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The Dexter Fowler Spring Experiment is Not Going Well

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The Dexter Fowler of March 2019 looks a lot like the Dexter Fowler of 2018. And that is a problem.

St Louis Cardinals v Chicago Cubs Photo by David Banks/Getty Images

We all know how 2018 went for Dexter Fowler. Simply put, it was ugly. But we’ll get to that in a second. First we’ll step back even a bit further.

In 2017, Fowler’s first year with the Cardinals, he was a strong, stabilising force in the Redbird lineup, even if not in exactly the way it was planned out. Brought in to be the leadoff hitter that could finally allow Matt Carpenter to hit in a spot with more chances for run production, both Fowler and Carpenter struggled early in the season, then saw better results when they were swapped in the lineup. Magical thinkers believe it was because Carp was back in the leadoff spot, regress to the mean types believe it was simply a matter of time, pragmatists didn’t much care either way, so long as the players were playing well regardless of how the Dusty Baker lineup dice landed when Matheny rolled them up for the day. Feel free to sort yourself into one of the three appropriate buckets.

Despite the strangeness of the lineup shuffling and accompanying arguments, the fact was that Dex did basically what the Cardinals brought him in to do when he had a bat in his hands. In just under 500 plate appearances, Fowler posted a .264/.363/.488 line. He got on base, posting a walk rate just under 13%, and kept his strikeout rate well under control at 20.6%. His 121 wRC+ was a step down from what he had done in his final season in Chicago, when he posted a 129, but that was mostly down to a drop in his BABIP from .350 in 2016 (unsustainable), to .305 in 2017 (much more normal looking). In terms of peripherals, Dex essentially maintained the kind of production he was known for as the you-go, we-go leadoff man for the Cubs.

What was maybe the most pleasant surprise was the power surge Fowler showed off in his first season wearing red. He hit eighteen home runs, the highest total of his career, eclipsing his previous high of seventeen, which had come in almost 200 more plate appearances in 2015. From 2016 to ‘17, Dex jumped from thirteen to eighteen bombs, hit doubles and triples at approximately the same rate as before, and saw his isolated slugging jump from .171 to .224 as a result. The Cardinals went and signed Fowler to be a high on-base hitter sitting at the top of the lineup, and they got mostly that, with a bonus touch of extra power.

It was maybe a bit of a surprise to see Dex muscling up and hitting more homers, particularly seeing as how his new home ballpark in 2017 was Busch Stadium, a far more difficult place to put the ball over the wall than Wrigley Field, which depending on the wind can play extremely cozy. But it also made some sense; this was Dexter Fowler, a very disciplined and intelligent hitter, recognising his role on the team and his evolving skillset as a player moving into his thirties. “Old player skills” has a certain connotation, often a negative one, but it’s not necessarily a pejorative descriptor. Older players evolve and adapt, and what that generally means is they become more patient, they go deeper in counts, they focus more on power, and they sacrifice some contact. Speed becomes less important, loft and power become more important.

So it seemed to be going with Fowler in 2017. He stole fewer bases, going from thirteen steals in 2016 to just seven in ‘17, and his baserunning value as a whole dropped, but he had that extra power to make up for it. What was interesting was that Dex made those changes while not actually sacrificing any contact; his strikeout rate actually fell from ‘16 to ‘17, while his walk rate dropped a touch as well. So it was mostly older player skills manifesting, but not entirely, it seemed.

The biggest concern, really, was that Fowler’s center field defense, long a source of some consternation, was downright terrible in 2017. There was this narrative floating around when the Cards signed Fowler that his defense had been magically improved by the Cubs coaches telling him to simply move back deeper in center field. Either the Cardinal braintrust lacks the ability to come up with similarly amazing insights like, “Um, I don’t know, just move back a little?” or the mythmaking surrounding the 2016 Cubs enrobed a flukily good defensive season in the all-pervading glow of breaking the curse and the Cards really shouldn’t have bought into Fowler suddenly not being a bad center fielder, as he had always been before. Again, feel free to sort yourselves into schools of belief here.

And then came 2018. And we all know how that went. It was ugly. I feel like I’ve written this before.

Honestly, it’s hard to really talk about Dexter Fowler’s 2018 season. Most of the time when you’re looking at a disappointing year someone had, you break down what went wrong, and try to figure out which parts of that failure are red flags, which parts are easily explained by poor luck/results which should regress over time, and where to look for optimism regarding a possible bounceback campaign.

The problem with 2018 and Dexter Fowler is that, simply put, everything went wrong. And when everything goes wrong, there’s not a lot of analysis one can do. When a building suffers some structural failure, you look for the causes, and try to figure out if the design failed, or the materials, or the construction, or what. If a building fails after an earthquake, you try to figure out if the earthquake was simply too strong, or if the building could somehow have been planned better to withstand mother nature’s occasional onslaught. If a building fails after getting hit by a meteor, there’s not a lot you can do. You write down ‘HIT BY METEOR’ on the line at the bottom of the inspection form, and in the recommended action box you write ‘HOPE FOR FEWER METEORS’. Sometimes things just blow up.

Dexter Fowler in 2018 was one of the very worst players in baseball. He came to bat 334 times, and posted a 62 wRC+. That’s just barely over half his 2017 number, which should give some idea just how drastic the sudden falloff was. His BABIP cratered, going from .305 to a near-apocalyptic .210, and that didn’t look to be the product of bad luck. Rather, Fowler simply didn’t hit the ball well in 2018. At all. The power disappeared; his ISO fell from .224 to .118. His strikeout rate stayed roughly where it had been, but his walk rate declined a touch more from ‘17 to ‘18, and the overall result was a player who didn’t get on base, had absolutely no ability to drive the ball for power, and no longer appeared to have the wheels to make any of his lesser on-contact abilities work for him. From 2016 to ‘18, Fowler’s triples total went from seven, to nine, to zero. That, more than anything else, is probably the number that explains most of where Dex’s production numbers went.

