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February 15, 2013
Mock Hearing: Dexter Fowler
It's salary arbitration season in Major League Baseball, and here at Baseball Prospectus we're holding mock hearings, arguing for or against the actual team/player filing figures before a three-person panel of certified arbitrators. We've selected 10 of this winter's most intriguing, highest-dollar cases to cover in depth over the first two weeks of February (regardless of whether the players' real-life cases remain unsettled). After each side's opening argument and rebuttal/summation below, we'll give you a chance to vote on what you think the result should be before seeing the panel's decision. For more on the arbitration process, read the series intro by Atlanta Braves Assistant GM John Coppolella, listen to his appearance on Episode 35 of Up and In, or check out the BP Basics introduction to arbitration.
In Part Nine of this 10-part series, we'll tackle Colorado Rockies outfielder Dexter Fowler, who sought $5.15 million and was offered $4.25 million. Unbeknownst to our arbitrators, Fowler and the Rockies reached an agreement on a two-year, $11.6 million contract, avoiding arbitration.
The complete procedure for salary arbitration is available in the Basic Agreement.
Rockies center fielder Dexter Fowler had a great 2012 season by the standards of any service class. For a player with just over three years of major-league service time, however, his season was exceptional, and worthy of the $5.15 million he is seeking over the $4.25 million the Rockies are offering. His 2012 platform season produced career-high marks in a number of categories. He played in 143 games and batted .300 with a .389 on-base percentage and a .474 slugging percentage. His hitting against both left and right-handed pitchers was the best of his career, as he batted .315 (45-for-143) vs. LHP and .293 (91-for-311) vs. RHP in 2012.
Fowler’s Career Stats
Relative to the league, Fowler’s numbers were impressive.
Against peers from his service class and position, Fowler ranks high. Indeed, he matches up well with one of the game’s best hitters.
Josh Hamilton settled with the Texas Rangers in advance of filing for arbitration, so it is unknown what the exact midpoint between the player asking and club offering figures would have been. For comparison, the midpoint between what Fowler is seeking and what the Rockies are offering is used here, as Hamilton’s salary for 2010 would have been negotiated around the midpoint. While a difference of $1.45 million might seem large, when accounting for inflation, Hamilton’s salary would be closer to $3.4 million, or a difference of only $1.3 million. Fowler’s platform-year batting average was 32 points higher. He also has more RBIs, home runs, and stolen bases than Hamilton did.
Compared to his peers in this year’s salary arbitration class for center fielders with between three and four years of service time, Fowler does exceptionally well:
Fowler has the highest batting average and the most RBI, ranks second in hits, and smashes the field in triples.
Fowler continues to mature as a major-league player and has become one of the game’s best center fielders. Therefore, based on the numbers, Fowler warrants the salary he is seeking. —Maury Brown
Dexter Fowler is a fine player who has helped the Colorado Rockies win games by leading off in the lineup and playing center field. He is not, however, a star-level player who has single-handedly altered the fortunes of the Rockies through his play, yet his salary request values him that way. The Rockies feel he is a good player who deserves a raise, and they have offered him an additional $1.9 million for the 2013 season, an 80 percent raise on his salary last season. His request for $5.15 million, a 219 percent raise, is excessive.
There are three reasons the Club feels as it does.
1. The effect of Coors Field has made the Player appear better than he really is.
Closer inspection of Fowler’s 2012 season shows that much of his production can be attributed to advantages provided to him by his home ballpark. The Rockies play their games at Coors Field, a stadium located a mile above sea level. The thin air at that altitude allows the ball to travel much farther and faster than in any other ballpark. This provides a sizeable boost to hitters and made Coors Field the most extreme hitter-friendly park last season by a wide margin.
Fowler took advantage of that home field assistance by hitting many more home runs and recording many more RBIs at Coors Field than he did in a similar amount of at-bats away from Coors.
Even with the all the help from Coors, Fowler’s stats still don’t compare favorably with those of his fellow center fielders. To his credit, Fowler came in tied for third in batting average and second in triples among qualified center fielders, but he was 17th in hits, 16th in RBIs, 20th in doubles, and 18th in stolen bases. Those numbers show he was not an exceptional player, and certainly not one deserving of a 219 percent raise.
2. Fowler’s defense in center field leaves much to be desired.
According to UZR, a statistic that measures fielders against their peers while adjusting for the difficulty of their opportunities, Fowler cost the Rockies 13.9 runs through subpar defense last season. (Baseball Prospectus’ fielding statistic, Fielding Runs Above Average, put the total at 10.7 runs.) That was the second-worst UZR of all center fielders in baseball. This is consistent with his career, in which he has cost the Rockies almost 40 runs (39.1) over the last four seasons. Further, Fowler ranked 15th in assists (throwing runners out) but had the second-most errors of any center fielder in baseball. The award voters agreed unanimously that Fowler’s fielding left something to be desired, as he did not receive any votes for the Gold Glove award.
