Kevin Luchansky writes about Chicago baseball for WARR.
What are the Chicago Cubs getting in the 28-year-old outfielder named Dexter Fowler, who was acquired by the club earlier this week and just today agreed to a one-year, $9.5 million dollar deal to avoid arbitration?
All things considered, the seven-year veteran has put together a nice little career. What he does in his next few seasons — from ages 29 to 33 or 34 — could define how we remember him. Thus far, Fowler’s hitting .271 for his career with totals of 48 home runs, 437 runs scored and 245 runs driven in. Not too bad for a leadoff hitter, right?
The man really, really knows how to get on base. Fowler’s career average on-base percentage of .366 is pretty remarkable, and when you couple that little statistic with the fact that in his past three seasons, he has topped that average number in each, it’s even more remarkable. Last season in Houston, Fowler produced on OBP of .375, which was 15th best in the majors. The only leadoff hitters with higher percentages were Michael Brantley and his teammate, Jose Altuve.
The Cubs, who finished 28th in OBP in 2014 (.300) had a glaring need for not just a leadoff man but a great table setter. Even if it’s only for a year, Fowler fits that role quite nicely.
Speaking of well above-average career marks, Fowler has a career batting average on balls in play (BABIP) of .348. That number, which is roughly 40-50 points higher than the MLB average, has been pretty consistent throughout his eight seasons, suggesting that even if he does experience regression from his .351 mark last season, it shouldn’t be much.
As for power production, that has never been Fowler’s forte, but he has flashed some signs that there is some pop in his bat after all. In 2013, he hit eight home runs in April before injuries nagged him for the rest of his time in Colorado and into his one year stint in Houston.
Over the course of those two seasons, he played in just 235 of the possible 324 games, due to a number of injuries. Make no mistake about it, the ball carries further off the bat in Colorado, and there’s no doubt in my mind that has helped Fowler pad his stats a little, but there’s two sides to that coin. In terms of dimensions, there aren’t many parks bigger than Coors Field and Minute Maid Park.
The power alleys in both of those parks definitely aided his doubles production – especially as he is a line drive hitter – but in Wrigley, we may see a few of those hard line drives land on Waveland. It should be interesting to see how opposing outfielders position against him at home this year.
And lastly, but certainly not least, Dexter has some wheels under him. He may not move as well as he did 2009 when he swiped 27 bags or 2013 when he successfully grabbed 19, but there’s a chance he’s healthier now, too. The Cubs, 24th in the majors in 2014 in stolen bases, dead last in stolen base percentage (61.9%) and were caught stealing 40 times.
I don’t see any numbers to indicate that manager Joe Maddon is super aggressive on the base paths — his Rays finished ninth in the majors in stolen bases in 2013, though — but perhaps we’ll see him give Fowler the green light if he’s fully healthy.
Fowler strikes out at a pretty alarming rate, with a peak of 24 percent in 2012 and a low of only 20% in 2010. Seeing as the Cubs already have a lot of guys with a similar makeup, I was surprised to see Theo pursue a guy like Fowler. The case with Dexter in an interesting one, though.
He doesn’t chase (swing and miss) at many pitches outside the zone, with a 22% swing rate at non-strikes where the league average is 30%. Fowler also averages 4.15 pitches seen per plate appearance, which was good for 10th in the majors. That’s an excellent mark for a guy who should lead off for the Cubs for 140+ games this season. In other words, the strikeout numbers are less than favorable, but he does have pretty solid plate discipline.
As for his defense, it’s no secret that Fowler had an abysmal season last year, as highlighted by his -20 defensive runs saved. RZR, or Revised Zone Rating, determines the percentage of balls that flew into your area and were converted into an out. His 87% mark was the lowest of his career last season, but similar to his 2012 season when his DRS was just -10. That’s not to suggest -10 is an acceptable season for your center fielder, but perhaps Fowler didnt have the benefit of solid outfield partners while having to man two of the largest center fields in the game in Denver and Houston.
Fowler’s injuries have been discussed quite a bit, especially since the last time he’s played north of 140 games was 2012, but I think he has the kind of upside that makes him worth employing, even if he gets all of the $10+ million he is asking for an arbitration, a case the Cubs inherited from the Astros (luckily for the Cubs, he came short of that).
As for performance predictions, I am at a “wait and see” point with Fowler. If he runs smoothly in Spring Training and all systems point to “go” for Fowler health-wise, the Cubs may just want to keep him around for more than just a year.
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