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Dexter Fowler’s defensive renaissance

Fowler’s bounce-back hasn’t only been with the bat.

MLB: St. Louis Cardinals at Pittsburgh Pirates Charles LeClaire-USA TODAY Sports

It seems like Dexter Fowler is back.

He started the season hot, and with that came speculation. Is it for real? Is the Dexter Fowler who served as the jumpstart to the 2016 Cubs and turned in a pretty solid 2017 for the Cardinals making his way back?

It’s hard to deny at this point. He came back from the IL and continued to perform well. Fowler is sporting an OBP over .400. His slugging percentage is over that mark now, too, after his home run on Tuesday night. His wRC+ keeps climbing, now at 134 over his first 130 PA.

As Ben Clemens noted earlier this season, a lot of Fowler’s hits were falling in the flares category of Statcast’s contact categories, and a .385 BABIP is pretty reflective of that, but there’s just a -.007 difference between his wOBA (.338) and his xwOBA (.331).

The bat was initially not the worrisome part of signing Fowler, though. It was something he had in his first season as a Cardinal, when he hit a career-high 18 home runs and finished with an OPS of .851.

Last year’s rough results at the plate brought it to the forefront, but Fowler has bounced back extremely well to this point in 2019, resembling the OBP machine the Cardinals expected.

I want to talk a bit about his defense.

Fowler was signed to be a mainstay in center field after putting up positive defensive numbers for the Cubs in 2016. It was honestly a bit of a head-scratcher, as Fowler had never posted a positive number in the Def component of fWAR in any full major league season.

His -18 DRS in 2017 warranted a shift to the corner. Last season, in a less challenging spot in right field, he had -5 DRS. We hear a lot of talk about the potential defensive decline for aging center fielders and everyone seemed to be locked in on that being Fowler’s reality.

This season, the defensive version of Fowler has been anything but declining. He’s been experiencing a bit of a glove-centric renaissance.

Pull up the FanGraphs defensive leaderboards for all outfielders and you won’t have to scroll down to find Fowler’s name. Through 260 innings, he’s 16th in the holistic measurement of Def (1.7). Among the other categories, Fowler is:

  • 13th in UZR/150 (17.7)
  • 9th in DRS (5)
  • 7th in Outfield Arms Runs Saved, or rARM (2)

It’s not that Fowler is competing with Bader for the team lead in five-star catches or really flaunting some exceptional range. Look at the play difficulty charts available at Baseball Savant (which are super cool) and you can see it’s really just that he’s making the routine plays—something he hadn’t done in previous seasons. Here’s 2019 through last night’s game:

There were only two plays with catch probabilities of 60 percent or greater that Fowler didn’t convert. One was admittedly very routine, that gray dot near the upper-left portion of the graph. The other was right at 60 percent, right on the line of a four-star catch.

Granted, I think Statcast is graciously ignoring the glove-assisted Syndergaard home run in center field, but still.

Looking at the full picture, Fowler has converted nearly every play within his wheelhouse. Not extremely flashy, but not lackluster either. Here’s the same chart for 2018:

Look up the line of the one- to three-star catches and you’ll see a decent amount of gray, especially as we get into the plays that had long hang times and required some distance to be covered.

Fowler has logged about 40 percent of the innings he totaled in 2018 to this point in the season. In 2019, he has one catch he’s failed to convert with catch probabilities of 85 to 100 percent. In 2018, he had five such catches he didn’t convert.

His ability to make the routine play has resulted in 1 percent Catch Probability Added (CPA), a major improvement over the -3 percent mark from last year.

Given the cluster of plays requiring some distance to be travelled, it could easily be that the foot issues Fowler struggled with all season hampered his mobility. But that leads pretty well into the big question here.

What’s changed?

Sticking with the speed theory, Fowler has been quicker this season compared to last. His sprint speed was 27.4 ft/sec last year, up to 27.7 ft/sec in 2019. This year’s speed ties with the likes of Adam Eaton, David Dahl and Yoan Moncada. It’s the second-best on the active roster, behind Harrison Bader.

Both were above the league average, but to see a 33-year-old outfielder gain speed is pretty promising.

That can’t be all, though. Fowler has also seen his directional Outs Above Average (OAA) change in a big way:

Last season, Dex had a pretty rough time going back on the ball. The directional OAA numbers don’t always add up to reflect the net total in the full calculation, but he had -4 OAA going back on the ball in 2018. This season that number is a neutral zero, and he’s actually been a plus ranging to his back-right.

Combine that with the positioning data and it begins to make a little bit of sense, if you squint. Fowler positioned himself at a depth of 295 feet and shaded closer to the first base line in 2018. This season, he’s moved back a foot to 296 and moved a bit farther from that foul line.

Maybe the combination of increased speed and a positioning himself a little deeper and closer to midfield has resulted in better range to his left? We’re speculating here, of course.

This all gets turned on its head, though, when looking closer at the positional numbers. All of Fowler’s value has actually come from his time in center field.

Fowler has notched 22 more innings in center than he has right this season. The counting stats I listed earlier—DRS, rARM—all came from center. He’s right at zero in all of those categories as a right fielder.

Even his UZR reflects that difference. His UZR/150 in right field is -3.9. In center, it’s 49.3. That’s better than the mark of Bader this season.

I know, I know, defensive stats and their stabilization times. But that’s impressive over 141 innings.

Fowler has even had two outfield assists in center field this season, which ties his total from last year. Here he is gunning down Christian Yelich at home plate in late April ( won’t let me embed this, blame their brand management rules).

In that clip, another important factor is indirectly brought to our attention: For the most part, when Fowler is in center field, he has José Martínez playing to his left.

Martínez is a great hitter, no doubt, but his defense hasn’t gotten any better. He has -8 DRS in 227 innings in right field. Fowler has been able to post plus numbers in center, the position he was initially signed to fill, while having a defensive liability to his left, which is a side he’s struggled to cover.

The only difference outside of the speed factor is one of positioning depth, and it may actually be a big influence.

It was a bit of news story when Fowler began to play deeper in center field during his last season as a Cub. The change was much more drastic then, dropping back 17 feet. But still, it put him at a depth of 321 feet from home plate. That year was when he posted plus numbers in the middle of the outfield.

In Fowler’s first season as a Cardinal, he moved in three feet, averaging a depth of 318. This season? Fowler’s average depth in center went back to 321 feet.

Welp, we’ve cracked the code. Everyone can go home, we’ll be shutting it down.

No, I don’t think any of these things really explain every facet of why Fowler has been so much better with the glove this year. It’s a combination of all of it, with plenty of other factors and intangibles mixed in.

Fowler may not have the range or electricity of Bader in the outfield, but he’s shown through his 36 games this season that he can play his position at league average or above. Right now, he’s among the top 16 defensive outfielders in the league, and he’s done most of it at his original position. If it holds, that type of positional flexibility only makes the Cardinals better.