June 26, 2012
I stare at Dexter Fowler in search of inspiration. Not at the actual man, of course—that would be awkward and inappropriate—but at his statistical record. What do the numbers say about him? Again, not the actual man, but the player. More specifically, the hitter.
The lanky 26-year-old center fielder is playing his fourth more-or-less full big-league season and, despite a recent slump, enjoying unprecedented success at the plate. After being sent down to Triple-A Colorado Springs for brief “refresher courses” in each of the previous two seasons, Fowler seems to have figured out how to avoid repeat visits.
Fowler was hitting .238/.340/.348 at the time of his last demotion on June 4, 2011. Since returning six weeks later, he has hit .282/.378/.506 in 542 plate appearances through June 24, 2012. Coors Field or not, this is nice production out of a center fielder who is under club control and who should be entering his physical prime.
His batting average seldom veers far from .260 (it was .263 in 2012 when I started this article), he has decent on-base skills, and now he has added hitting the ball with authority to his repertoire. The change in power is dramatic, especially given Fowler's consistency in other areas:
Power is an aspect of his game that didn't manifest itself much before this season. In fact, it wasn't an aspect that was expected to exist. As we noted way back in BP2008:
He's an interesting package with very good speed, a willingness to work counts, well-regarded baseball smarts, and a knack for impressing observers, but an utter lack of power limits his upside.
We've made similar observations in subsequent annuals, noting in BP2010 that Fowler's development would depend on his ability to play center field because “he doesn't have power enough for a corner.” And in BP2012, we were perplexed by his inability to make contact despite the absence of power. The latter comment assumed that he needed to put bat on ball more often to be effective. Instead, Fowler has taken the opposite approach and started driving baseballs in a manner few thought him capable of doing.
On May 27, pinch-hitting against the Reds' Mat Latos in Cincinnati, Fowler pounded his sixth home run of the season. It came on a 1-0 slider in the eighth that flew more than slid and traveled 373 feet to right field according to Home Run Tracker. In his 134th plate appearance of 2012, Fowler had tied his single-season career high in homers.
The following day, back home in Denver, he went 7-for-9 in a doubleheader against Houston, including his seventh home run, a leadoff blast against Jordan Lyles in the nightcap. It came on the eighth pitch of the at-bat and helped—along with Fowler's other exploits in that game, most notably a walk-off triple in the 10th—propel Colorado to a 7-6 victory.
At this point, you may be thinking to yourself that—home run in Cincinnati notwithstanding—Fowler must gain some advantage from playing half of his games at Coors Field. After all, most hitters do. In Fowler's case, you would be wrong. He doesn't gain some advantage; he gains ridiculous advantage. Well, this year at least:
These are small samples, but how is that even the same player (and again, Fowler's road OPS jumped 115 points after a weekend barrage at Texas)? More importantly, how is he doing this? It's easy to attribute all of a player's success to his home park, but the flip side is that perhaps he is doing something to maximize his success there. After all, and again minding the small sample, not everyone exploits Coors Field to such a degree. In fact, as recently as last year, Fowler himself didn't do it.
But he has done it in the past. Here are home/road splits for Fowler's entire career:
*Includes cup of coffee in 2008.
*Includes cup of coffee in 2008.
From a production standpoint, he hits like Kevin Youkilis at home and Brian Schneider away from Coors Field. From a skills standpoint, the differences are just as dramatic. Fowler's walk rate at home is identical to that of Manny Ramirez's career rate. On the road, Fowler is more like Eric Hinske or Dan Uggla. Strikeout and home-run rates tell a similar story.
Of particular interest is the deterioration of Fowler's strike-zone judgment on the road—not just in 2012, but throughout his career, although the tendency is even more pronounced this year. At home, Fowler punishes the pitcher if he gets his pitch or lets it go if not. On the road, he flails away to little effect.
Anecdotally speaking, extreme environments seem to do this to some hitters. Former Padres shortstop Khalil Greene is a great example. I once observed that he hit like Andres Galarraga on the road and Andres Thomas at home. Their current third baseman, Chase Headley, has similar problems, owning a career line of .235/.326/.341 at Petco Park vs. .300/.366/.444 away from it.
Back to Fowler, it's interesting to note how Coors Field has played during his time there. Again using only his (mostly) full seasons and remembering that a ballpark's numbers are influenced by those who play there (seems obvious, but it's important to note that not only does Fowler benefit from a Coors effect but also Coors benefits from a Fowler effect), here are the team's splits over that period as compared to Fowler's:
We're using OPS here to simplify presentation, but the point is that Fowler—at least in 2012—is gaining greater advantage from Coors Field than we might reasonably expect. A lot of this is just noise, but it is interesting to see just how well Fowler is exploiting his home field. It comes in handy given that he plays half his games there.
Two other areas in which Fowler has made gains are in his ability to hit right-handed pitchers and in his ability to do damage on fly balls. First his platoon splits:
These are still small samples, and you may notice that his improvement against righties has come at the expense of his performance against lefties. On the bright side, there are more righties than lefties. And for a switch-hitter, who must maintain two different swings, being able to cause damage from the side most often used can be helpful.
Fowler's trajectory splits are fascinating as well. Bearing in mind that there is some subjectivity in the categorization of batted balls, here is a look at his batting average (frequency of success) and OPS (proxy for extent of damage) for each type, with major-league totals included for comparison:
Fowler has always gotten better-than-average production on grounders. Speed will do that for a guy.
Line drives? Sure, everyone gets good results on those. Big deal.
This is interesting. There isn't much fluctuation in results on ground balls and line drives, but the improvement in results on fly balls is huge. Fowler isn't hitting more balls in the air than he used to, he's just doing more with them.
Getting Fowler to hit the ball in the air used to be a good way to get him out. Now it's a good way to get hurt, or it has been over his past 176 plate appearances. Still a small sample, still impressive.
Returning to our earlier question of how Fowler is doing this, it's impossible to tell from the available numbers. The fly-ball data would seem to suggest that either he has gotten stronger or he has better learned how to leverage his existing strength through improved mechanics. Whatever the case—and this would be an interesting topic to explore in greater detail—something has changed.
* * *
I noted at the top that we would focus on Fowler the hitter, but because no man is just a hitter—not in the National League, anyway—we'll touch on other aspects of his game. These are fragmentary in nature and intended to provide additional food for thought rather than great flashes of insight.
One such aspect is his defense. As mentioned earlier, BP2008 identified the importance of Fowler's being able to play center field due to his then-suspect bat. He has remained in center, and although I've not heard anyone suggest he should move to a corner, his FRAA has gone from neutral (-0.9 in 2010, 0.0 in 2011) to awful (-5.8 in 2012).
This means something, but whether “something” is that Fowler's glove work has slipped or that defensive metrics still don't tell us the whole story, I cannot say with anything approaching certainty. The best guess is that both are true to some degree.
The other aspect worth noting is Fowler's baserunning. At points in his career, it has been exceptional:
Is his current downturn a blip or a trend? Well, he ranked 56th in BRR when I started this article, so that's a lot of fluctuation in a week. Check back at the end of the year.
* * *
In summary, a few items stood out to me while examining Fowler's statistical record:
These are not firm conclusions and may not be entirely satisfying. My hope is that they are interesting and useful enough in themselves despite this (I am particularly fascinated by no. 3). My further hope is that additional work may be done in one or more of these areas somewhere down the line. Until then, enjoy watching Fowler do his thing... and see if he keeps doing it.