because another year like this and we may not get off the mat until 2020.

  • BradW

    Ok, so maybe we can expect better in the future from an OBP perspective, and his slugging is really good. But, he has to move out of CF. How does his wRC+ stack up for a LF or RF? He has to be moved out of CF, without a doubt, and sooner rather than later. If DF doesn’t like it, maybe he thinks about not caring too much about the no-trade clause. Maybe he thinks, anywhere I can play CF is a good place to be.

  • DDD

    He is 31 and 16 million a year, do you think he cares?