At this time a week ago, acquiring Dexter Fowler was the most hot button, hot stove debate surrounding the Cardinals. Seems like ages ago as from my anecdotal vantage point the fan base has universally rallied behind this signing. Stipulating that this is indeed correct, there are probably several things at play here.
First, it’s easier to get behind any signing once it becomes final. The Winter Meetings also unveiled a seller’s market and Fowler was more of an obvious choice as they dragged on. Furthermore, he was incredibly likable in his opening presser as he is in his visible social media presence - and whether one was for or against signing Fowler at this time a week ago, that’s nothing to trivialize when talking about a player who’s slated to be with the organization for five years. Lastly, I suspect more people have learned about Fowler’s elite plate discipline from all of the signing breakdowns since this past Friday.
On MLB Now on Friday, Brian Kenny discussed Fowler’s high walk rate aided by his refusal to chase pitches outside of the zone. (It should be noted that before Fowler’s plate discipline began being dissected in the wake of this signing, VEB site manager Craig Edwards noted last month at FanGraphs that these skills should help Fowler’s bat maintain high value even as he’s about to embark on a multi-year deal while on the wrong side of 30.) And on Saturday, Zach Crizer of Beyond the Box Score pointed out that another one of Fowler’s elite skills is staying ahead of the count.
To get any idea of what everyone is talking about know that by percentage no one swung at fewer pitches outside of the zone than Fowler in 2016 and it wasn’t really close. By percentage, only six players in MLB swung at fewer pitches anywhere in the zone than Fowler. And Fowler was one of the best in MLB (top 30) in starting ahead of the count and swings and miss per pitch.
When comparing Fowler’s 2016 plate discipline to the rest of the National League and the Cardinals as a team, this is how his season stacked up (all stats per FanGraphs, find a glossary of the terms used below right here):
Per above, in 2016 the Cardinals as a team saw more pitches outside the zone (Zone%) than league average, they chased more pitches outside the zone (O-Swing%) than league average, and their contact rate on pitches outside the zone (O-contact%) was below league average. Simply put, unlike their new acquisition, as a team they did not exhibit ideal plate discipline.
As you can see, Fowler actually made fewer contact on pitches outside the zone than the Cardinals overall but that’s fine because, as noted, he seldom swung at those pitches. By percentage, Fowler saw fewer pitches in the zone than both the NL average and the Cardinals in 2016, and because of his good eye he started off plate appearances ahead of the count (F-Strike%) at a rate above league average and well ahead of the Cardinals.
To that end, Fowler had a career-high 14.3% walk rate in 2016, which ranked tenth in MLB for qualified batters, and contributed to a .393 on-base percentage, another career-high, and good for 11th in MLB. The NL average walk rate was just 8.3% while the Cardinals were able to draw a free pass 8.5% of the time. Matt Carpenter, another player known for taking good at-bats, tied Fowler with a 14.3% walk rate but after him there wasn’t a single Cardinal with at least 400 plate appearances and a walk rate in double digits.
It’s been well documented that the Cardinals had been searching for an ideal leadoff candidate ever since Carpenter found his power stroke and now they have their guy. Ideally, that would push Carpenter to the two-hole (and I believe Joe Schwarz is going to have more on this later today), creating a nice table-setting tandem to generate runs. We’ll have to wait and see if that’s the team’s approach in 2017, but bottom line is there’s now more than one guy in the lineup who excels at getting on base.
Very few players or contracts are a sure thing and Fowler is no exception. In a few years we might all learn that his 2016 season was an outlier and not the natural progression of a disciplined hitter. His much-speculated about defense falls into the “wait and see” category as well. Regardless, the Cardinals as a team didn’t have the best approach at the plate in 2016 and if the purpose of the offseason is to address team needs then this was a great signing.