On the night when Jake Arrieta threw his no-hitter and the Cubs all donned pajamas for the long flight home to Chicago, a lot of players got love for their embrace of Joe Maddon’s favorite shtick. Arrieta himself stole the show, of course, not only with his on-field performance, but with the mustache-covered onesie he wore even to the post-game press conference, and with the cool ease he exuded at sitting there, answering questions in that preposterous costume after the apex achievement of his Cy Young season. Anthony Rizzo got some laughs with his emoji jumpsuit. Travis Wood sent chills down the spines of anyone with a cousin way too committed to camouflage and gun culture, but everyone laughed it off.
In the center of most of the pictures from that night, though, resplendent in steel-gray silk, looking like an international man of mystery just stepping out of the room for some ice, was Dexter Fowler. There was the straight man, the goofball, an improbable number of Supermen and Batmen, and Fowler, who effortlessly made the whole endeavor sexy. And that’s a pretty fair way of boiling down Fowler, whether one is measuring and appreciating the season he had in Chicago, or looking ahead, at his prospective role in the Cubs’ offseason: central, mysterious, and sexy.
156 G, 690 PA, .250/.346/.411, .281 TAv, 3.7 WARP
Year in Review
With two outs in the top of the ninth and the tying run at first base, Fowler hit an 0-2 pitch into the right-field bleachers at Coors Field on April 12th. That was a bit of a tone-setter for the resilient 2015 Cubs. Fowler, a long-time Rockie before sojourning in Houston in 2014, enjoyed the big hit, skipping out of the box, clapping emphatically as he rounded first base, and exuberantly shouting to his teammates as he returned to the dugout. It might not have done much that the team’s talent and Maddon’s good guidance wouldn’t have otherwise done for the final win-loss record, but it was a galvanizing moment for fans who had only put their arms halfway around the team in the early going.
Much more important than setting tone, though, was Fowler’s responsibility for setting tables, and early in the season, he wasn’t doing it. After a fairly strong start, Fowler slumped badly from late May nearly up to the All-Star break. He hit .193/.251/.298 over 176 plate appearances at one stretch, and while the endpoint is arbitrary, it might not be meaningless. The final game of that stretch was the one on July 10th, the Friday before the All-Star break. In it, Fowler struck out looking (on three pitches) in the first inning, lined into a double play to end the third, and got caught looking twice more (in full counts, each time) in the sixth and eighth frames of what ended up a 1-0 Cubs loss.
This had been Fowler’s problem throughout the aforesaid rough patch: either having pitches he felt were low or outside called strikes on him, or chasing them futilely. His strikeout rate, to that point in the season, was right in line with his career norm—a hair over 22 percent. Instead of walking around 12 percent of the time, though, he was down at nine percent, and the contact he was making was poor. According to FanGraphs, he recorded a 24.4-percent hard-hit rate on batted balls in the first half. In the second half, that number jumped to 32.0 percent, and his walk rate shot to 15.3 percent, with no change in strikeout rate. From the All-Star break on, he had a .389 OBP and as much power—which was a fair amount—as he had shown in the first half. He was at the heart of the Cubs’ second-half offensive breakout, because he was so often on base in front of Kyle Schwarber, Anthony Rizzo, and Kris Bryant.
How he did it isn’t exactly a mystery, but nor is it explainable in a single sentence. Fowler chased fewer of the pitches he has trouble handling, low in and below the strike zone, slowly working his height from a disadvantage into a non-factor. He made a swing adjustment—or perhaps, more accurately, a pre-swing adjustment—whereby he started with his bat flatter on his shoulder, then cocked it more aggressively during the trigger phase of his swing, helping him generate, it seemed, more bat speed. He also pulled the ball more—much more, 47.2 percent of the time, up from 41.6 percent in the first half. (Again, thanks, FanGraphs.) By season’s end, he had pulled a career-high percentage of his fly balls, leading to more home runs (17) than he had ever hit before. (Getting 127 more plate appearances than he had ever had before didn’t hurt, either.) A shift in the population of pitchers he faced was also partially responsible: Fowler hits better against left-handed pitchers, from the right side, and saw considerably more of those pitchers from mid-July through the end of the season than he had in the early going.
All told, Fowler did an admirable job for the Cubs. They acquired him because they needed both a center fielder and a leadoff man, and he acquitted himself well in both roles. In fact, funny thing: After a long career of miserable defensive ratings, Fowler had a (statistically) solid season with the glove. Add that to the offensive prowess he demonstrated in the second half (and which he’d firmly established before coming to Chicago), and to the durability he showed by playing all but six of the team’s games (a skill he had never shown before, to that degree), and the package is very appealing. Alas, what happened last so often shares so little in common with what will happen next in baseball, and Fowler presents, if anything, more uncertainty than most.
To begin with the circumstances here, for team and player:
- The Cubs need a center fielder and a leadoff hitter, as much now as a year ago.
- Despite having declined the qualifying offer (and therefore costing whichever team might sign him a draft pick), Fowler profiles as a fairly desirable free agent. He might be the best center fielder on the market. He’s not the best OBP machine, but he figures to come cheaper than either of the two better ones (Jason Heyward and Ben Zobrist) available.
