You go, we go. That’s the phrase Cubs manager Joe Maddon famously applies to his leadoff hitter, center fielder Dexter Fowler. It means that when Fowler is going well, the Cubs are usually going well too. Of course, it’s very simplistic to whittle something as complex as a 25-man baseball team down to the success of one player, but there are a lot of ways in which Fowler is incredibly important to the Cubs’ success.
When the Cubs made their original deal for Fowler, just a month prior to pitchers and catchers reporting in 2015, it came at a time of transition for the franchise. They’d signed Jon Lester the month prior and brought Maddon in as manager mere weeks before that. In the outfield, the Cubs really only had the injury-prone Jorge Soler and the left-handed hitting Chris Coghlan, who was better suited for a bench role, penciled in as starters. Prospect Arismendy Alcantara had been with the big league club for a few months to finish the 2014 season, but his poor showing cost him some standing in the eyes of the front office.
The Cubs traded underwhelming starting pitcher Dan Straily and valuable third baseman Luis Valbuena, who had been worth 2.2 WARP in 2014, to the Houston Astros in exchange for Fowler. With Kris Bryant on the horizon, the need in the outfield was far greater than the need at third base, even if Fowler was due to be a free agent at the end of the season. The deal made sense, and what’s more is that it gave the Cubs something they hadn’t truly had in years: a lead-off man that actually gets on base. Fowler was coming to the Cubs with a career OBP of .366.
But he got off to a really slow start to the season in 2015, and the Cubs—expected to be somewhere within a few games of .500 by most experts—performed moderately well. But the feeling was, given the performances of Jake Arrieta, Anthony Rizzo, Bryant, and others, that the Cubs were better than what their record showed. On July 11th, the Cubs were 46-40 and nine games behind the St. Louis Cardinals in the NL Central. Fowler? He had a triple slash of .225/.303/.364.
But the Cubs, as we all know, really took off in the second half of the season. From that day forward, Fowler would get on base at a .394 clip while the Cubs would go 51-25. Mike Singer of CSNChicago.com wrote on August 23rd about Fowler’s importance to the Cubs.
“You go, we go,” is what Cubs manager Joe Maddon tells Fowler before every at-bat. “He’s really gotten the strike zone back in order, accepting his walks, hitting the ball hard on both sides.”
Singer goes on to make several great points about just how Fowler’s success on the field translated to the win column.
“Since the All-Star break, Fowler is hitting .320 with an on-base percentage of .452. His OBP ranks third in the National League over that time frame, while his 83 runs scored rank fifth in all of baseball. In 34 games — the Cubs are 24-10 when he has played in the second half — there was exactly one game where he failed to reach base.
Not coincidentally, the Cubs’ offense has exploded post-All-Star break. In 35 second-half games, they’re averaging 4.97 runs per game compared to the 3.85 they averaged throughout the first 87 games of the season when Fowler not-so-secretly struggled at gauging the strike zone.”
In the Cubs’ four playoff victories, Fowler was 6-for-16 with a walk and two home runs. In their five playoff losses, he’d hit 4-for-20 with a walk and a double. Fowler would hit free agency looking for a big payday, and by all accounts he should’ve gotten it.
But after a long wait that went all the way into spring training, Fowler was back with the Cubs for—at least—one more season. It shouldn’t have shocked anyone that Fowler’s hot start with the bat this season coincided with a bolt out of the gate from the team. The Cubs were 46-20 on June 18th, as Fowler’s slash line was an exceptional .290/.398/.483. But that was the game he went down with a hamstring injury, and would end up having to sit out about a month of action.
With Fowler out, the Cubs went through a major struggle. They were 11-17 while he was on the disabled list, with Chris Coghlan, Ben Zobrist, Javier Baez, and Tommy La Stella attempting to fill the leadoff gap. The group produced poor results as a collective; the Cubs’ leadoff hitters during that 28-game stretch hit .221 with a .323 OBP in 130 plate appearances.
Things turned around once Fowler returned, although you could surmise that the time off with the All-Star break was at least as important to their success. But you can’t argue with the facts. The Cubs are 80-37 in games in which Fowler plays this season, while they’re only 17-18 when he doesn’t. In wins, Fowler’s slash line is .314/.433/.503, while it drops to just .185/.284/.319 in losses.
The Cubs have frequently jumped on the opponent early, scoring an average of 5.9 runs per nine innings in the first inning alone. They’re 35-7 when leading at the beginning of the second inning, and Fowler has a big part in all of that. In 110 plate appearances leading off the game, Fowler is getting on base at a .473 clip with an outrageous 1.207 OPS.
Bryant has a strong case for winning the National League MVP, while starting pitchers Kyle Hendricks and Lester are in the conversation for the Cy Young award. This is a team full of stars, and no one player has made the 2016 Cubs what they are. There are an abundance of players that have made an impact on this team. But as far as correlating the Cubs’ success on the field with the performance, whether positive or negative, of any one specific player?
As Fowler goes, the Cubs go.
Lead photo courtesy Dennis Wierzbicki—USA Today Sports.