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Giving Dexter Fowler a Fresh Start In Right Field Makes Sense. Until It Doesn’t.

When the Cardinals fired manager Mike Matheny, chairman Bill DeWitt Jr. said this: “We’re marginally over .500. It’s not like we’re 20 games under .500 and are desperate. I think we have a really good club and  fresh leadership, a fresh start will enhance the opportunity for this club to do much better.”

And president of baseball operations John Mozeliak said this: “This was a unique opportunity to hit the reset button. We want to find a way to salvage the season. We decided the timing should be now.”

DeWitt and Mozeliak sincerely believe their team can do better the rest of the way. And DeWitt has used the term “playoff caliber” in assessing the current roster.

The Cardinals, 3-3 under interim manager Mike Shildt, are 50-49 after losing three of five games to the Cubs at Wrigley Field. And the rollicking Pirates, winners of 11 of their last 12 games, have pushed the Cardinals into fourth place in the NL Central.

The Cards are eight games behind the first-place Cubs. The wild card isn’t out of the question, but the Cardinals are among eight teams kung-fu fighting for two WC spots. And only 5.5 games separate the team with the best record in the wild card standings (Brewers, ) from the team with the least imposing record (Nationals, 49-49.) the Cardinals and Giants are 4.5 out of the second WC spot.

With their regular season down to 63 games on Monday as they open a three-game series at Cincinnati, the Cardinals are staring at a long climb.

And if — as Mozeliak said — the Cardinals want to salvage their season, some tough decisions must be made soon.

If the prime objective is winning enough games to make it back to the playoffs, it’s probably a good idea for the Cardinals to use their best players.

Let’s focus on one area today: The Outfield.

The most disappointing area of the 2018 Cardinals.

Take a look at where the St. Louis outfielders rank as a group in comparison to the other National League outfield delegations:

# Wins Above Replacement (WAR), 3.1, 10th.

# Park adjusted runs created (wRC+), 90, tied for 13th. This means the STL outfielders are 10 percent below the league average offensively.

# wOBA (weighted onbase average): .303, 15th and last in the NL.

# Batting average,  .244, 13th.

# Onbase pct.,  .313, 14th.

# Slugging pct.,  .379, 14th.

# OPS,  .692, 15th.

# Isolated Power (ISO),  .135, 13th.

The Cardinals’ best all-around OF performer based on Wins Above Replacement is Harrison Bader with 1.9 WAR; that’s 14th among NL outfielders.

Bader is followed in the NL outfield rankings by teammates Tommy Pham (20th with 1.7 WAR) and Marcell Ozuna (0.5 WAR, tied for 44th.)

Among NL outfielders with at least 200 plate appearances, Dexter Fowler ranks last (58th) with minus 1.2 WAR.

Jose Martinez has primarily played first base this season, but corner outfield is his natural position, and last season Martinez played the outfield and had 1.6 WAR — 28th among NL outfielders.

Offensively, here’s where the Cardinals’ outfielders rank in the league for park adjusted runs created, and remember that 100 wRC+ is average:

# Bader is 32nd among NL outfielders with 111 wRC+ (11% above average.)

# Pham is 36th with 106 wRC+ (6% above average.)

# Ozuna is 41st with 86 wRC+ (14%) below average.)

# Fowler is 55th with 58 wRC+ (42% below average.)

Since Jose Martinez is part of the outfield mix (in theory) I should point out that he has a wRC+ of 127, which puts him 27 percent above league average offensively.

Bader is the fastest outfielder and by far the best defensively, with an amazing 16 Defensive Runs Saved this season. With 3 DRS Ozuna ranks 11th among MLB left fielders in defense, but right fielder Fowler (minus 5 DRS) and center fielder Pham (minus 8 DRS) are below average.

When Shildt took over as manager, he committed to playing Fowler in right field in an effort to spark Fowler’s dormant offense through regular at-bats. In his first six games playing for Shildt, Fowler batted .227 with a .250 OBP and .455 slug. Some power surfaced with two doubles and a homer, giving Fowler a .705 OPS for the six games. This mini sample isn’t overly impressive but does represent progress for Fowler.

