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Dexter Fowler’s strong contact quality

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An in-depth look at Dexter’s success on balls in play.

Samurai Japan v MLB All Stars - Game 1
there, now you don’t have to see him in a Cubs uniform.
Photo by Atsushi Tomura/Getty Images

I’m sure I’m not the only one looking forward to seeing Dexter Fowler atop the Cardinals’ lineup. Fowler is currently projected to be among the top 10% of projected starting position players in OBP%, which is the single most important stat to use when considering who should lead off. That doesn’t quite beat Matt Carpenter, but I agree with Joe that with Fowler it’s better to put Carpenter in a more run producing slot, either second or fourth (unfortunately, Mike Matheny is probably more keen on hitting him third).

Most of that is due to Fowler’s strong walk percentage. Thanks to posting the league’s best rate of avoiding swinging at pitches out of the strike zone, Fowler was 10th out 146 qualified players in 2016 at drawing walks. It’s also due, however, to successfully hitting for a high average on balls in play. As I mentioned in my first look at Dexter Fowler, he’s a proven high BABIP (batting average on balls in play) hitter. There’s 291 players with more than 2,000 plate appearances since 2008. Fowler is 14th among them in BABIP, inside the top 5%.

Let’s take a closer look, using the Statcast data hosted at BaseballSavant.com. We took a brief look in my piece linked above. That revealed that Fowler’s batted ball quality, measured by the Launch Angle and Exit Velocity of each Statcast-recorded batted ball, was indeed strong. The interesting part is he succeeded entirely due to hitting the ball at the right angles, with average scores in terms of velocity. Here’s a copy of a chart from my first post on Fowler:

The average BABIP is .300. Of course, it makes sense that the angle the ball comes off the bat has a strong affect on the chances of a hit. Here’s each Exit Angle graded by average BABIP:

The peak there is 12 degrees, and from about 4 to 22 degrees are the best angles. Let’s also take a look at velocity by angle:

That dip in the middle you see is the affect from the donut hole. Those are fly balls at medium velocities, at angles in-between Texas Leaguers and balls that end up behind the outfielders. With that exception, in general, hitting the ball harder means a better chance at a hit. For a full heatmap of each combination of angle and velocity, check here. It’s rather large - and some say it’s NSFW - so I won’t post it here.

Now that you have a little backstory on what angles and velocity are ideal for hits, let’s check out Fowler’s contact quality, using some neat graphics from BaseballSavant.com:

First off, how concentrated Dexter’s batted balls are around optimal angles is a strong indication of being able to square the ball up regularly. He pops out a little less than average, but more importantly, he avoids low-angled grounders much better than average. If you haven’t looked at a ton of these, you probably need some context. So here’s some:

Here’s a bunch of groups of angles, along with their average Statcast-recorded BABIP. Then we have how often the league on average hits a ball into each group, as well as Fowler. Then a percentage difference between the two. Fowler is fantastic at avoiding hitting balls below -5 degrees, which overall have very little chance of being a hit. That’s the single biggest reason for his strong BABIP skills. He missed the 5 to 10 range pretty badly, which is the second best bucket shown here, but he makes it up strongly from there.

Here’s where things get interesting again. Fowler hits a lot of balls in the 15 to 20 and 20 to 25 range. That’s good not just for the BABIP, but for extra bases. Next up, a graph showing extra base hits per ball in play (so, doubles and triples, as a percentage of balls in play):

Doubles power peaks at 19 degrees, right in the middle of those two ranges. He wasn’t exactly a doubles machine with 25 in 2016, but maybe that’s something to look for in 2017. He also hits a ton of balls between 25 and 30 degrees, which aren’t great for hits, but are great for hitting home runs:

Home run power peaks at 27 and 28 degrees, and Fowler hit 80% more of his batted balls than average in-between 25 and 30 degrees. The bad side of that, however, is that he didn’t hit it hard enough to get it over the fence very often. Here’s home run production by velocity:

As you can see, velocity has to meet a certain threshold to get out of the park. The large majority of home runs happen between 18 and 42 degrees. In the Statcast Era, 40% of batted balls in-between those angles are hit under 90 mph, and thus are only homers in the very oddest circumstances. In 2016, Fowler was at 46%. For a guy with Fowler’s speed and middling Exit Velocity numbers, I’d like to see him shift the angle on his batted balls a little lower. Still, overall his contact is strong.

Of course, there’s also Dexter’s speed, which hasn’t been considered here. He’s a burner, as evidenced by his 6th place finish in Fangraphs’ Ultimate Base Running (BSR) stat this past year. That speed gives him an above-average ability to leg out infield hits.

It bears pointing out that Fowler doesn’t need strong contact to be a successful hitter. As mentioned in my first piece on Fowler, he ran a .292 non-contact wOBA (a version of wOBA I made that only includes unintentional walks, strikeouts, and hit by pitches) last year. That made him not only well above the league average of .200, he was 26th among the 210 players with more than 400 plate appearances.

If you’re worried about Fowler continuing his success on balls in play, have no fear. The underlying metrics love his ability to put the ball at angles great for hits. If those stats don’t sway you, he has a long track record of great results to back it up. Add on the speed, the high walk rate, and ability to play center, and count me among those who can’t wait to watch Fowler wearing the Birds on the Bat in 2017 and beyond.