Dexter Fowler has not been good this season. Through 57 games and 231 plate appearances, he has a 55 wRC+ on the year. His defense has never really been his strength either so the combination of his offense and defense has led him to being one of the worst players in baseball so far. Now to be fair to Dexter, in order to become one of the worst performing players in baseball, you have to have a track record of success or teams will not keep trotting you out onto the baseball field. It is unlikely he is one of the worst baseball players playing right now, but he has performed like one and while that may seem like semantics, I think that’s an important distinction.
Harrison Bader has been good this season. He has a 95 wRC+ on the season, though the offense is not really why everyone is excited about Bader though. Bader has a sprint speed of 30.1 feet per second, which ranks 4th in the majors. He’s right there with Billy Hamilton in terms of speed. Thus, he is likely to be very good on defense, if not elite. Based on the balls hit to him, Bader has an expected catch percentage of 85%, which means the average fielder would catch 85%. Bader has caught 94% of those balls and he ranks only behind Socrates Brito in catch percentage added. All of which is to say: Bader’s defense is for real.
This seems like a pretty easy decision. Bader has been better with the bat and is definitely better on defense so how can you not start Bader over Fowler? Well Bader has a very specific problem with the bat, at least so far in his short professional career. He can’t hit right-handed pitchers. I don’t mean he’s below average, I mean he’s been straight up awful. We unfortunately do not have a great sample to work with here, but it isn’t only an MLB problem he’s had.
In his short MLB career, he has a 52 wRC+ against righties in only 166 plate appearances. His main problem against righties so far is that he has absolutely no power against them whatsoever and doesn’t walk. Bader already kind of doesn’t walk much in general, but he really hasn’t walked against right-handed pitchers. His BABIP is low, but not so low that you’d expect his numbers to improve if everything else remained the same at .275. So he has a 52 wRC+ with a .275 BABIP. Not great. But, you are probably saying, it’s only 166 plate appearances.
In his AAA career, Bader had a 102 wRC+ over 640 PAs. Fangraphs unfortunately does not appear to have minor league splits so I can’t get his lefty/righty splits by wRC+, but I can find his OPS by lefty/righty splits from other sources and it’s quite a vast difference. Against lefties, he came to the plate 156 times and against righties, he came to the plate 484 times. He batted .355/.423/.645 against lefties. You probably noticed that - hey that line would produce something much, much, much better than a 102 wRC+ and you would be right! Against righties, he batted .243/.306/.375, which is not that great. It’s not perfect, but Aledmys Diaz had a .253/.305/.388 line in Memphis last year - pretty much the same OBP and more power, and he had a 77 wRC+ on the season so that gives you some idea of how he performed against righties. Unfortunately nobody in Memphis has a comparable line to how he hit against lefties.
Bader also played half his season in Springfield in 2016 and the splits weren’t really different. He batted .426/.485/.1000 against lefties in 68 PAs and .249/.319/.377 in 288 PAs against right-handed pitchers. He hit 9 homers in those 68 PAs and only 7 in those 288 PAs. In Peoria, he had a 1.375 OPS lefties and a .736 OPS against righties. In State College, he had a total of 7 PAs against lefties and 23 against righties, but surprise he hit lefties to the tune of a 2.071 OPS and righties with a .783 OPS. I think you get the picture. Bader crushes left-handed pitchers so much that it’s hid the fact that he kind of awful against right-handed pitchers and always has been.
Anyway, that was the easy part of the argument. The harder part is to argue that the guy with a 60 wRC+ and below average defense should maybe gets some starts against RHP over the guy with a similar wRC+ against RHP only and great defense. And here’s where I confess that I haven’t really given up on Dexter Fowler the batter. It’s just hard for me to wrap my head around him turning into a pumpkin at 32. His BB rate and K rate are right around his career numbers. His BABIP is .192 and his ISO is .106. I will admit his contact quality has been bad but there’s no major league hitters who actually are .192 BABIP true talent hitters, much less a man with a career .332 BABIP who had a .305 BABIP last year. So I needed to get that out of the way.
Does Dexter Fowler perform noticeably better against right-handed pitchers over lefties? Well it’s not a huge difference over his career - otherwise, why would he remain a switch hitter, but it’s not nothing. Fowler has a career 117 wRC+ against RHP and a 106 wRC+ against lefties. And for what it’s worth his 2018 wRC+ against RHP is roughly 69 or so, compared to 4 against lefties. So whatever you expect of his season numbers, you can expect better numbers against right-handed pitchers specifically.
Fowler’s rest of season projected ZiPS is 98. That is... not great for someone with his defensive reputation. Moving past that though, since his wRC+ against righties is 8 points better than his career wRC+, I think we can roughly assume that means ZiPS believes Fowler is a 106 wRC+ hitter against right-handed pitchers still. While Fowler still looks dead at the plate, let’s call that a best case scenario.
