December 10, 2016
Daddy Long Legs Hops From Chicago to St. Louis
Signed OF-S Dexter Fowler to a five-year, $82.5 million contract. [12/9]
It’s always been hard to peg Fowler’s value. He came up with Colorado, where a lot of the public perceptions of him began to take shape, but where it’s hard to properly evaluate a young player. The surface-level offensive numbers usually looked good from the start, and he’s developed into a real offensive weapon, but for a long time there was a creeping question as to how much Coors Field augmented his stats. Certainly, the stats those of us who strive to understand the game through an objective, statistical lens use to assign value to players took the stance that Fowler was little more than an average hitter in a great environment.
Those questions, we can leave behind. Fowler has become one of the league’s best leadoff hitters over the past season-and-a-half. In fact, since the 2015 All-Star break, he’s batted .275/.391/.453 in 872 plate appearances. Formerly the kind of switch-hitter who could rake from the right side but struggled against right-handers, Fowler made a change to his pre-swing setup and trigger movements from the left side last July. Since then, he’s batted .263/.386/.435 left-handed. There’s a lot of swing-and-miss in his game as a left-handed batter now, but it’s not yet a red flag of any kind. It’s worth noting that if you either expand the sample to include the first half of 2015 or shrink it to include just the second half of 2016, the gains shown disappear.
There are reasons for that. Fowler was among the many tall hitters who found the low strike calls that altered the game throughout late 2014 and early 2015 devastating, and his swing (from the left side in particular) badly needed the change he and Cubs hitting coach John Mallee made to get his bat on the plane of the incoming pitch sooner. Then, last June, he missed roughly five weeks with a hamstring strain, and took a while even after returning to reestablish his strike zone and mechanical consistency. That we can explain away his struggles over parts of the last two seasons doesn’t mean that we can safely assume they won’t return, of course.
While the sample I used above is a fairer estimate of Fowler’s ability than either his 2016 line or his 2015 line alone, I don’t mean to suggest that more adjustments might not be in order. Still, his evolution into an excruciatingly patient hitter and tough out is inarguable. When leading off an inning last season, Fowler’s on-base percentage was .439. He has excellent plate discipline and the ability, now, to drive the ball to all fields from both sides of the plate. His career BABIP of .342 is slightly inflated by years with the Rockies, but not by any means a fluke.
Then there’s the defense. That’s the most interesting conversation point with regard to Fowler, to be sure. There’s always been a certain distance between what the eye test says about Fowler and what the numbers say, and there’s truth in each way of looking at things. It’s not at all hard to see why scouts and observers would assume Fowler to be a defensive stud. He’s tall and slender, with a high waist. Vin Scully has, more than once, compared him to Garry Maddox, and physically, there’s something there. The problem is that, when comps like that are drawn, extrapolations follow. You start by observing the long legs, the lightness, the long and smooth strides, and then you start assigning on-field value to that, even when it becomes clear that the tools don’t quite match the skills.
Maddox had excellent defensive instincts, a great first step, and a fine arm. Fowler lacks any of the same standout skills, though his speed does help him make up for it. On the other hand, advanced defensive metrics have generally panned Fowler, rating him so badly in center field as to make many people push for a move to left. In 2015, when he joined the Cubs and played for the first time in a smallish center field (both Coors Field and Minute Maid Park have cavernous ones), FRAA gave Fowler a slightly-above-average rating, but Defensive Runs Saved still showed him costing the team double-digit runs. Last season, the Cubs asked Fowler to play deeper in center field, and voila, DRS pegged him for an above-average rating—but FRAA switched places with it.
The numbers lie. They can’t help but lie, since they’re telling contradictory stories, and since between ballpark effects and interaction factors between teammates, we still just aren’t that good at evaluating outfielders’ defense. The scouting reports--at least the old ones that focused too much on his tools and too little on his skills--also lie. The truth is that Fowler is a good athlete who must use that to make up for bad breaks, bad routes, and a weak arm most of the time. He’s not good at cutting the ball off as it bounds toward the gaps, or coming in hard on singles to fire home with a runner trying to score from second. It isn’t nonchalance, though it sometimes looks like it. It’s just that Fowler doesn’t share the preternatural ability to read a ball’s velocity and trajectory off the bat that some of the truly elite outfielders have.
What the attendant improvement in his DRS rating after a positioning change helps show is that he’s a good enough center fielder to not hurt the team, if he’s consistently put in the right place. If and when he slows down a step or two, that will change, but there’s good news on that front: Heading into his age-31 season, Fowler still runs very well, and that’s not a coincidence. His build is remarkable. He’s naturally lanky, narrow, and moderately strong. The sheer length of his legs might be why he has intermittent injury trouble, but the thinness of them is why he’s not going to slow down as soon as other players might.
More importantly, because the Cardinals have locked up Fowler for long enough to ensure that he’ll slow down before they’re done paying him, he isn’t going to be without value when he does need to move out of center field. His improved power and tremendous approach have made sure of that. Looking at the body type and considering the way it moves, it’s not hard to imagine Fowler being an excellent first baseman in his mid-30s, and unless the strikeout rate keeps climbing, he could bear the offensive burden of that position.
There’s been a lot of talk about Fowler and Ian Desmond betting on themselves last winter and winning that bet this year, but that's not quite accurate. The two players were always worth this much money and were delayed a year in getting their due (having to prove themselves one more time) because of a silly qualifying offer system that punishes players for being too good to achieve unrestricted free agency, but not good enough to force the market to pay them what they’re worth. Fowler is probably worth even more than this, but because his track record as an elite leadoff hitter is relatively short and there are enough questions about his defense to mitigate his market, the Cardinals were able to strike a good deal.
St. Louis' prospective lineup for 2017:
That’s a bit less sexy than the Cubs’ projected lineup, and quite a bit older, and loaded with a fair amount of injury risk, and an inferior defensive group. That said, it’s reasonably close to being as good as Chicago’s, and is on par with the lineups of the Nationals, Pirates, and Dodgers, among other solid NL contenders. Fowler will cost the team about the same amount each season as the Cubs have paid to add Wade Davis, Koji Uehara, and Brian Duensing to their bullpen mix. The Cubs could have spent their money better by re-signing Fowler, and the Cardinals are right back in the thick of the NL Central race because they were wise enough to make a splash.