It would be an understatement to suggest that Dexter Fowler had a difficult 2018 season. By Fangraphs’ version of WAR (fWAR), it was the fourth worst Cardinal season with a minimum of 300 plate appearances since integration in 1947. It has been a stunning collapse for Fowler from his 2016 All-Star heights. After signing his five year deal with the Cardinals, he started slowly in April of 2017. He warmed up a bit in May, exploded in June, and stayed hot for the remainder of the season. From June 1 through the end of 2017, Fowler had racked up a .289/.395/.526 line, good for a 139 wRC+. For the season, his 2.5 fWAR had been solid and his 121 wRC+ was just a hair below the 129 he had posted in his All-Star season the year before. For his follow-up in 2018, all hell broke loose.
He pulled an 0-for-13 in the opening weekend in New York, and ended April with a 62 wRC+. As his season further spiraled out of control at the plate, he lost playing time and communication troubles arose with former manager Mike Matheny. Entering the All-Star break, Mike Shildt replaced Matheny and it seemed like a fresh start for Fowler.
Coming out of the break, he received regular playing time, earning 15 starts in right field in the first 17 games. He wasn’t great in that stretch, but he did enjoy a slight rebound. His BB% went up four percent, his isolated slugging (ISO) increased from .111 before the stretch to .148 during, and he had an 85 wRC+ compared to just 56 beforehand. He stabilized a little bit.
On August 3rd, he broke his foot mid-game in Pittsburgh. Amazingly, he continued to play on it briefly, but the damage was done. His lost season was mercifully finished. Now, he enters an uncertain off-season. The Cardinals have a difficult choice to make with Fowler. They might try to pay someone either in cash or prospects to take his contract. It’s not likely, but they could theoretically outright release him. It’s possible they’ll try to carve out either a full-time or platoon role for him with a healthy safety net featuring some combination of Tyler O’Neill, Jose Martinez, or a low-risk free agent. It’s that last option I want to discuss today.
If the idea is to bring Dexter back and see if he can rebound, it’d be a good idea to know the odds for success. We can start to answer that question by looking back through history. I’ve collected every individual hitter season since integration in hopes of finding some comps. Here are my parameters:
- A two-year decline of 5.0 fWAR or more. Fowler has shed 5.8 fWAR since leaving Chicago, falling from 4.6 in 2016 to -1.2 in 2018.
- 200 plate appearances or more. I don’t want this list to be tainted by players who lost massive chunks of their season to injury.
- Between the ages of 31 and 33. Rebounding at 28 is not the same as rebounding over 30. Next year, Fowler will be 33.
- A decline leaving the player with a negative fWAR. Falling from, say, a 9-win MVP season down to 4 wins is not the same as collapsing to below replacement level.
There are 29 players who meet our criteria since 1947. Two of them, Fowler and Crush Davis, just completed their collapse seasons. Six more of them either left the game altogether or failed to reach the 200 plate appearance minimum the next season. That leaves us with 21 opportunities to see how similarly aged players have rebounded in the season following their collapse.
Before going further, here is the complete list of players with comparable collapses.
Collapse Seasons Similar to Dexter Fowler
It’s hard not to notice that this phenomenon is increasing in frequency. I’ll address this some more later.
Here’s the average fWAR trajectory for these players.
That’s encouraging. These players rarely return to their peaks, but they gain 2.29 wins on average from their collapse seasons. Granted, they’re starting below replacement level, so gaining 2.29 wins has a limited impact. It adds up to an average fWAR of 1.51 in the first year after the collapse.
There’s one caveat. Looking at fWAR takes defense and baserunning into account. Since we’re looking at players in the 31 to 33 range, there’s naturally going to be some attrition in baserunning and defense, regardless of whether or not a player has collapsed. If we focus purely on offensive performance using wRC+, here’s a simple table to show how that trajectory looks:
wRC+ Trajectory for Fowler Comps
The Collapse +1 category is our rebound. There’s still a large drop from their peak, but their offensive productivity is almost exactly the same as the season sandwiched between their peak and their collapse. For Dexter Fowler, that’s a good sign. He put up a 121 wRC+ in 2017, just before the collapse. It also means that age will continue to leech value away from him via diminished baserunning and defense, though it’s very possible we’ve already seen Fowler’s defensive floor.
