St Louis Cardinals

Dexter Fowler’s early struggles are overstated

ST. LOUIS, MO - APRIL 04: St. Louis Cardinals center fielder Dexter Fowler (25) at bat against the Chicago Cubs during a MLB baseball game between the St. Louis Cardinals and the Chicago Cubs on April 04, 2017 at the Busch Stadium in Saint Louis, MO. (Photo by Jimmy Simmons/Icon Sportwire)
(Jimmy Simmons/Icon Sportwire)

After getting off to a disappointing 3-6 start to the season, there is a lot of blame to go around in the St. Louis Cardinals clubhouse. The bullpen has had its struggles while the offense is scoring just 3.7 runs per game. Jhonny Peralta, Kolen Wong, Matt Carpenter and Randal Grichuk haven’t done much at the plate, while Adam Wainwright, Seung-hwan Oh and Brett Cecil have been hit hard by opposing batters.

That’s not a recipe for success, but let’s look at the run-scoring problem from the top down. That starts with the leadoff man and brand-new center fielder, Dexter Fowler.

Back in the 2016 season when he was with the Chicago Cubs, Fowler started the year with an obscenely hot first nine games, hitting .467/.590/.733 with a home run and seven walks in his first 39 plate appearances. The Cubs were 8-1 in those games. The phrase “you go, we go” was the motto that Joe Maddon had for his leadoff man with the Cubs, but it seems to be true so far with the Cardinals, as well.

We’re dealing with a tiny sample size here, given that we’re barely into the 2017 regular season. But in 40 plate appearances to start the year, Fowler has collected just six hits—five singles with a double thrown in—while leading the team with 12 strikeouts. Fowler’s slash line is an ugly .171/.275/.200, and according to FanGraphs, he’s been worth -0.2 WAR.

For more fun with sample sizes, we could also point to the fact that Washington Nationals second baseman Daniel Murphy has already been worth 0.8 WAR while Minnesota Twins catcher Jason Castro (worth 1.1 WAR last year) has put up 0.6. The point is, these numbers are all subject to change with the ebb and flow of the regular season.

But it’s hard to ignore Fowler’s slow start for one major reason. Whether or not it was his intention—or the intention of the St. Louis Cardinals—Fowler is viewed unfairly through the looking glass by his home fans. Fowler is a wonderful complementary player and an excellent leadoff man, but what he’s not is a savior. The Cardinals’ failure to make another big addition to their roster has unfairly painted him in that light.

Fowler signed a five-year, $82.5 million deal to leave the Cubs and patrol center field for the Cardinals, cashing in on a big 2016 which saw him set a career-best in WAR (4.7) while playing a major role in Chicago winning a championship—he’s the only player in the history of baseball to hit a homer leading off Game 7 of the World Series. Fowler’s presence at the top of the lineup pushes Carpenter into the more-ideal three-hole, while allowing Grichuk to move over to a much more natural left field.

Everything about the move made sense, but there were other major issues that the Cardinals ignored about their roster. They hit a ton of home runs last year, but a lot of them walked out the door with Brandon Moss and Matt Holliday. The pitching staff isn’t particularly deep, and the solution there was to rely on internal improvements from pitchers recovering from serious injuries. The bullpen was untrustworthy, and only the left-handed Cecil was brought in to make an impact.

It’s obviously not something that’s unique to fans of the Cardinals, but the expectations are higher for Fowler than others that might also be struggling. Some of the fans have already started to turn on him, less than 10 percent of the way through the season.

But what is the reason for Fowler’s early struggles? The truth might be in the breaking pitches. Last season, he hit very well against the four-seam and two-seam fastballs while struggling with the curveball, slider and changeup. Via BrooksBaseball:

If we dig further into his zone from 2016, we can see that he specifically struggled with those three pitches down and out of the zone—not really all that surprising.

You can also see that he saw a high number of those pitches in a particular area during the 2016 season.

But pitchers seem to be attacking Fowler in a very specific way so far in 2017.

Fowler has a great eye at the plate, so eventually, he’s going to adjust and begin to lay off those pitches. I’m sure this same phrase was probably said about Jason Heyward a billion times early last year, which isn’t the best omen, but Fowler has a track record of success. For his career, he has a slash line of .267/.366/.419 in 1,073 games played.

All of that means that the concern over a slow start for the new outfielder—or any player that’s new to a team—is overstated to death. Players go through hot and cold streaks throughout the year. From late August through early September last season, for example, Fowler hit .193/.270/.246 in 64 plate appearances over 14 games. The Cubs were already leading the division by a mile by then, so nobody really noticed or cared.

In the end, you can count on Fowler to do what he always does. He’ll get on base, he’ll provide energy in the clubhouse and on the bases and he’ll play solid defense in the outfield. But he’s not going to fix whatever other issues the Cardinals might have in the middle of their lineup. He’s not going to pitch in relief. And he’s certainly not going to be their savior.

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