3. Injuries make Fowler’s future unpredictable.
Fowler missed time due to injury on nine separate occasions last season. This is not a one-year issue, either. In his career, Fowler has never reached 500 at-bats in a season. This makes the Club less able to count on him for the future and reduces his value.
The player is requesting $5.15 million, yet no center fielder in the last six years with Dexter Fowler’s service time has made more than $4 million, and only one has made exactly $4 million.
The one who made $4 million was Matt Kemp, who hit twice as many home runs, stole almost three times as many bases, and got almost twice as many RBIs. Last year, Colby Rasmus, a center fielder coming off a much better season than Fowler’s 2012, received a salary below the midpoint of Fowler’s asking price and the Club’s offer.
While Fowler has boasted better numbers at Coors Field, the ballpark has been less of a boon to offense since the start of the 2002 season than it was prior to that point. Why? The addition of a climate-controlled chamber—a humidor—for baseballs used at Coors in 2002 has altered how the ball travels in the Mile High City.
This unique change to address the dryness of the ball has acted to “level” the playing field at Coors Field and renders the Club’s argument about Fowler’s performance at home less persuasive.
Beyond the statistical prowess demonstrated in our opening presentation, we offer these additional points:
The Club’s attempt to undervalue Fowler’s stats due to Coors Field altitude does not take into account changes that were made more than a decade ago with the advent of the humidor. As the statistics clearly show, Fowler is the class of NL center fielders and ahead of his peers by service time. Dexter Fowler is deserving of the salary he is seeking. —Maury Brown
To make the case that his accomplishments last season were not significantly aided by his home ballpark, the Player cited the decrease in scoring at Coors Field since the installation of the humidor. However, the correct comparison is not between recent scoring and prior scoring at Coors, but scoring at Coors and scoring in the National League as a whole. The following table shows how scoring at Coors compared to National League scoring (including Coors) from 2001-2012 and in 2012 alone.
Despite some decrease in scoring at Coors in the post-humidor era, offense remains elevated there relative to the rest of the league. The Player’s argument that Coors is not providing a massive boost to run scoring, and thus all of Fowler’s offensive statistics, is simply incorrect.
The Player also cites Josh Hamilton as a comparable without mentioning that Hamilton’s platform year was an anomalous, injury-plagued season for the former MVP outfielder. Hamilton’s stats through that season dwarf Fowler’s through 2012.
In addition, while the Player mentions the career highs Fowler set last season, it overlooks the fact that his increased home run total came at the cost of his lowest full-season doubles total:
As well as the fact that Fowler’s increased power also evaporated after the All-Star break last season:
In conclusion, Dexter Fowler is a fine player, but one whose statistics benefit significantly from his home ballpark. Further, his salary request amounts to over a 200 percent raise, an unprecedented request for a player in his position. The Club feels that its offer of a significant raise is both generous and well within the bounds of precedent for a player of Fowler’s accomplishments. —Matthew Kory
Before scrolling down to read the three-person panel’s decision, record your own decision here:
Burt Fendelman is an attorney with more than 45 years of experience, initially in corporate finance and securities laws working as inside counsel for several major securities brokerage firms. He has performed as an arbitrator for FINRA (Financial Industry Regulatory Authority), the American Arbitration Association, and currently as an arbitrator and mediator for the New York County Lawyers Association in fee dispute-related matters. He is presently a self-described “work in progress”, working with clients in areas related to art and antiques. He attended Washington University in St. Louis and NYU Graduate School of Tax Law, and he now lives in Manhattan.
Doris Lindbergh is a retired lawyer who is an arbitrator with FINRA (Financial Industry Regulatory Authority) and its predecessor forums, the National Association of Securities Dealers (NASD) and the New York Stock Exchange. She also arbitrates for the National Futures Association (NFA). She attended Washington University School of Law and has a Master of Arts from Fordham University. Her employment history includes stints at Wall Street investment banks and, most recently, the MTA New York City Transit Authority, but her most challenging assignment was raising a future Editor-in-Chief of Baseball Prospectus.
David Marcus is a retired lawyer and serves as an arbitrator with the Financial Advisory Regulatory Authority (FINRA). He lives in Metuchen, New Jersey. He attended Columbia College and Yale Law School, after which he served as an enforcement attorney with the SEC. His subsequent career includes working for the New York Stock Exchange heading its regulatory division, and working for several broker-dealers as a regulatory attorney or General Counsel.
