Paying His Dues to the Dirt: Dexter Fowler’s BABIP Highs and Lows

Call it the “Curse of the BP Wrigleyville Digital Magazine,” though you could probably come up with a catchier title. For our recently released midseason special, I wrote about Dexter Fowler providing the best production from a Cubs center fielder in a half-decade. When I began the piece in mid-June, Fowler ranked among the top five National League center fielders in most offensive categories, including OPS, ISO, and home runs—and in the top three, in some cases.

Whether it was a curse, or just an easily explainable, unrelated sequence of events, over the course of the next month, Fowler would enter a prolonged slump that dropped his OPS by more than 80 points.

On June 11, Fowler’s slash line sat at  .252/.333/.416. He was producing, despite the fact that his .307 BABIP was more than 40 points below his career average entering the season (.349, which is, for the record, extraordinarily high, even for a guy who called Coors Field home for years).

Then, from  June 12 through the weekend before the All-Star break, a span of 27 games, Fowler hit .163/.231/.245, with two extra-base hits. During this stretch, Fowler’s BABIP was just .203.

On July 11, the Saturday before the break, Fowler went 0-for-4 in the team’s 5-1 loss to the White Sox. His OPS had bottomed out at .667 (.225/.303/.364), and his season .274 BABIP was 75 points below his career average.

Fowler’s prolonged slump and recent recovery (despite little-to-no fluctuation in his walk, strikeouts, and balls in play rates) serve to highlight the link between his production and his BABIP. Throughout his career, Fowler’s numbers have risen and fallen according to his BABIP. Often, he has gone through prolonged in-season low-BABIP stretches, only to rebound during the season. In 2012, his best season to date, Fowler had a .266 BABIP through the team’s first 33 games. In those 112 plate appearances, he hit .219/.318/.406. Fowler still managed a .724 OPS, thanks to four home runs and a 12.5% walk rate.

From mid-May through the end of the season, though, he hit .321/.408/.492 , with a remarkably high .422 BABIP. It was Fowler’s best big-league season, as he notched career highs in home runs (13), OPS (.863), and OPS+ (119).

Fowler has been on that kind of high-BABIP streak since the Sunday before the break. Entering Tuesday night in Pittsburgh, in the 17 games since his season hit its nadir, Fowler has found his early-season form, hitting .333/.475/.476. The power has begun to return (five extra-base hits), and his walk rate is 21.3% since mid-July. Not surprisingly, Fowler has been riding a .396 BABIP during this resurgent stretch. After falling below league-average in mid-July, his recent stretch has boosted him all the way to a .277 True Average—a well-above-average mark.

BABIP is Life, and Life is BABIP

These extreme BABIP stretches, both in 2012 and 2015, might seem like fluke or coincidence, as players are always riding very low or very high BABIP’s for 10 games, 20 games, or even entire seasons. For Fowler, though, his BABIP has generally been the best predictor of his production:

2009 .351 94 .266
2010 .328 92 .265
2011 .354 103 .280
2012 .390 119 .278
2013 .323 102 .265
2014 .351 119 .292

Fowler’s three best seasons by OPS+ and TAv (2011, 2012, and 2014) have coincided with his three highest seasons of BABIP.

It is not unusual, of course, for apparent changes in a player’s overall production to be driven by BABIP fluctuations, but in Fowler’s case it is an especially good measure of his success, or lack thereof. That’s because he’s a high-strikeout, high-walk, average-power hitter. Guys with different profiles will see their output respond less to BABIP changes. (For example, a player like Mark Teixeira can post a .250 BABIP, but still produce a .957 OPS. Conversely, Joe Mauer can own a .312 BABIP and just a .712 OPS.) Fowler, though, is particularly reliant on BABIP, and throughout his career, you will know his level of production just by looking at his batting average on balls in play.

BABIP on Four-Seamers

As we covered a bit in the Digital Magazine, Fowler’s overall production is often tied to his production against four-seam fastballs, a pitch opposing hurlers had thrown him 38.2% of the time entering this season. As can be expected from that percentage, Fowler’s overall BABIP is affected largely by his BABIP against four-seamers.

Fowler entered 2015 with a career .343 BABIP against four-seam fastballs. He has never finished a full  season with anything lower than a .308 BABIP against the pitch. Entering 2015, Fowler’s four-seam BABIP splits have been remarkably similar, with a .347 BABIP against left-handed pitchers (batting right), and a .341 BABIP against right-handed pitchers (batting left).

This season, though, Fowler has seen four-seamers on 37.9% of all pitches, hitting .234, slugging .390, and with just a .254 BABIP. There is a large difference in his four-seam BABIP splits. Against left-handed pitchers (batting right), he has a .407 BABIP, but he is slugging just .382, thanks to just two doubles and zero home runs. Against right-handed pitchers (batting left), he has just a .209 BABIP, but a .392 slugging percentage, with six of his ten home runs. As BP Wrigleyville’s Matthew Trueblood noted this is “because his swing is longer, more uppercutting, and more power-reliant from that (left) side.”

During his slump (from mid-June through mid-July), Fowler hit just .236 and slugged .361 (with a .268 BABIP) against four-seam fastballs. 

Since July 12, however, Fowler has hit four-seamers at .345 and slugged .586, with a .381 BABIP, numbers closer to what he has produced throughout his career. He’s made a small change to the trigger mechanism in his swing from the left side; maybe it’s helping him get the barrel to those heaters more often.

The Peripherals and Looking Ahead

As we mentioned above, most of Fowler’s peripherals are in line with his career averages, and in some cases, they’re better. He’s putting balls in play in 64% of all plate appearances, which is his highest percentage since 2010, and two percentage points above his career average. Fowler’s 21.1% strikeout rate through August 3 is actually below his career 22.2% rate. His 11.7% walk rate is just below his 12.5% rate entering the season.

Two career lows that could be affecting his BABIP are his percentage of balls that are hit hard (24.0%) and infield hit percentage (4.7%), which is crucial for a speedster like Fowler.

Fowler’s production seems inextricably linked to his BABIP, for better and worse. His best seasons have come when his BABIP is highest. However, Fowler’s career track record suggests that he rebounds from low-BABIP stretches, and can sustain high BABIPs for entire seasons. He is riding that kind of high BABIP stretch as the Cubs enter August, and hopefully it continues for the next two (or three) months.

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