Those things augur well for a potential reunion (or re-upping, really) between the Cubs and Fowler. On the other hand:
- The Cubs’ decision to sign John Lackey cost them their first-round pick. Thus, only by allowing Fowler to sign somewhere (anywhere) else could they retain the power to draft any sooner than the back end of the second round. Perhaps the loss of any chance of having two picks in the 25-50 range (as they might have if they signed no rejecters of Qualifying Offers and allowed Fowler to go free) will make the Cubs’ front office less likely to worry about that, since the two picks together would have lent them a budgetary flexibility that carrying the lone compensation pick can’t possibly match. Still, the Lackey signing raised the stakes of any choice to keep Fowler.
- Fowler might not really be a center fielder, and (at least in the near term) Heyward might be. Furthermore, given the basic principles of an auction like this, Fowler is going to sign with whichever team most believes in him as a leadoff hitter and a true center fielder, and that could drive his price beyond what the Cubs feel comfortable paying. (Unless, of course, they’re the big believer.)
Take a look at Fowler’s fielding statistics over the course of his career.
Dexter Fowler, Seasonal Defensive Stats, Career
Two of the three major, modern systems that measure defensive performance show Fowler taking a major step forward in 2015. There are four viable explanations for that phenomenon:
- Noise/Unreliability of Data: Defensive stats generally have wide error bars. We simply aren’t able to perfectly measure individual fielding skill yet. It’s always possible you’re seeing a hiccup, especially when fielding stats veer unexpectedly. That’s why it’s hard to assign those numbers full weight.
- The Wrigley Field Effect: To be clear, a proposed effect, not a proven one. Wrigley Field has the smallest center field, in terms of sheer area, in MLB. Perhaps Fowler’s apparent improvement was actually the result of having less (far less, given that his previous pastures were the enormous center fields of Coors Field and Minute Maid Park) ground to cover, and the defensive stats that perceived real strides just couldn’t account for the change.
- The Coors Field and/or Minute Maid Park Effects: The inverse, of course, of the above. Maybe Fowler was a good defensive center fielder all along, but the extreme parks in which he played made that impossible to see—despite the best efforts of each system to account for park effects.
- Honest-to-God Improvement: It’s rare that a player grows into a better defensive center fielder (especially a center fielder, a position dominated by athleticism, not skill or efficiency, per se) at 29 than they were at 24, but it’s not unprecedented. Maybe Fowler really worked hard on his reads and routes over the winter, and became a better defender.
We’re getting to the centrality of Fowler in the unfolding of the Cubs’ winter plans. If the team believes Fowler either made genuine strides toward (or past) average defensive status in center field, or if they believe Wrigley Field genuinely minimizes the importance of defense at that position and lets a good athlete with a weaker-than-average arm and imperfect instincts do the job adequately, Fowler becomes a very tempting free-agent target—draft pick be damned. If they think Fowler is still headed for left field in one or two years, and will hurt the club with his glove in the meantime, it’s much harder to justify bringing him back.
Nor is his defense the only aspect of Fowler’s game about which hard questions need to be answered in order to suss out the most likely direction from here. Despite that brutal first half, the worst of his career, Fowler offers a glimmer of really impressive offensive upside—and no one seems to really realize it. Remember the reasons to believe in the .272/.389/.463 batting line that was Fowler’s second half:
- He has a fairly long and consistent offensive track record, especially with regard to control of the strike zone, one that can’t be explained away by his favorable former home park.
- Other than San Francisco’s Brandon Crawford, who also had a breakout half-season in 2015 (his was the first half, but still), there is no more famous pupil of formerly freelance hitting guru (slash best hitter of all time) Barry Bonds than Fowler. If you’re so inclined, you could build a narrative whereby Bonds has helped Fowler blossom late and gorgeously, the way Bonds himself did, and then it gets easy to talk yourself into buying Fowler’s second-half stats.
- Tangible mechanical and approach changes (recounted a few paragraphs back) begat those numbers. Now, that doesn’t mean the league won’t adjust to the adjustments Fowler made during the second half, or that he can maintain both the mental sharpness and muscle memory to repeat the improved methods going forward, but we train our minds to trust results more when they appear to correlate with an improved process or some standard of sustainability.
If you believe in Fowler in Full (the average defensive center fielder with an All-Star leadoff hitter’s offensive skill set), the man is worth a five-year deal and an easy $100 million. Melvin Upton, Jr. got five years and $75 million in a less robust market, with a worse track record, largely on the strength of a 2012 second-half surge somewhat worse than Fowler’s. Of course, Upton was younger than Fowler, and he’s also been an unmitigated disaster, but that’s largely because of offensive shortcomings that were apparent even before he signed—shortcomings Fowler does not share.
If you don’t believe in that version of Fowler, things get murkier. Maybe you trust his career OBP of .363 (projecting it down some, now that he’ll be 30 and no longer plays in Colorado), but doubt the power will hang around, and maybe you’re not convinced he’s more than a Brett Gardner-caliber defender—that is to say, a faker in center field, and only an average-plus left fielder. In that case, he’s no better a free agent than Nick Markakis was a year ago when he accepted four years and just $44 million. The Cubs would have to fall very close to the top end of the spectrum in order to bring him back, but if he was just a one-year player on the center-field stage at Wrigley (like Jim Edmonds and Kenny Lofton, on two of the other beloved Cubs teams of my lifetime), he was a very, very good one.
Alternatives: Jason Heyward, Austin Jackson, Brett Gardner, Marcell Ozuna, Yoenis Cespedes, Desmond Jennings, Denard Span
Lead photo courtesy of Jerry Lai-USA TODAY Sports