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How well will Dexter Fowler perform in right field?

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Marcell Ozuna’s defensive metrics improved after shifting to a corner outfield spot, just like Adam Eaton. Can we expect the same from Dexter Fowler in 2018?

MLB: Pittsburgh Pirates at St. Louis Cardinals Aaron Doster-USA TODAY Sports

The Cardinals’ starting outfield in 2018 will feature no one at the positions they played in 2017. I wrote last July that Tommy Pham should play in center field, booting Dexter Fowler into a corner. Turns out, the Cardinals agree and have announced Fowler’s impending move to right field. Looking at two recent examples, Adam Eaton and Marcell Ozuna, what should we expect from Dexter Fowler in 2018? Spoiler alert: good things.

Adam Eaton

In June, I looked at how Adam Eaton’s 2016 was a case study for what Marcell Ozuna was doing in 2017. Both were former center fielders in the first year of occupying a corner outfield spot. Adam Eaton’s center field stats were terrible. Not like one-year-fluke kind of terrible, but three-year, career-fWAR-dropping terrible. The White Sox took notice and moved him to right field in 2016 where his stats made quite the leap.

For this piece, I will focus on Ultimate Zone Rating (UZR), Defensive Runs Saved (DRS), and

Eaton’s Defense

Year UZR DRS Routine Plays Made Def (Fangraphs)
Year UZR DRS Routine Plays Made Def (Fangraphs)
2014 -3.3 11 99.7% -1.6
2015 -10.2 -14 99.1% -8.8
2016 22.5 20 100% 18
*Statistically significant data is unavailable for Eaton’s 2017 season because he tore his ACL in April.

That jump is bananas. The 2015 numbers made it look like Adam Eaton was playing half the games blindfolded. However, it’s not like his prior season was peachy; he lived in the negative.

Eaton’s comprehensive score averaged -5.2 in the seasons prior to shifting him right field. Suddenly, that jumped up to eighteen after the move! He had twenty defensive runs saved in right field, nearly doubling his previous best of eleven. He continued making the routine plays and improved upon everything else.

In the three seasons listed above, Eaton played more than one thousand innings. Why was he so bad and then suddenly so good? His UZR skyrocketed in 2016, while the two previous years he spent in the negative. Did he get six inches taller and able to cover more ground in the outfield? Was the White Sox’s outfield coordinator somehow four times as good at positioning him? No, they just moved him to right field.

Marcell Ozuna

The newest Cardinals outfielder was the same case study last season. The Marlins moved their center fielder, Marcell Ozuna, to left field in favour of Christian Yelich. It worked out better for everyone. Ozuna’s improvement paralleled Eaton’s in some ways and diverged in others:

Ozuna’s Defense

Year UZR DRS Routine Plays Made Def (Fangraphs)
Year UZR DRS Routine Plays Made Def (Fangraphs)
2015 -1.5 -3 99.2% -0.6
2016 0.7 -5 99.7% 1.6
2017 2.8 10 99.3% -4.3

I don’t know how his defense merited a negative total in 2017 because his UZR and DRS are positive while he had a .984 fielding percentage in left. Separating that Def rating from the improvements Ozuna made, we see a lot that is similar to Eaton’s progression. The increases are smaller, but Ozuna pulled himself back into the land of positive numbers after some not-so-great seasons. Instead of a net loss of runs, his defense was a net gain. He tied for ninth in the league in DRS!

The Caveat

What is one year of success? Technically, an outlier. If we were to parallel Dexter Fowler’s potential improvement with these two players, we could only do it for one year, not the remaining four years of his contract in St. Louis. Mitchel Lichtman has an article about Eaton’s weirdly diametric splits where he crunches outfield data and comes to the following conclusion:

“The ability to catch line drives and fly balls in the [outfield] is more or less the same whether you are standing in the middle or on the sides of the [outfield.] If you are good in one location you will be good at another, and if you are bad at one location you will be bad at another.”

Which is refreshing in its simplicity. Players don’t necessarily move positions and somehow get faster or better at reading balls off the bat. If Dexter Fowler performs at the same level he did in 2017, his numbers will go up by virtue of changing positions. Or, if he has a one-year surge, he will end up like the 2016 version of Adam Eaton.

By now, you may be thinking, “Of course they improved after being put into the corner! It’s easier to play there!” It actually doesn’t matter. Both UZR and DRS are calculated based on the average player at that position.

UZR or DRS might change in a somewhat predictable fashion depending upon [which position] is being measured ... Because the players you are measured against differ in their average ability to catch fly balls and line drives.

In other words, teams put their best outfielders in center field. Why wouldn’t they? Center fielders raise the bar; they’re compared to the other “bests.” If you take a below-average center fielder and move them to a corner, they’ll look good by virtue of competition with a lower ceiling.

Dexter Fowler

By using Adam Eaton and Marcell Ozuna as case studies, we see that shifting a center fielder to a corner spot can lead to the appearance of overall improvement. Does that mean it will happen for everyone? No. But could Dexter Fowler follow the same path? Absolutely. Here are stats for the past three years of Dexter Fowler’s career:

Fowler’s Defense

Year UZR DRS Routine Plays Made Def (Fangraphs)
Year UZR DRS Routine Plays Made Def (Fangraphs)
2015 -1.7 -12 99.1% 0.6
2016 1.0 1 99.5% 2.7
2017 -5.9 -18 99.5% -4.4

If we focus on the three most recent seasons like with Ozuna and Eaton, Dexter Fowler trended downward last season. In center field he has been average at best. Having focused on their first years after the move, I think we can at least count on Dexter Fowler’s DRS and UZR improving. If he stays healthy and improves upon last year’s numbers, the jump may be larger than Ozuna’s. The Cardinals’ outfield potential suddenly looks really good.

The Cardinals need a right fielder. Given what we’ve seen with Eaton and Ozuna, Dexter Fowler might be an above-average right fielder.

. . .

Audrey Stark is a contributor at Viva El Birdos. You can follow her on Twitter @HighStarkSunday.