The St. Louis Cardinals didn’t sign Dexter Fowler to be a superstar. While a visceral reaction to a $16.5 million annual salary for half a decade sounds like a lot of money, this bill is commensurate with an average to slightly above average player. And in 2017, his first season with the Cardinals, Fowler fit that description. Offensively, he actually surpassed most preseason projections (though he fell short of his career-best marks he had set the season before with the Chicago Cubs, which led to him instantly being declared a bust by some factions). His first season in St. Louis squarely fit in the category of “Fine” (and as it was the first year of a multi-year contract given to a 30 year-old, it is expected that the first couple years pay off, because it is far less likely that the back end of the contract will work out nearly as well).
2018 was an unqualified disaster for Fowler. His 2017 defense had been poor in center field, so he was moved to right field, where his defense didn’t improve even with less rigorous demands and his offense fell off a cliff. By FanGraphs Wins Above Replacement, he was one of the ten least valuable position players in all of baseball last season, and was within spitting distance of the non-Chris Davis division of players.
Fowler was bad in 2018 by any measure, but a closer examination of his numbers revealed a player who was…still quite bad, but not actually one of the worst dozen or so players in baseball. His batting average on balls in play, a metric which usually reflects a player’s luck, was .210, while the league average was .296. Fowler, even in his thirties, is still a fairly fast runner and has had typically high BABIPs throughout his career–.210 was clearly an abberation.
While there were persistent trade rumors surrounding Dexter Fowler, I was relieved that the Cardinals didn’t opt to trade him not because I thought Dexter Fowler was good in 2018 or even that I thought he would be in 2019, but I assumed he would be better. The Cardinals have made it a habit lately to trade position players at their lowest point of value and it inevitably backfires, and if they were going to be forced to eat most of the contract and not get anything of value back, I’d rather hold on to Fowler and hope he is better.
And so far in 2019, Dexter Fowler has been better. On the whole, his season statistics are by no means fantastic, but they are a considerable improvement from 2018. In 2018, his wRC+ stood at 62–the shorthand version of this is that Fowler was 62% as good as the average MLB hitter, which is particularly bad for a corner outfielder with no particular defensive value. So far in 2019, his wRC+ stands at 103, which puts him at slightly above league average. And this is despite a rough start to his season which made it look as though Fowler was going to continue his nightmarish 2018–his numbers have taken off in the last week-plus. Additionally, with Harrison Bader and Tyler O’Neill each currently on the Injured List, Fowler is getting more time in center field. He still isn’t great at it, and occasionally he assists in Noah Syndergaard home runs, but the mere fact that he is able to play there is increasing the value he can provide for a team.
But let’s focus for now on the full season statistics, as I think most people believe they more accurately reflect who Dexter Fowler actually is at this point. So far, he is doing some things well–he is walking at a rate more in line with his career numbers, after a slight dip in 2018. But on the negative side, nothing stands out quite like Dexter Fowler’s power, or lack thereof. In 72 plate appearances, Fowler has a grand total of five extra bases–not extra base hits, extra bases. He has five doubles and zero triples or home runs. Fowler is by no means a power hitter, but his isolated power currently stands at .081, easily worse than his 2018 mark of .118, which was the lowest of his career.
But by far the biggest difference between Fowler’s 2018 and 2019 statistical profiles at the plate is his BABIP. Last year, his BABIP was an unsustainably low .210, but this year, it is an unsustainably high .386. .386 is closer to his career mark, but this is still a bit much.
At the same time, merely looking at Fowler’s BABIP and dismissing his results as pure luck is an oversimplification. There is, after all, a reason beyond luck that Mike Trout, fast player, has a .353 BABIP for his career while Yadier Molina, slow player, has a .296 BABIP. The results are somewhat mixed.
Through April 20, of the 303 players with at least 20 batting events per MLB.com’s Statcast data, Dexter Fowler ranks just 276th in percentage of hits which go 95 miles per hour or faster. Just 23.8% of his batted balls have gone that fast–by contrast, three players (Aaron Judge, Anthony Rendon, Joey Gallo) had these hard-hit balls two-thirds of the time. His peak exit velocity of 111.1 MPH is firmly in the top 100 of baseball, but his average exit velocity ranks 279th.
But per FanGraphs data, Fowler’s line-drive rate is way up and his fly ball rate (which correlates with home runs, but also correlates with easy outs) is way down. Dexter Fowler isn’t hitting for power, but his batting style also lends itself to naturally high BABIPs. His current rate is probably a mirage, but that it increased isn’t terribly surprising.
Declaring Dexter Fowler “back” is a bit premature. The main lesson to be learned from his season so far has less to do with him individually and more to do with baseball statistics generally. Regress his current high BABIP and he looks like a below-average but not disastrous hitter. Bump up his 2018 low BABIP and he looks, well, like a below-average but not disastrous hitter. That Fowler hasn’t taken advantage of his good fortune should be worrying for anyone expecting him to be as good as he was in 2017, much less 2016, though that his results are improving reflects that he isn’t simply snakebit. It shows that while Fowler probably shouldn’t be an everyday starter in an ideal world, he is capable of being a part of the outfield rotation and being a regular starter in the case of injuries.