In the sixth inning of yesterday’s game between the St. Louis Cardinals and the Miami Marlins, second baseman Starlin Castro hit a relatively lazy, certainly gettable fly ball to right field. Cardinals right fielder Dexter Fowler got to the ball on time and, well, he did this.
For those unable to watch the GIF, Fowler dropped it. It was a clumsy misplay by a player whose defensive regression since signing with St. Louis before the 2017 season has been a source of great frustration among fans. A typical Major League right fielder should make that play every time, particularly one who was signed to play the more strenuous defensive position of center field less than a year and a half ago.
Not long after Fowler’s miscue, Mark Saxon, a senior MLB writer for The Athletic who covers the Cardinals, described the error as such:
The second sentence of the tweet, particularly the use of the word “swag”, drew quite a bit of attention. Notably, Dexter Fowler’s wife Aliya raised questions about the tweet.
In an online climate in which we are conditioned to immediately jump to the defensive, Saxon instead engaged in a genuine conversation about his choice of words. He noted that Dexter himself had used the word “swag” to describe himself in the past and that the word was not intended to be used in a derogatory way, but Saxon expressed an understanding of why Aliya Fowler objected to his tweet and apologized. Aliya appears to have accepted it and both parties moved on with their days.
Dexter Fowler has been roundly criticized throughout 2018 for his disappointing performance. By FanGraphs Wins Above Replacement, he has been one of the ten worst players in all of baseball. He has been only 66% as good as the average MLB player at the plate–for any position player, this is bad, but for a right fielder as opposed to, say, a slick-fielding shortstop or catcher, it is entirely unacceptable. Defensively, he is exhibiting even less range relative to the average MLB right fielder than he did last year relative to the average MLB center fielder.
I have criticized Fowler’s performance repeatedly. Less than a month ago, I advocated for Fowler to lose his role as a full-time starter so that Harrison Bader can start more. Earlier in May, I argued that it was reasonable for Cardinals fans to panic about Fowler’s poor April. For good measure, in October 2016, at Viva El Birdos, I wrote a post called “The Cardinals should not sign Dexter Fowler“.
Despite my constant skepticism about Dexter Fowler, however, I am also an unabashed Dexter Fowler fan. He is the only active Cardinal whose shirsey I own, and even in the midst of the worst stretch of his professional baseball career, I’ve worn his shirt to Busch Stadium as recently as three days ago. I don’t consider my love of Dexter Fowler the person to be inconsistent with my feelings about him as a player. I watch Fowler’s misplay yesterday and I see a player who is trying as hard as I could reasonably expect a player to try. I just think he’s kind of bad at it.
There is a difference between criticizing a player’s lack of ability and a player’s lack of effort. The former is a common criticism of players, and it can be substantiated with numbers. I can look at Fowler’s numbers and say that they are down–I can even look at his underlying stats, the ones that suggest he’s been unlucky in 2018, and still note that if he performed up to what his batted ball data suggested he should, he is still declining at a disappointing rate. The latter is a referendum on a player’s soul, of the competitive fire that fans can rightfully demand of players.
When Saxon equtaes nonchalance with “swag”, a term used almost exclusively to describe players of color, it is difficult to not wonder how much the fact that Fowler is black affects how he is perceived. Effort exerted is a subjective matter, but I know I’m not seeing anything in the video of his error yesterday that cannot more easily be explained by “he’s clumsy and awkward in the field”. Sure, it’s possible that Fowler isn’t trying as hard as he could be, just as it’s possible Jedd Gyorko isn’t trying as hard in the field as he could. But that these accusations are reserved for one of two African-American players on the roster (if anyone accuses Tommy Pham, who gives a borderline psychotic level of effort at times, of laziness, I will be much angrier writing that post) is more than a bit alarming. It’s worth noting that Fowler has commented that the sociopolitical climate of St. Louis was a consideration when he was a free agent and that, fairly or not, there is a perception that St. Louis is an uncomfortable place for black players.
I think that criticism of Fowler’s effort, a criticism I think is wholly unfounded regardless of its etymology, has some racial undertones to it, but I don’t think it’s the main reason for it. I think the primary reason for it is sinister in a different way: Dexter Fowler makes $16.5 million per year. As much as baseball fans like to complain about how their team doesn’t spend enough money on free agents, we also like to direct our frustrations at the players who earn big money in free agency and fail to live up to expectations (which is to say most of them).
Despite Fowler living up to the expectations of his contract in 2017 (FanGraphs estimates his value at $20.2 million), the second year of the five-year contract has been a considerable step back and now that Fowler is on the wrong side of 30, it is looking increasingly unlikely that Fowler will be worth the money. White players are also very much subject to this criticism–Mike Leake surpassed the expectations of his contract while in St. Louis, but he was hardly a beloved figure because no matter how true it is, “the fair market value of an average pitcher is $16 million” seems crazy. Matt Holliday was, by FanGraphs’s measure, worth 141% the cost of his $120 million contract signed in free agency, and even he was not immune to criticism.
There was always an inevitability to Dexter Fowler backlash–he was basically an average player who was paid in free agency like basically an average player (he was coming off a career-best year, but the average annual value of his contract is less than half of the value he provided for the World Series-winning Chicago Cubs in 2016). This doesn’t make criticism of the signing invalid–the “it’s not my money” fallacy assumes that the alternative to signing Fowler was ownership banking the money rather than spending it on players more necessary that adding to the team’s surplus of average-to-above-average outfielders.
Turning discussion of Dexter Fowler into an indictment of his character rather than emphasizing the disappointing nature of his numbers is counterproductive–it is a sure-fire way to turn off Politically Correct Social Justice Warriors (TM) such as myself. Meanwhile, a purely statistical case against Dexter Fowler is extraordinarily easy to make. Ultimately, viewing Dexter Fowler’s struggles as a moral failing is at worst offensive, but at best unsatisfying as a sports discussion.