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Dexter Fowler Fits Cardinals Offense, but not Defense

Many Cardinals fans are probably celebrating the team’s deal with free agent outfielder Dexter Fowler. However, I am still not sure about whether or not the Cardinals made a smart move. Here’s why.

Wow! Shortly after it was rumored that Dexter Fowler might not want to play for Mike Matheny, he signs up to do just that. I suppose 5 years and $80-90 million can change one’s mind pretty quickly. Regardless of whether or not that rumor was true, the Cardinals are adding the top outfielder left on the free agent market. Fowler is an exciting player, and one who adds a lot to the Cardinals. Yet the fit isn’t as perfect as you think it is, because there are some misconceptions about both Fowler and the Cardinals’ team right now. Here’s my step-by-step reaction to the signing, leading me to be so conflicted over the acquisition.

Part 1: Dexter Fowler gets on base at a great clip.

Throughout each of his Major League seasons, Dexter Fowler has always done one thing really well: walk. That may sound silly, but it’s not. Fowler has walked in an incredible 12.6 percent of his plate appearances, making his OBP 98 points higher than his batting average. Last season, Fowler ranked 10th among qualified players with a 14.3 percent walk rate. I wouldn’t say that the Cardinals lacked a leadoff hitter in 2016, because Matt Carpenter was a really good one. However, having two .370+ OBP guys at the top of the order is an incredible benefit.

The player who Fowler will most directly be replacing in the lineup is Matt Holliday (at least in terms of number of plate appearances). Holliday was not his usual self last season. He ended up with an OBP of .322, 60 points lower than his career on-base percentage. Last season, Fowler was at .393. I doubt he gets back up to that number again (more on that later), but .370 is a huge improvement.

The bonus effect, of course, is that the Cubs lose that .390 OBP guy. They will likely be using Albert Almora to replace him. Given Almora’s minor league track record, that could be about an 80 point decrease in one spot of the lineup. Meanwhile, the Cardinals are gaining about 50 points in one lineup spot. Overall, it will get the Cardinals more than halfway to closing the 20 point gap that existed between the two teams in 2016.

Part 2: Fowler is not that good on defense

A common refrain I have heard is that Fowler plugs all of the Cardinals’ holes. Well, that might be true on offense, but not defensively. For some reason, Fowler has a reputation as a good defensive outfielder. The numbers really don’t back that up. He certainly has the speed to be good, but he doesn’t make the most of it.

Fowler's defensive metrics from FanGraphs
Fowler’s defensive metrics from FanGraphs

Prior to 2016, Fowler averaged worse than -9 defensive runs saved per season. He only had one full season in which his DWAR was positive. In 2016, things changed a bit for Fowler. Joe Maddon and the Cubs decided to position him deeper than before, and that had a significant effect. Here is a great read from Doug Glanville on the numbers behind that, but the results were great. Or, at least, relatively great. Fowler posted +1 DRS and +1 UZR in 2016, the best marks of his career. Even when he did better, it was only solid.

At 30 years old, Fowler isn’t getting better in the field. He will likely slip back below average next year, if he follows the average aging curve. The Cardinals have been vocal about their desire to add a center fielder this offseason. The plan is to move Randal Grichuk to left. Despite the fact that Grichuk is actually a really good defensive center fielder, Fowler will probably play center. I don’t see any way in which that is more beneficial to the Cardinals than Fowler playing left field on the defensive side. While Grichuk in left and Fowler in center is an improvement over Holliday in left and anyone in center, the Cardinals had much better options defensively than Fowler.

Part 3: Fowler is a great baserunner

After noting the defense, I quickly realized the next best part about Dexter Fowler: he is already the Cardinals’ best baserunner. According to FanGraph’s baserunning runs metric, Fowler was 6.2 runs above average in this area in 2016. The Cardinals’ best was Randal Grichuk at +2.4. Fowler usually settles around four runs above average, but that is still better than any other Cardinal.

Again, assuming it’s Matt Holliday who Dexter Fowler is replacing, that is enough for about a 7 run swing. Holliday was at -3.0 BsR last season, and Fowler isn’t trending downwards in this category. The best part about it? Fowler’s positive grade is mostly due to intelligent decisions. UBR measures the runs added or subtracted by taking extra bases, not taking them, or getting caught trying. 4.3 of the 6.2 runs that Fowler earned from his baserunning came from this area. He doesn’t even steal much, and while he’s above average at avoiding double plays, it’s his intelligence that makes him a really good baserunner.

