When the St. Louis Cardinals signed Dexter Fowler in December 2016, in addition to his offensive prowess, a major reason was to improve the team’s outfield defense. After Randal Grichuk, groomed to play defensively in a corner outfield spot throughout his time in the minor leagues of both the Los Angeles Angels and the Cardinals, yielded mixed results in 2015 and 2016 logging considerable playing time in center field, the Cardinals signed Fowler, who had logged 8,306 career MLB innings in center field and a total of one inning outside of it (one inning in right field, in 2008).
The move seemingly represented a defensive upgrade for the Cardinals outfield at large, even if Dexter Fowler did not, in reality, represent a major upgrade defensively in center field. Over the prior two seasons, during which Fowler saw a dramatic uptick in his defensive statistics, moving him from one of baseball’s least effective everyday center fielders to roughly league average, Randal Grichuk had been a superior defender by Ultimate Zone Rating—the wisdom of accepting relatively small samples as indicative of true talent is debatable, but that Fowler still came out behind in his most optimistic range was not a great sign for his defensive virtuosity.
But even if Fowler represented a defensive downgrade in center field, it seemed to be a relatively minor one, while moving Grichuk to left field seemingly was a major upgrade over the defensive contributions of Matt Holliday or Brandon Moss, the two men who primarily split the position in 2016. Stephen Piscotty, even more destined for a career in a corner outfield position from his time in the minor leagues than Grichuk, would patrol right field and hopefully do a decent job of it—by Ultimate Zone Rating, he has been roughly league-average in 2017 and for his career has been slightly above average, stats which reflect the general consensus on him as fine, if not otherworldly.
And if a Fowler-Grichuk-Piscotty orientation was better on paper than a Grichuk-Fowler-Piscotty one, it was probably a small enough difference that it was worth opting for the weaker-on-paper route as a means of keeping the peace—Fowler had been a lifelong center fielder; Grichuk had played in a corner outfield spot for about 35% of his career innings entering 2016 and was publicly content with moving to left field for 2017.
While Randal Grichuk’s struggles at the plate led to his demotion to the minors earlier this season, his defense has been roughly what one might suspect—UZR has him below average, but the sample is so small that had his one (out of 60) “routine” play in left field which was not converted been converted, he’d be above average. Tommy Pham has been above-average in both left and center field (the same applies to right field, but while I’m willing to give some credence to what are probably too small of samples, nine innings is a bit too far). And while Magneuris Sierra’s defensive numbers have been suspect, he was acclaimed as a minor league fielder and is easily the fastest of the four players on the 40-man roster who are candidates to play center field (I’m hoping that by ignoring Stephen Piscotty and Kolten Wong as center field candidates, Mike Matheny will do the same).
One could easily make the argument that Dexter Fowler, a below-average defensive center fielder throughout his career who is currently having a defensive season in line with his track record, is the fourth-best center field option on the Cardinals, defensively speaking.
This doesn’t mean that Fowler is inherently unworthy of playing in center field. He has been an above-average hitter, which cannot be said of Grichuk, and his offensive profile is relatively sustainable (he draws walks, though fewer than normal in 2017, and he has some modicum of power, even if his 14 home runs so far this season do not reflect his true talent), which cannot be said of Sierra. But it is a poor allocation of resources to play an inferior fielder in the most pivotal defensive spot in the outfield while a better option shoulders a lighter load of defensive responsibility playing in a corner.
After some batting order shuffling led to Dexter Fowler batting third in the Cardinals lineup, Fowler indicated indifference to his spot in the order but stated, “I play in center field. That’s what I came here to play.” In the immediate aftermath of these comments, Audrey Stark broke down the defense of Fowler and Pham last week, and indicated her belief that Pham was the superior fielder. She’s probably correct.
But even if Fowler were currently the superior option in center field, he is also the oldest of the group—he is two years older than Pham, 5 1⁄2 years older than Grichuk, and over a full decade older than Sierra. Fowler as the best option now may already be a leap of faith, but when he is 35, at the end of his contract, he will almost certainly not be suited to play in center field.
In the 21st century, only nine players at age 35 or older played enough at center field in a season to qualify for the batting title—yes, we’re talking about defense here, but this is good shorthand for “was a regular starter throughout the season”. By comparison, 20 left fielders and 23 right fielders accomplished this.
Of the nine center fielders, four managed at least one season with positive Defensive Wins Above Replacement—these four players won a combined twenty Gold Gloves in their careers (Mike Cameron, Jim Edmonds, Steve Finley, Kenny Lofton). Even the most ardent Dexter Fowler defensive apologist would acknowledge that he has never been, nor is he likely to ever be, at that level.
Some of the greatest defensive center fielders in history moved to a corner late in their careers. Andruw Jones, the greatest defensive center fielder in history by Defensive Runs Saved, did not play primarily in center field beyond his age-31 season. #2 in the stat, the legendary Willie Mays, did stick in center field, but even he saw a precipitous drop in his defensive value starting in 1967, his age-36 season.
In 2017, the Pittsburgh Pirates began the season attempting to shift former MVP Andrew McCutchen to right field, a move preempted by Starling Marte’s suspension for Nandrolone. McCutchen has been, despite winning Michael Bourn’s Gold Glove in 2012, a subpar defensive center fielder throughout his career. That said, the numbers indicate that McCutchen has been better in the field throughout his career than Fowler. His defense was bad enough that, despite local hero status and actually being a few months younger than Fowler, the Pirates looked for ways to move McCutchen off the position.
Hopefully, Fowler’s insistence on playing center field is for 2017 only. It is understandable, if not exactly ideal, that Dexter Fowler would have such a level of professional pride that a move to left field in the first year of a five-year contract might be demoralizing. But eventually, this move will have to be made. Sure, it is more difficult for a corner outfielder to be worth $82.5 million over five years than a center fielder, but it may be up to Cardinals coaches to convince Fowler that he can still be a valuable part of the Cardinals lineup while playing in left field.