Of course, we also have to account for attrition. Six of the 27 players in our sample (excluding Fowler and Davis) never registered 200 or more plate appearances in a season again. Two out of nine collapses were effectively finished as regulars before their rebound season began. If we push it out to two years after the collapse, it drops even further, as just 15 of our 27 were still receiving regular playing time. And three years out, which would be the final season of Fowler’s contract, it’s down to 11 of the original 27 who were still receiving 200 plate appearances or more.
Collapses by Era
As I mentioned earlier, these type of extreme collapses are becoming more frequent. It only happened eight times from 1947 to 1983. It’s happened eight times just in the last decade. It’s hard not to wonder if the effectiveness of the rebound is different by era, particularly since the best rebound belongs to Richie Ashburn in 1960. Let’s split our rebounders up in to three groups. Group 1 will be 1947 through 1995, a group of six players. Group 2 features eight players and will will carry us from Bernard Gilkey and Steve Finley in 1999 through Richie Sexson in 2008. And finally, group 3 will be the last decade, which includes seven players.
Group 1 (1947-1995): 2.70 average fWAR, average wRC+ 10.3% better than pre-collapse season
Group 2 (1996-2008): 1.16 average fWAR, average wRC+ 2.7% better than pre-collapse season
Group 3 (2009-present): 0.90 average fWAR, average wRC+ 12.24% worse than pre-collapse season
That’s less encouraging. Averages aren’t ideal when we’re talking about such small samples, so maybe we’re better off looking purely at success rates. Every player in group 1 increased their fWAR by at least 2 wins in their rebound season. Two of the eight players in group 2 met that criteria, as did two of the seven in group 3. There’s been a change in rebound rates, but it appears to have happened before 1996.
Who are some role models for Dexter Fowler entering 2019? Given the headline, I’m sure you can guess one of them. Here are four players since 1998 who have rebounded by 2 wins or more.
Steve Finley, 1999, gain of 4.8 fWAR. This is the ideal rebound scenario, as Finley was worth 17.9 fWAR over the next nine seasons. He played until he was 42 and had four more 3+ win seasons left in the tank. Ideal though it may be, this does not seem especially likely for Fowler.
Carl Everett, 2003, gain of 4.0 fWAR. Jurassic Carl was a switch-hitting former centerfielder shifting to rightfield. He had a questionable glove, and his collapse season had happened after moving on from his employer during his peak. That could just as easily be Dexter Fowler, and that’s why I opted to include Everett in the headline. However, even in his collapse season, Everett was a league average hitter. His collapse was almost exclusively the result of degradation in his soft skills- baserunning and defense. That’s where Fowler and Everett split.
Alfonso Soriano, 2010, gain of 2.8 fWAR. For Soriano, much of his collapse was tied to knee troubles. It truncated his season. After surgery, he returned with a higher batting average on balls in play and scored better in the defensive metrics. He also hit for more pop, and the whole package translated to a very solid bounceback season.
Hanley Ramirez, 2016, gain of 4.2 fWAR. Some of the gains for Hanley Ramirez happened simply because the Red Sox shifted him from the outfield in to first base, minimizing the damage his glove did to his overall value. Like Soriano, Ramirez was hampered by an injury- a shoulder injury in this case- for the bulk of his collapse season. Healthy again in 2016, his fWAR skyrocketed more than four wins over his lost season.
If you’re looking for positive signs, there are a few. Of our 21 rebounders, 15 recovered 90% or more of their pre-collapse wRC+. For Fowler, 90% of his pre-collapse wRC+ would mean a wRC+ of 109. If you want to subtract some value from his soft skills, it’s a player between 1.5 and 2 fWAR. If he were to pull that off, it’s a 2 to 3-win swing from what he provided last season.
There’s also hope in the fact that of the four biggest rebounders in recent history, two were once or former centerfielders. Two experienced their collapses while trying out new positions, and two more spent their collapse seasons hampered by nagging injuries. Once healthy and/or acclimated, they found at least one more decent season. All of those traits describe Fowler, although Fowler’s injuries when playing weren’t as severe as the others.
As dreadful as 2018 was for Fowler, there’s a good chance he’ll return to at least a little above replacement level if he’s good enough to be on the roster. Of course, the Peak Dexter we saw in 2016 is probably lost to history. But something approximating 2017 is within reason. None of this is to say the Cardinals shouldn’t upgrade if a superstar rightfielder were available. Hypothetically, of course. Just don’t bury Dexter yet.