It’s Time To Sign Dexter Fowler

Also notable is the fact that Fowler’s on-base prowess makes this part of his game all the more important. The value of his on-base skills goes down if he can’t do anything once he gets there. However, Fowler gets rid of that fear by being so good on the base paths. You can laugh at me for writing about his baserunning if you want, but his value is roughly $3-5 million higher per year because of his success in this area.

Part 4: Lots of strikeouts

Much of baseball analysis centers around the three true outcomes: walks, strikeouts, and home runs. Fowler excels in the first category, and is a safe bet for 10-15 homers. However, he strikes out more than you would like to see for someone without much power. In 2016, Fowler had the 34th highest strikeout rate amongst 146 qualified hitters. He fanned 22.5 percent of the time, which is right on par with his career rate of 22.2 percent. A lot of Fowler’s appeal is his .393 OBP from a year ago. However, he is unlikely to hit .276 again with that strikeout rate.

If his average drops, then his OBP will also fall some. How much is unclear, because Fowler has played so little outside of Coors Field. While he actually did hit .276 for Houston in 2014, history suggests that he will either need to hit more homers or cut down on his strikeout rate for him to get there again. Fowler is about to enter his 9th full Major League season. Significant changes in either of those two areas are unlikely to come, at this point.

Part 5: A high line drive rate …

One of the reasons that Fowler was able to hit .276 was his high line drive rate. He ended up in the 85th percentile of qualified hitters in line drive rate. Obviously, hitting more line drives will increase your batting average. Fowler’s ability to square up the baseball gives him a better chance at a higher BABIP. This made me think that maybe my strikeout concerns were overblown. If he hits enough line drives, then he can still sustain that high average. Unfortunately, I then noticed the rest of his batted ball profile.

Part 6: … that isn’t enough to sustain a .350 BABIP

Fowler’s career BABIP is high because he played so many games at Coors Field. Coincidentally, he has registered two seasons of a .350+ BABIP in his three years since being in Colorado. Outside of his line drive rate, Fowler shows little evidence that he can support such a high BABIP. Fowler’s soft hit rate sat right around the median in 2016, while his hard hit rate just barely missed the first quartile (bottom 25 percent). If he isn’t making hard contact, then there is little chance of him getting to .350 on balls in play.

Dexter Fowler's spray chart in 2016 by batted ball type. Courtesy of baseball savant.
Dexter Fowler’s spray chart in 2016 by batted ball type. Courtesy of baseball savant.

Early Steamer projections have Fowler pegged for a .318 BABIP in 2017. Steamer suggests that this would lead to a .254/.360/.396 slash line. An OBP of .360 would still be well above average, but it doesn’t sound as great as .393, does it? Fowler can certainly be a valuable piece of the Cardinals for the next few years, but I don’t think we’ll see another 4-WAR season from him. Depending on how much he falls, that might not be a problem. I just don’t know what the Cardinals believe they will be getting from Fowler. Going back to the 2-3 WAR range sounds like a reasonable expectation.

Part 7: Did it have to be for five years?

This is the part that bugs me more than anything. It is true that high walk guys tend to age well, but Fowler has many flaws. His fielding and swing have holes in them, and he has only had one great season. Paying more in AAV to get this down to four years would have been a smarter deal. Also, I know that the Cardinals don’t give opt-out clauses on principle, but I would have snuck one in there after year three, hoping that Fowler does exercise it. I think the Cardinals have three seasons of getting at least two wins above replacement from Fowler. After that, there will likely be a drop-off. Stomaching that for 25 percent of the contract sounds better than for 40 percent of it.

In total, these next couple of seasons will define the value of the contract. If Fowler can provide 3 WAR in each of the next three seasons, he should come close enough to $80-90 million in value. There are reasons to believe that he will, and reasons to believe that he won’t. I am trying to take a “wait and see” approach, because I really am not sure what will happen. However, that is way too difficult for me. If this doesn’t work, nobody will take the contract, so to some extent, it has to. The only thing we do know is that the Dexter Fowler signing gives the Cardinals a much better shot to win the World Series in 2017 and 2018. After that, it’s anybody’s guess.

Photo credit: Tommy Gilligan – USA TODAY Sports

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