It is completely fair to assume Fowler might not be a 106 wRC+ hitter against righties. But I also think it’s absurd to think he’s now a true talent 69 wRC+ hitter against righties. So somewhere in between presumably is Fowler’s wRC+ against right-handed pitchers. Now I’m not a gambling man, but based off his minor league track record and current career numbers, that’s better than what I expect from Bader against right-handed pitchers, taking only batting into consideration.
Now here’s where it gets tricky, because whether Fowler should start or not depends largely on three things. 1) How good of a hitter is Fowler against RHP now? I don’t think he’s as bad as he’s been, but I think it’s also fair to assume that ZiPS hasn’t quite captured how much he’s taken a step down. 2) How “good” of a hitter against RHP is Bader? This actually matters, because there’s a good reason there are no full-time 52 wRC+ starters. 3) How good of a defender is Bader? If he’s elite, then he can be a really bad hitter and still be worth starting. Not 52 wRC+ bad, but bad. If he’s merely well above average, then he needs to be at a level higher than what I would consider even the most optimistic outlook for Bader against RHP, at least right now.
Fowler is the easy one. Let’s go through his WAR for a full season against RHP based off different estimates of his wRC+. For his defense, I am putting him as a -5 RF. He’s been a -9.5 UZR/150 over his career at CF, a -5 fielder on average per season in CF over the last three years, and a -13 fielder in RF so far in a way too small sample. The positional adjustment from CF to RF is 5 runs, so I’ll just mentally dock him a few from his career UZR numbers in CF because of his start so far. I’m assuming he’s a neutral baserunner, even though he’s been an amazing baserunner over his career since he’s 32 and looks slower.
106 wRC+ ——- 1.3 WAR
96 wRC+ ——— 0.5 WAR
86 wRC+ ——— -0.3 WAR
69 wRC+ ——— -1.5 WAR
Well now I’m depressed. So what we have here is an upside of 1.3 WAR over a full season of a guy in his second year of a 5 year contract. Technically speaking, he actually has a higher upside than that - for instance Carpenter’s wRC+ climbed quite a bit once he started getting hot which makes sense. But still.
I’m going to give Bader an upside of a 75 wRC+ against RHP. He managed roughly that in his AAA career and has shown no signs of being better than that so far, so that seems like a fair upside for right now. I’m also going to assume he’s at least a +5 fielder in RF, but I’ll look at his numbers if he’s +10 and +15. I’m also going to assume he’s a solid baserunner and give him a +2 BSR in every different calculation.
52 wRC+, +5 UZR/150 ——— -1.6 WAR
62 wRC+, +5 UZR/150 ——— -0.8 WAR
75 wRC+, +5 UZR/150 ——— 0.2 WAR
Okay so I don’t believe he’s only a +5 UZR/150 fielder, but if he were, he’s clearly unplayable in all formats against RHP.
52 wRC+, +10 UZR/150 ——— -1.1 WAR
62 wRC+, +10 UZR/150 ——— -0.3 WAR
75 wRC+, +10 UZR/150 ——— 0.7 WAR
Okay if he’s merely really good at defense, you still kind of have to assume the worst about Dexter and the best about Bader offensively to think he’s definitely a better option than Fowler.
52 wRC+, +15 UZR/150 ——— -0.6 WAR
62 wRC+, +15 UZR/150 ——— 0.2 WAR
75 wRC+, +15 UZR/150 ——— 1.3 WAR
Well I couldn’t have planned that better if I tried. The best case for Fowler given the numbers we currently have is 1.3 WAR and the best case for Bader is 1.3 WAR. Though I will say that thinking Bader is both a +15 fielder in RF and a 75 wRC+ against RHP is wildly optimistic in a way where I don’t think you can say the same about Fowler given Fowler’s entire career.
The point of this post is simply to say that there’s a good argument to start Fowler against RHP, because of his track record and because of Bader’s futility against RHP in his entire professional career. There appear to be no good options at the moment, not unless Fowler decides to get hot. I happen to think the chances Fowler gets hot or even playing to his career numbers against RHP are slightly more likely than Bader learning how to hit against RHP. But as long as Fowler is struggling, it does make sense to give Bader starts against RHP sometimes so that the two effectively split time.
Far be it from me to defend Mike Matheny on this. I happen to think he’s just lucky in this situation rather than looking at the numbers to the degree I did and coming to this same conclusion. But accidentally or not, Matheny isn’t really wrong about this. I understand the gut reaction, but please do not lose your mind if Fowler is in the starting lineup... unless he gets a start against a LHP, than go ahead and freak out.