The defense was also a huge negative. Fowler moved from center field to right, bowing to both age and Tommy Pham’s previous defensive excellence in small samples, but moving to a corner did Dex no favours. In about 650 innings (roughly half a season), in right field, Fowler posted -5 defensive runs saved. UZR/150 saw him as a -10.9 run fielder. As bad as the offensive side of his game was in 2018, Dex’s defense was really no better. It all combined to put Fowler at -1.2 wins above replacement for the 2018 season, which is basically the meteor hitting the building number.

I don’t want to rehash all the Mike Matheny drama when it comes to Fowler; Matheny was a terrible manager, he lost his players after keeping his job so long only because the organisation believed he had intangible, clubhouse value, and now he’s gone. Dex had a small bit of resurgence after Mike Shildt took over, but not much more than one might classify as a dead cat bounce were one interested in colloquialisms of early 20th century America, and then he broke his foot, mercifully ending his disaster of a season. Sometimes bad things just happen, and all you can do is try to move forward.

And that’s just what Fowler seemed to do this offseason. By all accounts, he rededicated himself over the winter, worked extremely hard on his body and health, and came into spring training ready to put the 2018 season in the rearview mirror and reclaim his position as an early-order force, as well as an outfield fixture.

Which is where we really run into a problem, for both Dexter and the Cardinals.

This spring, Fowler has come to bat 37 times. He has walked just twice (5.4% BB rate), struck out ten times (27% K rate), and is hitting .194/.237/.222. He has not hit a home run. He has not hit a triple. He has one double. We don’t keep wRC+ numbers for spring training, but there is basically no offensive environment anywhere in which a .459 OPS is going to be seen as a positive.

Now, let’s take a moment to acknowledge that it is spring training. And being spring training, not only do the games not count, but the results of individual players are difficult to trust and take all that seriously. Plenty of guys are working on specific things, trying to make alterations or improvements to their games that can put them temporarily in a bad spot as they try to incorporate whatever it is they’re shooting for. I’m not particularly worried about the Cardinal offense as a whole, in spite of the fact they’ve looked pretty terrible this spring, simply because I’ve seen a lot of spring trainings in my life, and I can say without equivocation that the regular season never really looks all that much like what you thought you were going to get when watching games in March.

So we definitely have to keep that in mind. Process, not results, is what teams — and players — focus on in training camp. And by most accounts Fowler does look healthier and stronger than he did at any point last season.

But even so, it’s hard to look at those numbers and not be worried. I’ve watched a few spring training games, and have yet to see Dex make any sort of contact that caused me to perk up and take notice in a positive way. There was at least one fly ball early in spring games Fowler missed that was really, really galling. He hasn’t looked much better this spring playing the outfield in general than I remember from last year, though admittedly it’s hard to judge that sort of thing in such a small sample.

The problem is, small samples are all we have right now, and all we’re going to get until the regular season starts. And the problem with that is that once the regular season starts, the games count. And regardless of what you may think of what the Cardinals did over the offseason, I think we can all agree they are going to be in a dogfight this year, one in which every single game will be important. If the 2019 model year of Dexter Fowler is going to have the same problems as the 2018 model, the Cardinals just cannot afford to run him out on the field all season.

The whole situation is made more fraught, of course, by the number of options the Cardinals have in the outfield, but also the lack of guaranteed success. Marcell Ozuna still doesn’t seem to have his shoulder health under control. Harrison Bader still can’t hit a slider. Tyler O’Neill only hits home runs, apparently, as his spring BABIP is about .160, which I’m fairly certain is hurting his .794 OPS at least a little. Even so, his strikeout rate is still worrisomely high, and while he certainly looks the part of a plus defender, we don’t have much a track record to go on. Jose Martinez can really hit, but in the field he...can really hit. In short, Dexter Fowler is part of a huge clutch of outfielders, all of whom could be good, but none of whom are locks to be. And that makes Dex himself a much harder keep on the roster. If there was guaranteed production from center and left, maybe you could afford to be patient. If there were no other options, you would basically be forced to be patient. But as things stand, the Cardinals need their best team on the field, and they can’t wait all that long to get there.

Yes, it’s spring, and the samples sizes are still very small. There will not be a decision made on Dexter Fowler’s future role with the team in March, unless something health-related we don’t yet know about pops up. But the Cardinals of 2019 don’t have the luxury of time to carefully consider things before making a decision. They play in possibly the most brutal division in the game, or perhaps the second toughest, depending on what one thinks of the NL East, and while they should be improved over last season, perhaps markedly so, this is not a team with enough of a buffer to figure things out on the fly.

Dexter Fowler came into the spring looking better, looking healthier, than he had for a while. Then the games started, and Dex looks uncomfortably like the guy who was one of the worst players in baseball last year. It’s too early to make a decision, probably, but it is not too early to worry a decision needs to be made, definitely.

The spring has not gone well for Dexter Fowler so far. And that is one of the worst pieces of news the Cardinals could have gotten. There is a day of reckoning that will have to be faced, and relatively soon, for the Redbirds and not just their plans of contending, but for the legitimacy of the front office. The 2019 season cannot wait on Dexter Fowler. The fact he’s doing what he has done so far in the spring only tightens the screws on an organisation trying to climb back into relevance while sticking to its philosophies. Crunch time is coming, sooner than anyone probably wants to admit.