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Dexual Healing

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Dexter Fowler’s start has been dreadful in context. Dexter Fowler is due for a rebound. Both of these things can be true.

Chicago Cubs v St Louis Cardinals Photo by Dilip Vishwanat/Getty Images

Multiple key pieces of the Cardinals’ offense are off to an extremely slow start. As we’ve discussed, some of that is related to shifts, some of it’s pure batted ball luck, and some of it is due to cold weather. Whatever is causing it, you know the culprits- Marcell Ozuna, Matt Carpenter, and Dexter Fowler chief among them. It’s Fowler I’d like to discuss today. Let’s collect some data and see if we can put Fowler’s slow start in some context, both league-wide and in terms of the franchise. Then we can gauge what type of rebound may be lurking in the shadows.

Before going any further, please understand that I take no joy in this. Obviously, none of us take any joy in this. If you’re here, odds are really high that you want to see any Cardinal succeed. Personally, I find myself pulling for Dexter Fowler about as much as any Cardinal as I can remember, at least in the last decade or so. He’s fan-friendly, he has fun, and it’s infectious when he does well. I’m not alone in feeling that way. I want him to play well for reasons that go beyond laundry. With that out of the way, let’s take a look at some data.

Fangraphs’ amazing Split Leaderboard has data by date going back to 2002. Since we’re talking about a month and a half of games thus far, that’s going to be our starting point- all position players since 2002, through May 14th of their specific season (I’m compiling this data on Monday’s off day). I’d love to go much further back, but 2002-2018 still gives us 17 seasons of data. I’m also going to limit this to players with 100 plate appearances or more. Anything less than that feels like too small of a sample size, especially when compared with Dexter’s 152 plate appearances through the weekend. That threshold comes out to a little more than 2 PAs per game, mostly regulars but also some heavy-use bench and platoon players in the mix. Casting that net gives us 3,704 individual player seasons, and 126 individual Cardinal player seasons. Here’s Dexter’s percentile ranks amongst all players, and amongst all Cardinal players, in a few categories. I’ve calculated a league-relative (but not ballpark-adjusted) wOBA for all players, using league-wide wOBA through May 14th for each individual season- basically wOBA+. That should strip out a decent chunk of cold-weather effects. I’m also including wRC+. And lastly, simply because it’s so alarming, I’ve included BABIP.

If you’re keeping score at home, that’s 5.35(th?) percentile in wOBA+, 6.9th percentile in wRC+, and 0.14th percentile (!) in BABIP amongst all hitters. Amongst all Cardinals, those numbers are predictably lower- 2.42nd percentile, 4.84th percentile, and 0 (as in, he’s rock-bottom) in wOBA+, wRC+, and BABIP respectively. I promised context, and I wish it wasn’t this grim. By two advanced measures of productivity (wRC+ and wOBA/wOBA+), Fowler’s production during the first ~40 games of his team’s season have been worse than 93% or more of his peers since 2002. That’s true whether you’re looking just within the Cardinal franchise or league-wide. Cardinals of recent history occupying similar territory include black holes like Yadier Molina’s 2005 and 2006, Adam Kennedy in 2007, Brendan Ryan in 2010, and Jim Edmonds’ end of the line in St. Louis in 2007.

As for the BABIP, his .149 is the fifth worst amongst all hitters with 150 PAs or more, going all the way back to 1947. That’s incomprehensibly bad, and we’ll have more on this later. Dexter Fowler’s production through May 14th has been bad in ways that very few players have seen over the last 17 years.

We should probably strip out the fact that it’s early in the season and approach this a little differently. Has Dexter Fowler ever been here before? Thankfully, we have Fangraphs’ chart function. Here is Fowler’s 40-game rolling average for wRC+ and wOBA, going back to 2011.

Now we’re getting somewhere. At the end of 2013 and in the middle of 2015, he had wRC+ craters that match his current predicament. His wOBA in 2013 never dipped this low, but it certainly did in 2015. In other words, we’ve seen this from Dexter Fowler before to varying degrees. The fact that this particular nasty stretch happened at the beginning of the season instead of the middle makes it seem much more pronounced than the reality. Is there anything different about his current stretch? Well...

No matter how bad his production has been in 40-game bursts in the past, it’s never been driven this much, straight into the ground, by such a horrendous BABIP. Frequently, a low BABIP means there’s a lot of positive regression to come. And with a BABIP this low, it’s virtually guaranteed. How much positive regression is reliant on a few things. First, we can check on his speed. A lost step or two, usually as a result of age or injuries, can sap a player’s BABIP. In Dexter’s case, his sprint speed is tracking a little lower than previous years. But he’s also 61st percentile league-wide. He might have lost a step but he’s still faster than a lot of players, and the regression hasn’t been that steep. We also need to check to see if anything is different about the type of contact Fowler is making, and we need to see how this tracks with his standard BABIP talent level. That second piece of this puzzle is easy- his career BABIP is .333. His .149 BABIP thus far this season... that’s not Dexter Fowler. Buddy, that ain’t even Pete Kozma.

