Over at The Athletic, Mark Saxon’s excellent piece on Dexter Fowler featured a “whoa” chestnut of reporting:
According to multiple sources on and around the team, Fowler and Matheny barely talk and haven’t for months.
More details emerged when Saxon made his usual Friday-morning visit to the “Bernie Show” on 101ESPN. According to Saxon, the manager and the right fielder haven’t had much to say to each other since late April. Before the Cards’ April 21 Saturday afternoon home game against the Reds, Matheny removed Fowler from the leadoff spot and dropped him to fifth in the lineup. Matheny sends the daily lineup out with a group text.
Fowler, however, believed Matheny should have let him know of the decision through a personal discussion. Fowler wasn’t pleased to find out that he’d been demoted via text.
“I don’t know the reason,” Fowler told reporters before the game. “The communication … when y’all get it, I’ll get it. That’s the way it will go.” Fowler quickly added that everything was fine; he was just pleased to be in the lineup. Maybe. But Fowler certainly got his point across: The communication was lacking.
Matheny’s response: “We talk to guys to the point of over-communicating, But there’s times, too, when we make a decision and say, ‘Hey, this is what we’ve got. Let’s roll.’ ”
I bring this up because of something Saxon said on our show Friday: It’s his understanding that Fowler put a “block” on Matheny’s text messages right around that time.
(One more time: “Whoa.”)
I wonder if Fowler has blocked John Mozeliak’s mobile number yet, in response to the team president of baseball operations besmirching Fowler’s reputation by criticizing his lack of effort and energy? Probably not.
I’ll stop right there. After providing some background info courtesy of Mark Saxon’s superb work and graciousness, I want to go back in on the Fowler stuff and expand it a little to discuss several specific points of this roiling story. Thank you.
1. Don’t blame Matheny for Fowler’s aloofness. If Fowler blocked Matheny’s mobile number, that’s juvenile, and disrespectful and only makes a tense situation worse. This is on Fowler. This isn’t on Matheny.
My Response: Matheny must attempt to reopen the line of communication with Fowler. Why? Because that’s what strong leaders are supposed to do. Mozeliak and Cardinals chairman Bill DeWitt Jr. touted Matheny’s natural leadership skills when they named him manager before the 2012 season even though he’d never managed at any level before. Mozeliak and BD Jr. have continued to praise Matheny’s leadership qualities as a way of rationalizing their faith in him despite his tactical failures. That’s all we’ve heard. Great leader … great leader … great with the players … great with the players… great leader … leader of men. Fine. But leaders are at their best when trouble brews, controversy erupts, adversity strikes, tension surfaces, and relationships are fracturing. Fowler may be at fault. Maybe Matheny could have handled a couple if things better. But a good leader doesn’t let this fester. A good leader tries to be the better man, the bigger man, by reconnecting and doing everything he can to foster harmony … or at least a relatively peaceful existence.
2. Speaking with reporters before Thursday’s game at San Francisco after returning from paternity leave, Fowler said the he has to play to break out from horrible start and get going offensively.
“You’re going to struggle. Everybody struggles,” Fowler said. “It’s about being comfortable. I’ve struggled before, but I’ve gotten at-bats. When you don’t get at-bats, it’s tough to accept another position, another job.”
My Response: Fowler may have struggled at times in his career, but he’s never been this deep into the abyss offensively this late in a new season. He has 251 plate appearances, and is batting .171 with a .275 onbase percentage and .276 slugging percentage for a .551 OPS. I went back and looked at every Fowler season from 2009 through 2017 to see his stats roughly 250 plate appearances into a season.
Fowler is acting like this is just a little thing he’s going through, and he’s handled it before, so put him in the lineup and everything will get back to normal. Sorry, Dex. But you’ve never experienced an offensive meltdown like this before. Not even close. Among the 186 MLB players that have at least 250 plate appearances so far this season, Fowler’s .551 OPS ranks No. 184.
3. What Fowler is saying is true; his only chance of pulling himself and his numbers out of the gorge is by playing regularly. Getting as many swings as possible. He can’t raise his game by sitting.
My Response: The Cardinals haven’t made it to the postseason since 2015. Unless they can get their offense cranking more consistently, the Cards are likely to miss the postseason for the third consecutive year. This is unacceptable. Matheny’s job is on the line. The future of batting coach John Mabry is in doubt. The only release valve for the pressure is winning. And to win, the Cardinals have to do many things better, and it starts with scoring more runs. With so much at stake, Matheny is obligated to put his best lineup on the field, except for when regular players are injured or need a day off. And Fowler doesn’t make the cut right now.
