Evaluating Dexter Fowler has been a tricky proposition since the St. Louis Cardinals signed him following the 2016 season. Fowler was coming off a career year with the Chicago Cubs, a season which ended with him leading off Game 7 of the Cubs’ first World Series win in 108 years with a home run, yet virtually nobody expected Fowler to quite repeat his 2016 level of performance. Fowler was not a premium-level free agent–despite seven more years of inflation at work, he was signed to a smaller annual salary and for fewer years than Matt Holliday–but because the 2016-17 free agent class was fairly thin, Fowler came with the expectations of a top free agent because, technically, he was one.
With 491 plate appearances, Dexter Fowler played a bit less than a full season in 2017, but when Fowler did play, he hit. His wRC+ was down a bit from his career-best 2016, but at 121 (21% above league-average at the plate), it was well above his career mark, and surpassed only by 2014 and 2016 in a career which began in 2008. He did all of this despite his batting average on balls in play (BABIP), a hallmark of good luck, being considerably down–Fowler balanced out this misfortune with an unprecedented power spike, and even relative to increasing home run totals across baseball, his career-high 18 home runs despite a career-low number of plate appearances (aside from his abbreviated MLB stint in 2008) and playing not at hitter havens Coors Field nor Wrigley Field but rather the more neutral Busch Stadium came as more than a bit of a surprise.
Despite his prodigious offense (and solid base running), Fowler entered 2018 with a bit of a chip on his shoulder. A lackluster season in center field, along with the emergence of Tommy Pham, led to Fowler being shifted to right field, a spot from which there are lower defensive expectations but which comes with higher offensive expectations. But in April, things went disastrously at the plate for Dexter Fowler.
Through 24 games of 2018, Dexter Fowler’s results have been nothing short of terrible. With 111 plate appearances under his belt, Fowler’s wRC+ stands at 66, meaning that his results have been 66% of what one would expect from the average Major League hitter. This would be good for a pitcher, even palatable for an excellent fielding shortstop or catcher, but for a corner outfielder (his defensive numbers have him slightly below average to this point, though not to an alarming level), this is a problem.
The general rule of thumb a month into the season is that player numbers are based on small sample sizes and thus not worth being too terribly concerned about. When it comes to his defense (stats which take longer to stabilize anyway) and his base running, this is easy to do because while his statistics are below-average, they are close enough to average to look the other way. But through Sunday, of 173 batters with enough plate appearances to qualify for FanGraphs leaderboards, Fowler ranks tied for 153rd by wRC+. His measure puts him on par with the 2017 seasons of Dansby Swanson (who was below Replacement Level despite playing a far more valuable position in shortstop) and Billy Hamilton (who frequently falls out of favor with his team despite being an elite defensive center fielder, an elite base runner, and playing for a bad baseball team in the Cincinnati Reds).
The quickest semi-advanced statistic to check when a player wildly under-performs expectations, as is the case with Fowler, is to check his BABIP, which currently stands at .191. While it is an oversimplification to say that BABIP is 100% driven by luck, as quality of contact and speed can increase a player’s true talent at batting average on balls in play, a .191 is jarringly poor and not reflective of Fowler’s track record (his 2013-2017 BABIPs, all of which came in enough plate appearances to qualify for league leaderboards–.323, .351, .308, .350, .305). Former Cardinal and current Los Angeles Angels designated hitter Albert Pujols has become one of the truest-talent low-BABIP players in baseball in recent years because he is slower than lines at the DMV (all of my metaphors come from 1990s Comedy Central specials), and even his typical BABIPs settle in around the .250s.
Through April, Fowler’s walk rate is down and his strikeout rate is up, but neither dramatically so. And while his wOBA, a similar statistic to wRC+ in the sense that higher equals better and that it measures the totality of a player’s offensive performance, stands at .264 (the league average this season is .315), his expected weighted on-base average, measured by MLB’s Statcast data, stands at .324. This would put his offensive production somewhere between Denard Span and Trevor Story from last season.
While being sandwiched between Span and Story is certainly an improvement over being in the territory of Swanson and Hamilton, it is hardly ideal for a player expected to be a major contributor to the Cardinals’ lineup. A .324 wOBA, while probably not something which would warrant this post, would be the worst mark for a full season in Dexter Fowler’s career, and it would come at a time when the rise of several of his teammates raise legitimate questions about whether or not Fowler gives the Cardinals their best opportunity to win in just the second year of his five-year contract.
If Fowler performs to his xwOBA expectations for the remainder of the season, his wOBA for the season would be roughly .313. If we assume that Fowler is somewhere between an average and below-average (but not, like, Matt Adams) defensive corner outfielder, this would bump Fowler to above Replacement Level (which he currently is not) but firmly below-average. And in the meantime, Jose Martinez is having a breakthrough 2018 (to the extent that he didn’t break out in 2017), and his .440 xwOBA would make him, and this is not a typo, the single best hitter in Major League Baseball in 2017.
Martinez is presently being hidden at first base–he’s been, to put it generously, shaky at the position, but he has the bat to justify hiding him there. But in the meantime, it means Matt Carpenter goes to third base, where his arm isn’t what it once was (by “once was”, I mean adequate), or, especially since the return of Jedd Gyorko, who has hit the cover off the ball since returning from the Disabled List, second base, where his range is difficult to tolerate. Carpenter has himself had a shaky offensive start to the season, but his xwOBA of .405 suggests that he has been dramatically unlucky so far this season. It may soon look desirable to bolster the team’s infield defense by moving Jose Martinez into a corner outfield spot (he primarily played right field in the minors).
Marcell Ozuna has also struggled at the plate, but he has shown higher offensive upside in his career (not to mention a Gold Glove last season), and he has shown some recent signs of improvement. And while putting Dexter Fowler in a fourth outfielder role with four years remaining on his contract is something the team will certainly try to avoid, he is going to need to hit the ball better in order to be part of the optimal Cardinals lineup.