How about the type of contact he’s making? Again, let’s turn to Fangraphs for rolling 40-game averages for batted ball types- line drives, groundballs, flyballs, and hard vs. medium vs. soft contact.

The quality of contact- hard vs. medium vs. soft- is fairly steady. The soft % is climbing a bit, but it’s nowhere near the worst of his career. His hard contact % is also in line with career rates- nothing out of the ordinary there. Like the soft %, it’s sliding a bit- some of his hard contact is apparently becoming soft contact- but we’re nowhere near a danger zone situation. As for groundballs, flyballs, and line drives, it’s much the same. There’s really nothing out of the ordinary going on here. He’s hitting more flyballs (and fewer groundballs and line drives), but we don’t have an extreme outlier yet. Oddly enough, when his production cratered in 2015, it was the opposite scenario- his flyball percentage went way down, his groundball percentage spiked, and his wRC+ and wOBA collapsed. This is a completely different scenario.

As grim as Dexter’s numbers have been thus far, there’s a lot of evidence that this, too, shall pass. He has a lot of karma eggs in his karma basket. Before departing our examination of the BABIP conundrum, I want to illustrate one final point here. Let’s return to our original data set. How did those players do the rest of the season? We’ll gather info for all players with 225 PAs or more from 5/15 until the end of the season and merge that info with our original group. Do the low BABIP players improve through the rest of the season? If so, how much? I’ve calculated the average gain in their rest of season BABIP compared to the data through 5/14, plus their wRC+ and wOBA+ gains after 5/14. I’ve also broken it out by percentile group for BABIP. Remember, in Fowler’s case, he’s bottom 5th percentile.

Rest of Season, Gains in wOBA+, wRC+, and BABIP for bottom quartile through 5/14

BABIP Percentile wOBA+ Gain wRC+ Gain BABIP Gain
BABIP Percentile wOBA+ Gain wRC+ Gain BABIP Gain
Bottom 5th Pctile 18.12 40.45 0.085
Bottom 10th Pctile 14.66 33.29 0.072
Bottom 25th Pctile 10.59 24.61 0.053

If Fowler is even average for players with similarly poor BABIP through 5/14, we should expect a 96 wOBA+, a 93 wRC+, and a .234 BABIP the rest of the way. While those numbers may be a little uninspiring, there are a few things to keep in mind. First, that’s a huge chunk of offensive production recovered for the team offense in relation to his early season numbers. Second, if he registers a BABIP of .234 the rest of the way, it would still rank well below his career average (.333) and even his career low (.305 last season). He is much more likely to register a BABIP closer to .300 than he is to .200 from here on out. Third and finally, the averages listed above are crafted out of many players and many types of players. Earlier, we asked if Fowler had lost a step, or if his approach and batted ball quality was significantly different. In Fowler’s case, those things aren’t true in any sort of major way, but it IS true for many of the players in this sample. Those guys drag the average down, and Fowler is much more likely to reach the higher ends of what bottom 5th percentile BABIP players can do over the rest of the season. With all of this in mind, I think it’s safe to say there’s a major recovery coming Dexter Fowler’s way.

To continue this roller coaster ride of an article (He’s been awful! But he’s going to get lots better!), I’d be remiss if I didn’t mention a few things. xwOBA - wOBA is the hot topic du jour. Like many other Cardinals, Fowler’s production is lagging well behind his expected production (.244 actual vs. .304 expected wOBA), even more so than cold weather would imply. That seems like a positive sign at first blush, except a .304 wOBA is subpar. The league average wOBA is .312. If Fowler had a .304 wOBA (instead of a .304 xwOBA), he’d have a wOBA+ of 97... which is right in step with the 96 wOBA+ listed in the previous paragraph as what we could expect of him for the rest of the season before I listed the caveats.

There are also some red flags in his plate discipline profile. If we take all players with 350 PAs last season and 100 PAs so far this season, his swinging strike percentage is up- the 31st largest jump from 2017 to 2018 out of 176 players. His overall contact percentage has dropped over 5 percentage points, the 15th biggest drop in the sample. If BABIP is biting him, and he’s due positive regression, he’ll need to put more balls in play to capitalize. A growing swinging strike percentage won’t help that. The good news for the plate discipline info is much like the rolling 40-game stretches I showed for wOBA and wRC+ earlier. He’s been here before. His plate discipline stats have seen similar dives to this one- even worse at times- and always corrected, eventually. This particular stretch seems more extreme than it is but it’s fixable.

Better days are ahead for Dexter Fowler. With as much as he’s been stung by batted ball luck, better days have to be ahead.