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Diagnosing Dexter

What’s wrong, what might improve and what probably won’t with Dexter Fowler?

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

Author’s Note: I’m currently on a family RV trip through the western states, so I wrote this post a week ago. The numbers are not up-to-date, but they all remain close enough.

Also in that time, there was a flare-up of anti-Dexter sentiment over a rare dropped fly ball and some racially insensitive comments. John Fleming covered it well here. Because there is a nasty underdone to some “fans” reactions to Fowler, I’m hesitant to be critical of Dex myself, but I think this is still a legitimate look at what’s going on with him and what it might mean for his Cardinals future.

To put it in layman’s terms, Dexter Fowler ain’t been right this season. As I noted a couple weeks ago, he has posted negative value in hitting, base running and defense. I wanted to put my finger on why that might be and what it could mean for the duration of his St. Louis contract.

Hitting

I usually start such an expedition at Fangraphs, and in particular by looking at one section of the player Dashboard, where we can find BB%, K% and BABIP. (The third column is ISO, which we can ignore for now). Here’s what I found for how Dexter’s 2018 compares to his 2017:

(Note: I’m on vacation and I wrote this about a week ago. So you know, things may have changed.)

The good news is that his walk and strikeout rates are steady, so those skills look to be intact. On the other hand, that .197 BABIP is well below last year’s .305 and a career mark of .333. In a way, this is also good news, as we know BABIP’s tend to live around .300. This clearly suggests a lot of bad luck on balls in play, and so we would expect this to rise.

And once upon a time, that would be about all we would have to say about Dex’s batted ball profile. But these are Modern Times, and we now have all the wonderful StatCast metrics. Those tell us that while bad luck is still probably the biggest factor in Fowler’s offensive woes, there is genuine regression as well.

Last season, Fowler posted a wOBA of .358, which nearly matched his xWOBA of .359. This year, his .266 wOBA reflects a lot of that bad BABIP luck, but his .308 xWOBA also tells us that the quality of his contact is down significantly. (Because his walk and strikeout rates are so similar, we can attribute almost all of this to contact quality.)

His average exit velocity this season is down, 86.1 mph compared to 88.4 last season. That drops him from 110th to 182nd among qualified batters.

One notable change this season is that teams are shifting on Fowler when he bats from the left side nearly 50% of the time, compared to just 10% last season. But that doesn’t look to have had much of an impact. Whereas last season, Fowler’ wOBA against the shift was 90 points lower, this year he is identical with and without a shift.

Where we do see a drop - a cratering, in fact - is in Fowler’s wOBA as a right-handed hitter. In 2017, his wOBA was .368 from the left, .326 from the right. This season, he is .296 as a lefty, .152 as a righty.

Cardinals pitchers have posted a .125 wOBA as batters this season, so Fowler from the right side has basically hit like a pitcher.

Base running

Dexter Fowler once stole 27 bases in a season, regularly swiped near 20, and was a plus base runner for nearly every season of his career. But here, in his age 32 season, he’s produced negative value on the bases so far this season.

He’s stolen three bases but been caught twice. Fangraph’s Ultimate Base Running, which values how well a player takes an extra base and avoids making outs on the bases, rates him a -0.5 right now. And in a pre-Statcast world, that’s about all we’d have to say.

But Statcast lets us look at a more granular level to see Fowler’s sprint speed, which has dropped nearly a full second from last season, down to 27.2. ft/s. That’s dropped him from the 75th percentile in the league to the 56th.

Fowler actually ranks 9th in sprint speed for players his age, which is almost like a backhanded compliment. For a player his age, his speed has remained reasonably solid. But the best-case-scenario for a player his age is basically league average speed, and that will only continue to decline.

Defense

Of all the aspects of Fowler’s game, defense was essentially the known deficiency even when he signed with the club. Whereas he has consistently posted positive value as a hitter and base runner throughout his career, his defense has been a negative in all but one season. And that was his 2016 Cubs season, which gave some people, including this writer, false hope that he could maintain at least middling defensive value.

Last year, Fowler’s -9 Outs Above Average was 7th worst among 268 qualified outfielders. His sprint speed ranked 50th among center fielders.

The Cardinals moved Fowler to right field and that has helped... maybe a little? He currently sits at -3 OAA, ranking 122nd. While his sprint speed continues to decline, among right fielders he ranks slightly better compared to his peers at 42nd.

Conclusion

It pains me to write this because as a player and as a person, I really like Dexter Fowler. I’m not one to get too into the intangibles or the value of personalities, but I really like what Dexter Fowler adds to the Cardinals in those regards.

I’m also frustrated by some of the fan reaction I’ve seen to Fowler, both in person and on Twitter. Much of that has been reactionary and mean-spirited, if not just straight-up racist.

Even so, my conclusion is that while most of Fowler’s offensive woes have been simply bad luck, the quality of his contact has also dropped measurably. His struggles from the right side are so pronounced, I hope that if he could get help from someone like a hitting coach, there might be a way to course correct there. If not, he is no longer a viable hitter against left-handed pitching.

Fowler’s declines on defense and the base paths look like about what you’d expect from an aging player like him, and I wouldn’t expect them to move in the other direction again.

What does that make Dexter Fowler going forward? I can see his offense rebounding to the point that he is still a viable starting outfielder, although I think even then he will be somewhat less than the complete package that is Harrison Bader.

We knew that Fowler would age through this contract, but the process looks to be happening much faster than we would have hoped. He’s almost certainly not the sub-replacement level player we’ve seen so far this season, but he very well may have already been reduced to something more like a 4th outfielder.