3-0 in favor of the Club
This case came down to quantifying the Coors effect. Were Fowler’s stats inflated by his ballpark? If so, what was the rate of inflation? And how much does his salary deserve to be docked?
There are (at least) three important things to remember when considering the impact of a park on a player’s performance:
1. Park effects don’t apply equally to all players.
Take a look at this list of home and away splits for every player who made at least 1,000 plate appearances for the Rockies during the Humidor Era of 2002-2012. (As Maury and Matt pointed out, scoring has been a little less crazy (but still kinda crazy) at Coors since the humidor was installed.) “Raw” TAv is TAv without the park adjustments—in other words, it’s what a player’s TAv would have been had he done what he did in a neutral park.
All of these players made at least 500 plate appearances at home and at least 500 on the road while wearing a Rockies uniform, but their Home Raw TAv:Road Raw TAv ratios ranged from barely break even (Brad Hawpe) to over 130 percent higher at home (Carlos Gonzalez). The average ratio among these hitters, weighted by plate appearances, is 1.18. Fowler’s ratio is 1.24, which means he’s hit a bit better at home, relative to his road performance, than the typical long-tenured Rockie.
2. The ability to take advantage of a particular park is a meaningful skill.
The answer probably differs depending on the day. Whether he’s uniquely able to handle the high altitude or has an approach at the plate that’s especially well-tailored to Coors, Gonzalez has hit not only much better at home relative to the road, but much better than the typical Rockie hits at home relative to the road.
Plenty of interested parties, from BP authors to Chipper Jones, have cited Gonzalez’ splits as evidence that he’s not as good as his overall stats would suggest. And there’s certainly some truth to that. But the ability to exploit a ballpark better than most batters is worth wins and dollars to the team that plays there. Not every league-average hitter at sea level can mash like CarGo has at Coors.
Granted, Gonzalez’ true-talent splits probably aren’t as huge as his observed ones—we’re talking about roughly the equivalent of two seasons at home and two on the road, so we still have to regress to get an estimate of how high his ratio really is—but they’re probably bigger than the average batter’s, and that’s worth something to the Rockies. Being a beast in one park isn’t necessarily the most useful talent to have—ideally, you’d want a skill set that plays well anywhere, if only to make yourself attractive to every team and increase the demand for your services.
(It’s worth pointing out that Gonzalez wouldn’t necessarily hit just like he has on the road if he were traded to a new team. It could be that playing at altitude half the time affects his approach in such a way that he struggles away from Denver more than he would otherwise. Matt Holliday has the second-highest ratio on that list, with a raw road TAv nearly identical to CarGo’s (.272) in almost a thousand more plate appearances as a Rockie. But Holliday hasn’t struggled since leaving Colorado: his .317 TAv in over 2,500 PA since his trade to the A’s easily tops that .272 figure.)
There’s some reason to think that Fowler is similarly configured to make the most of Coors. As a switch-hitter, Fowler usually hits from the left side, and Coors is especially well suited for magnifying southpaw power; 20 of Fowler’s 28 homers have been hit at home. Some research by Rany Jazayerli and Nate Silver (warning: old articles) suggests that playing in Colorado disproportionately benefits high-strikeout hitters, who record fewer Ks at Coors; Fowler has struck out in 25.3 percent of his road plate appearances and only 19.9 percent at home (roughly the same split enjoyed by Andres Galarraga, who also got a big boost in Denver).
3. When we’re trying to determine what a player’s past value was to a team, we don’t need to know whether the park he played in affected his stats more than the average player’s.
When we’re looking backwards, though, we don’t need to get that granular. Here I’ll quote from Colin Wyers:
One last note: Pierre is often cited as an example of a player who wasn’t helped by Coors, but Pierre’s Home Raw TAv:Road Raw TAv ratio as a Rockie was 1.13 (.273 to .240). He might not have been helped by the ballpark as much as most Rockies hitters, but he did see a boost in his stats. The Rockie who was truly beyond the help of a ballpark was the man Fowler succeeded in center field: Willie Taveras. Taveras is the only Rockie to hit worse at Coors than he did on the road in any sizeable sample. He just missed qualifying for the 1000-PA club in my table, but in 946 combined PA as a Rockie, he had a .239 Raw TAv at home and a .246 Raw TAv on the road. The moral of this story: Willie Taveras could make outs anywhere. —Ben Lindbergh
Maury Brown is an author of Baseball Prospectus.