And I understand Shildt’s thinking here. Fresh start; give Fowler a new opportunity to reset. It’s a genuine sign of respect from manager to player, and that’s a positive development considering Fowler’d iciness with Matheny.

I understand Mozeliak’s thinking too. The Cardinals invested $82.5 million in Fowler through a five-year contract. After this season he’ll have three years (and $49.5 million) remaining on the deal.

From where we stand on the outside, it seems wrong to make playing-time commitments based on salary commitments, but that’s not how it works in baseball. Team management will always make an extra effort to maximize the investment in a player. So, I may not like this — but I understand it.

That said: If Fowler doesn’t rev up his offense in a significant way over the next couple of weeks, his starting status will raise questions:

1. How can the Shildt, Mozeliak and the Cardinals insist they’re trying to win and salvage the 2018 season when their outfielder, is on the bench? Unlike Fowler, Bader is an exceptional defensive player and an above-average hitter in 2018. And he’s more of an asset on the base paths. Bader is worthy of regular starts, because he brings magnificent range to all three OF positions. And in 43 games as a starter this season, Bader has delivered a .297 average, .362 OBP, .462 slug, and  .824 OPS — plus six homers, six doubles, a triple, 13 RBIs and 28 runs scored.

That’s plenty of offense from a great defensive player who will save you runs. And while I’m not advocating a benching of Pham, I think it makes sense to give Bader more playing time in center because of his defense — unless, of course, Pham gets back in the zone offensively and starts putting up huge numbers again.

2. More on Bader: Though it’s sliver of a sample (98 plate appearances) the right-handed hitting Bader has batted .318 with a .568 slug and .956 against LH pitching in the majors. He’s got to be in there against lefties, right?

3. Martinez isn’t a good outfielder, but he’s played 124 innings in right field and 202 innings in since late in the 2016 season. And he’s below average in both spots, with minus 5 Defensive Runs Saved in left field and minus 3 DRS in right. But Fowler has struggled in right field. Yes, Fowler is more skilled defensively than Martinez — but by how much?

If Fowler isn’t hitting much, and is a liability on defense, then how exactly does he help you win? At least Martinez produces at a high level. In 670 plate appearances since the start of last season, Martinez is batting .302 with 27 homers, a .369 OBP, and .492 slug. With 131 wRC+ (31% above avg. offensively), Martinez ranks tied for 25th among all NL hitters over the last two seasons.

4. Let’s get to the question: If Martinez can play a serviceable form of defense in right field (and left), then why not put his bat in the lineup more often? He’s been sitting a lot lately after Matheny (then Shildt) moved Martinez off off first base because of poor defense.

5. OK, now what about Ozuna? Is there a law that mandates an automatic starting job and a guaranteed lineup spot at cleanup? Ozuna’s slugging percentage is down to .376, which ranks 139th among 163 qualifying MLB hitters. He’s 145th among the 163 with a .111 ISO (isolated power.) Ozuna’s 10 homers are tied for No. 123. He’s been stuck on 20 extra-base hits since July 5 — and 194 hitters have more xbh than Ozuna.

6. Will Tyler O’Neill get a chance? O’Neill crushed three more homers for Triple A Memphis on Sunday, his total to 23 for the season. Among Pacific Coast League hitters that have a minimum of 230 plate appearances, O’Neill is tied for first in home runs, and is second in slugging (.683) percentage. He has the league’s top HR ratio, cranking a homer every 9.04 at-bats. And O’Neill ranks second in the Pacific Coast League by driving in a run every 3.71 at-bats. O’Neill has also worked diligently to sharpen his plate discipline; for the season at Memphis he has a strikeout rate of 23.3% and a walk rate of 9.3%. That’s a significant improvement over past seasons.

Thanks for reading …

–Bernie

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