We Wish Health and Happiness For Dexter Fowler. But In the End It’s All About Performance

Derrick Goold, esteemed baseball writer at the Post-Dispatch and STLtoday, wrote an illuminating piece on Dexter Fowler over the weekend. Goold visited Fowler’s home in Las Vegas after the conclusion of the baseball winter meetings, and the subsequent interview was personal, insightful and made for a terrific read. I highly recommend it.

Speaking to Goold about his lost 2018 season, Fowler said:  “I was depressed. That’s what I was. I got mad that I let it get to me. I should be mentally stronger than that. I shouldn’t have let it weigh me down as much as it did. But I was. I was depressed. I was depressed.”

Emphasizing his renewed spirit, recovery from a fractured foot, and happy state of mind. Fowler is eager to start over for the Cardinals in 2019.

“I’m excited to put this all behind us and move on,” he told Goold.

And Fowler has a lot to leave behind before purging 2018 and resetting for 2019.

The short list:

1. An abysmal season offensively. Fowler batted .180 with a weak .575 OPS. Among 207 Cardinals outfielders that had at least 300 plate appearances in a season since the first NL post-expansion season (1962),  Fowler ranked next-to-last with a wRC+ of 62. That means he was 38 percent below the league average offensively in park-adjusted runs created.

2. The rising anguish and anger that bubbled over during the final half-season of a terrible relationship with manager Mike Matheny.  Understand that Matheny never really wanted Fowler, or liked Fowler. Why that is, only Matheny knows. But during the early months of 2018, there was nothing left of the relationship to save.

3. Fowler was hurt by derogatory comments made by Cardinals president of baseball ops John Mozeliak. In a June interview with team broadcaster Dan McLaughlin, Mozeliak seemingly questioned Fowler’s “effort and energy level.”  Mozeliak adamantly denied that, saying his comments were general — spoken out of frustration over the team’s performance — and not meant as a sharp jab directed at Fowler. Whatever. Mozeliak apologized to Fowler. And Fowler accepted.

4. Fowler, experiencing reduced playing time in right field, giving way to the likes of Harrison Bader, Jose Martinez and Tyler O’Neill. 

5. Fowler became the object of shameful personal attacks on social media. Many were contaminated by traces of racism.

Fowler injured his foot while running the bases in a game at Pittsburgh on Aug. 3. The fracture ended his season. And the timing was especially poor; Fowler’s performance had improved since Mike Shildt took over as manager on July 15.

It may not seem like much, and the “Before” and “After” snapshots are distorted by the differences in sample size. Fowler had 270 plate appearances with Matheny as manager last season.  And 64 PA for Shildt until going down with the injury. Still, there was an upturn.

A look at the Before and the After:

Batting average:  .174 … .204 … + 30

Onbase percentage:  .270 … .312 … + 43

Slugging percentage:  .285 … .352 … +67

OPS:  .555 … .665 …  + 110 points

wRC+ (100 is average):  56 … 85 … +29

Walk rate:  10.7 … 14.1 … +3.4%

Two negatives: Fowler’s ground-ball rate jumped 20 points after the manager change (just a phase?) and his outfield defense remained below average.

All of that said, Fowler was making a positive turn in his season under Shildt, who made it a priority to restore Fowler’s confidence and let Fowler know that he wanted an open-honest communication between player and manger. Fowler’s morale was up before the injury on Aug. 3.

Here’s the baseball question: Can Fowler rally as a player and perform — at least offensively — in a way that approximates his 2017 form? His defensive inadequacy in center field aside, Fowler did a lot of things well in his first year with the Cardinals after signing a five-year, $82.5 million deal. He set single-season bests for slugging percentage (.488), Isolated Power (.224), homers (18) and RBIs (64.)

Fowler’s .851 OPS in 2017 was the second highest of his career.

Fowler was worth 2.5 WAR in 2017; that ranked a fine 14th among NL outfielders that had at least 450 PA.

And his 121 wRC+ in 2017 (21 percent above league average offensively)  ranked 10th among NL outfielders (minimum 450 (PA.)

Fowler thrived away from the No. 1 lineup spot in 2017. In his 255 plate appearances batting second, third, fourth, fifth, or sixth, Fowler batted .306 with a .404 OBP, .551 SLG, .955 OPS and a 147 wRC+ … 47 percent above league average.

