When the Cardinals signed Dexter Fowler to 5 year / $82.5M deal, he was presented as a lasting solution to a myriad of deficiencies. In theory, he checked several boxes for a team that needed a CF, a lead-off man, and a big name free agent signing to silence the Ballpark Village People clamoring for upgrades. Thus far, he’s failed to perform up to expectations, and I’m beginning to wonder if those expectations were misaligned from the start.
If anybody expected Fowler to be the same 4-win player he was for the Cubs in 2016, then that’s a relatively lofty standard, and please invite me to your world of unicorns and puppies. That’s not to say that Fowler can’t be that guy again (minus the unicorns and puppies), but it’s maybe unwise to ignore the possibility that 2016 represents somewhat of an aberration more than it does the norm. From 2009 through 2016, Fowler was consistently a 2-win guy (2.3 bWAR average), and that kind of production for the next 4+ years wouldn’t be a terrible return on investment.
Unfortunately, he’s not on pace to reach anything approaching a 2-win season, but the same may be said for most of his teammates, so Dexter may stand out just because he was expected to actually stand out. Thankfully, baseball isn’t like running the mile where a 1:30 first lap eliminates the possibility of posting a sub-4:00 time. He can recover and be much more productive. It’s just a matter of how productive he can be versus how productive he’s expected to be that may ultimately decide how judgment is passed on his season.
Here are a couple reasons why I don’t think he’s likely to be the 4-win guy this year that he was last year:
- He’s overrated defensively. His total of 1 defensive run saved in 2016 matched his career best for a season that was set his rookie year in just 49.2 innings in CF. For his career, he’s -70 DRS at the position. Even if he raises his offensive output, his defense will likely prove to be a drag on his overall value. Enter into evidence now his -6 DRS in 405.2 innings in center.
- His 125 OPS+ in 2016 was the highest of his career thanks to a .393 OBP and .447 slugging percentage. While he certainly seems capable of duplicating the slugging part, it seems highly unlikely that he raises his .316 OBP more than 40-50 points. With the Cardinals at the 1/3 mark in the season, Fowler would need to post an OBP around .367 the rest of the way just to bring it up to .350 for the season. Possible but still a small chunk away from .393. Even if he ups his game, getting close to duplicating his 129 wRC+ from last year may be a stretch.
- He’s seen a lot fewer fastballs than in the past and a lot more not-fastballs than before. Pitchers are throwing fastballs just 53.7% of the time to Fowler, and that’s a career low – 2.1% lower than what he saw last season.
And here are a couple reasons why I think he’ll be significantly better than replacement level:
- He’s slashing .223/.316/.429 with help from a .252 BABIP. He’s a career .266/.364/.422 hitter with a .338 BABIP. Lest you think that’s all Coors Effect at work, his away split is .250/.345/.382 (.331 BABIP). Get him substantially closer to that .331, and you’ve got a vast improvement, even if his slugging drops off a bit. If you believe in luck, then Fowler isn’t excelling at creating it right now. That can change, if you believe in that sort of thing.
- He’s slashing .182/.286/.309 against lefties with a .222 BABIP this season, but he’s a career .296/.387/.436 (.356 BABIP) against lefties. Given that lefties account for roughly 30% of his plate appearances, a bump here could move the needle quickly, and it doesn’t take a lot to improve upon a .595 OPS.
- His plate discipline has eroded dramatically. Maybe it’s because he’s seeing fewer fastballs (53.7% compared to 55.8% last year), or maybe it’s because he’s swinging at a career high 26.6% of the pitches he sees outside the zone. Maybe he’s seeing fewer fastballs, because he’s swinging at more non-strikes. You could argue that a causal relationship exists, and it really may not matter what the dynamics of that causal relationship are. He can’t directly control what pitchers throw, but he can improve his discipline and influence what they throw.
- His K-rate of 22.2% lines up just fine with his 22.5% K-rate from a year ago. It’s his walk rate that has changed significantly from 14.3% to 11.8% year over year. That goes back to plate discipline which is something within his sphere of control to improve upon.
Fowler can be a high OBP guy. He can be a lead-off hitter that represents a threat to swipe a base. He can play a passable CF. He’s already the big name free agent signing, so he’s checked one box already. Now the Cardinals just need Dex to check another box. Just one box. Just Dex in a box, because being a big money free agent playing replacement level baseball must be like being on a lonely island.
DISCLAIMER: I really just wanted to use “Dex in a Box” as a post title, so I’m winning at life right now. Thanks for spending 3 minutes reading this while you should’ve been doing whatever it is your boss/spouse/significant other thinks you are doing.