One month ago, John J. Fleming published a piece titled “The Cardinals should not sign Dexter Fowler.” Four days prior to John’s article, Alex Crisafulli made his case in favor of the Cardinals signing Fowler. Well, as the hot stove begins to warm (yes, in November, even I fall for Jim Bowden’s reports), I am here to reiterate that, given the contract likely required to pry him from the defending World Series champions (plus the forfeiture of a draft pick), the Cardinals still should not sign Fowler this offseason, let alone make a Bowden-reported “all-out play” for him. Why, you ask? Honestly, it all comes down to two very specific reasons.
Roughly two weeks before Opening Day 2017 (which I have been told will be moved up a day in order to be aired on ESPN), Fowler will turn 31 years of age. You do not need to understand the intricacies of MLB aging curves to know that 30 is widely used as an age benchmark, and a long-term contract (of at least 4 years) for a player beyond said benchmark, especially at a position as physically taxing as center field, is almost unanimously viewed as a risky proposition. I use the phrase “almost unanimously” because ultimately, 29 teams are going to pass on Fowler before he eventually agrees to his next contract.
Remembering back to John’s article, he rightfully discussed defensive metrics. And as you may recall, before Fowler joined the Cubs, whose home outfield is considerably less spacious than the stadiums he played in previously (Coors Field, Minute Maid Park), he graded out as one of the worst defensive center fielders in baseball. As MLB.com’s Mike Petriello wrote back in May, Fowler, through the guidance of “stats guys,” has benefited from deeper positioning — he moved back a full 18 feet from where he started the 2015 season. Sure enough, Fowler has garnered more favorable defensive metrics in his two seasons with the Cubs, with 2016 being the best season of his career.
Yet, how reliable and of what magnitude is this improvement? Despite the incredible advancement in baseball statistics, defensive metrics remain relatively volatile (though StatCast is definitely getting us closer). Before characterizing a given player’s defensive ability, it is best to have at least three full years of data at the same position. With Fowler, we have one full season with a positive UZR — the most recent one — and seven full seasons (2009-2015) with a negative UZR.
Given Fowler’s age, his home stadium the past two seasons, and his Gold Glove teammate in right field, I tend to place more value in the seven negative seasons when projecting his future value than I do the positive 2016. Plus, if we are to look at one season of UZR data, which remember, I never recommend to do, his 1.0 UZR was 8th highest among MLB center fielders — which is pretty good, but nowhere near elite.
For the visually inclined, FanGraphs (using Inside Edge) provides us with the following fielding spray charts from 2016:
As you can see, in 2016, Fowler made the plays he was supposed to make. Not once did he make a play in the 40-60% fieldable range, let alone the 10-40% or 1-10% ranges. To be fair, the chart on the right shows that he only had six opportunities for plays with these degrees of difficulty, but making one of them would at the very least break up the monotony of his Made Plays spray chart. Heck, even Jon Jay had a few orange and red dots on his 2016 Made Plays spray chart.
Bottom line, for the length and price required for Fowler to sign with St. Louis, I think the Cardinals should look elsewhere when trying to improve for the 2017 season. I know that I did not even bring up Fowler’s offense or his ability to lead-off (both being absolute positives for the Birds on the bat), but to me, his age and defense are downright deal breakers for me. If Fowler signs with the Cardinals for 4+ years, we could be dealing with a Jhonny Peralta-type situation come 2019, where he is physically unable to adequately field the position in which he earned the original contract. I apologize for the brevity of today’s post, but it really is as simple as that.