— In 39 starts and 160 PA in those starts, Harrison Bader is batting .297 with a .350 OBP, .473 slug, and .823 OPS. The fast and furious one has six doubles, a triple, six homers, 13 RBIs, and has scored 24 runs. Defensively the dude is a dynamo, already credited with 16 Defensive Runs Saved — a preposterously grand total. Bader has saved 8 runs when playing right field, 7 runs when patrolling center field, and 1 run when working in left, Last season Fowler was a MINUS 18 in Defensive Runs Saved in center field; good for the No. 34 ranking. This season in right field Fowler is a minus 4, and that puts him way down list on the rankings. Bader is absolutely superior to Fowler right now. Bader has 1.4 Wins Above Replacement; Fowler is minus 1.1 below the replacement level. Bader’s offense is nine percent above the league average in park adjusted runs created; Fowler’s offense is 43 percent below the league average.
— The Cardinals have started to use Jose Martinez in right field to keep his bat in the lineup and his defense away from first base. Martinez has been a consistently good hitter all season with 52 RBIs, and an .842 OPS. And he’s 29 percent above the league average offensively in park adjusted runs created. Martinez isn’t much defensively in right field, but neither is Fowler. And there’s no need to compare their offensive profiles.
— What about getting Fowler into the lineup by playing Bader in center? Tommy Pham would play a lot less in center field, and Fowler could get more regular shifts in right. It doesn’t matter because Pham has been drifting for weeks — early May — in an awful slump. Right? Not so fast. Small sample and all of that, but in his first 23 PA in July, Pham is batting .381 with a .435 OBP, .571 slug, and 1.006 OPS. He has a double, homer, seven RBIs. He’s coming out of the funk. Leave him be.
So what would be the justification for benching Bader or Pham of keeping Martinez away from right field to accommodate Fowler? Answer: There is no justification. Baseball always brings us surprises; the Cardinals may need to turn to Fowler when we least expect it. But you don’t play guys that are having hideous seasons based on past performance or size of contract. You go with the guys who will give you your best shot at winning. And the Cardinals must prioritize winning. They can’t be handing games away, in part, because of a misguided attempt to put the jumper cables on Fowler’s burned-out offensive game. And if Matheny didn’t play his best lineup, then we’d all be yelling about his lack of urgency, ineptitude, etc. I support Matheny 100 percent on this.
4. There’s no way to get Fowler out of this. There’s no point. If he can’t play, then this is just a wasted roster spot.
My Response: Two words, Greg Holland. If Fowler wants to start, wants to get the ABs, wants to sharpen up … I agree, great idea. So go to Memphis. Surely, at age 32, Fowler is sore or in pain. Something is hurting. His left wrist that he banged earlier in the season? And he’s had foot problems during his career, right? So make a gentlemen’s agreement with Mozeliak, head to the disabled list, and then go on a therapeutic minor-league rehab assignment to strengthen that sickly swing. This method did wonders for Holland, the veteran relief pitcher who was offended by the idea of going to the minors to fix himself after a ghastly start to his season. Holland was insulted by the suggestion until things go so bad … and there he goes, to the DL (hip) and then down to Memphis. And Holland has been superb since returning. Fowler has to take the Holland trip; it should help him sync up.
5. Trade Fowler! Why are they fooling around! Trade him! Don’t be stupid. Make a deal.
My Response: Good luck. Really: best o’ luck, pally.
There are only four hindrances to work around.
I: Fowler is 32, is playing like he’s 82, and is statistically one of the three worst hitters in the game so far in 2018. Career decline phase? Hard sell.
II: At no point during this soap opera has Fowler taken ownership of his dreadful performance; he seems to think that this was imposed on him or something. This was caused by other parties. I like Fowler but don’t have any real empathy for a guy who seemingly refuses to take responsibility for his terrible play.
III: Fowler is owed $57.5 million. Guaranteed. No way out of paying the man the money. There’s 3.5 years remaining on his five-season, $82.5 million windfall contract.
IV: The president of baseball operations went public in portraying Fowler as a guy who isn’t giving the effort or showing much energy … another way to say this is: he got paid, so he doesn’t care. That’s about as personal as criticism gets for an athlete; his character is being impugned. It doesn’t matter if Mozeliak’s characterization has merit. Sniping Fowler wasn’t smart for many obvious reasons. But if the Cardinals want to trade Fowler, they already have a helluva sales job to do: the crash on offense, the age, the lousy defense, the weighty contract. So if you’re Mozeliak, why trash Fowler and do more damage to his trade value? Ripping Fowler doesn’t make it easier to deal him. Insulting Fowler doesn’t enhance Fowler’s trade appeal. By insulting Fowler, Mozeliak raised even more red flags for all other baseball general managers to see, and that can only decrease his trade value … making in considerably more difficult to move Fowler to another club.
Final thought …
Why not get everybody together … Matheny, Fowler, Mozeliak … and see if there’s room on the set for an upcoming Dr. Phil show? And about halfway through the show, Cubs manager Joe Maddon can walk out, and surprise the Cardinals contingent by sitting down to offer Matheny advice on how to do a much better job of communicating with players, and creating an ideal clubhouse culture.
Thanks for reading …
Have a swell weekend …