(Hell, those are Bryce Harper numbers.)

Do we really believe that Fowler has lost all ability to hit with such authority?

I’ve had my doubts, sure … plenty of doubts … but I find it hard to believe that all is lost, and that Fowler can’t ratchet up his offense in 2019.

That’s why I think it was smart of Fowler to explain some of the factors behind 2018 swoon. His confessional offered reasons to believe Fowler can find his way back.

You may dismiss them as phony excuses, but I’ll be more accepting of what Fowler had to say. I don’t care where you work or how much you’re being paid, if you’re unhappy in the workplace it doesn’t help your mindset.

I’m glad Fowler opened up to Goold in a sincere effort to clear the air and prepare for a restart for the Cardinals in 2019. I don’t care how much money Fowler makes, a troubled frame of mind is detrimental to performance. Depression doesn’t analyze a person’s annual income before attacking.

It doesn’t matter if you are wealthy, poor, or somewhere in between — depression is a demon that plays no favorites. Professional athletes aren’t immune, so why do people assume otherwise? It’s really foolish. Having lived with generations of the depression cycle in my own family — and having to fight through it myself — I have nothing but empathy for any person who must endure that creeping, hopeless feeling that edges into your soul.

Let me offer a few other observations:

+ Don’t be mad at Fowler for signing a five-year, $82.5 million contract with the Cardinals. If you must be angry, your vitriol should be directed at those who offered the contract.

+ Same logic applies with Bryce Harper/Fowler. If the Cardinals remain disengaged from a free-agent pursuit of Bryce Harper, four things: (1)  Fowler isn’t making the decision; (2) naturally the team has at least a reasonable amount of confidence concerning a positive Fowler comeback; (3) Harper has never indicated a desire to play here; (4) if ownership really, really wanted Harper then we wouldn’t be talking about Fowler’s prospects for 2019. Management would sign Harper anyway and figure out the rest of the puzzle later.

+ Back to that contract; Fowler has three years remaining on that deal. And it’s truly naive of anyone to seriously believe the Cardinals were going to just burn the remaining $49.5 million left on the deal instead of taking stock of Fowler after he goes through offseason conditioning, and plays games in spring training, and plays regular-season games early in the schedule.

+ Fowler will be at this year’s Cardinals’ Winter Warmup. So you can cross that one off your Mad-As-Hell list.

As for Fowler’s bounce-back possibilities, the only smart thing to do is settle into a wait-and-see mode. The Cardinals are pleased with his physical rehab following the foot fracture. They’re very pleased with his attitude. Mozeliak and Shildt are looking forward to watching Fowler return to form — and they’ve each expressed confidence that he can.

Well, can Fowler restore his offense? He’ll be 33 in March.

Let’s not act like it hasn’t happened before.

Here’s a list of Cardinals’ outfielders that have rebounded from awful seasons. I’ll use wRC+ as a quick reference; remember, 100 is league average.

* Milt Thompson had a 110 wRC+ in 1989 at age 30. That wRC+ dropped to 70 in 1990 … a decline of 40 percent from one season to the next. But in 1991, at the age of 32, Thompson posted a 127 wRC+ … so he went from a 40-point decline to a 57 percent increase offensively in just one season. And Thompson had a 117 wRC+ in 1992 at age 33.

* Going back to something I cited earlier in this piece, last season Fowler had the second-worst wRC+ by any Cardinals outfielder in the post-expansion era. You know who was worse? Hall of Famer Lou Brock (42 wRC+) in 1978 at the age of 39. But in his final big-league season (1979) Brock improved his wRC+ to an above-average 103. At age 40 Brock picked up his offense by 61 percent.

* At age 30, Willie McGee had a 79 wRC+ in 1989. The following year, in a season split between St. Louis and Oakland, McGee improved to 120 wRC+ in his age-31 season … a rebound of 41 percent. And McGee went on to average 111.5 wRC+ over the next three seasons after that.

* A young Vince Coleman had a weak 66 wRC+ in 1986; he took that up to 99 wRC+ in 1987 … a 33-percent increase.

And here’a sampling of a few non-Cardinal outfielders through the years:

  • Gerald Williams: had 64 wRC+ in 1997 at age 30 … followed by a 124 wRC+ at age 31.
  • Juan Pierre: had 64 wRC+ in 2002, followed by consecutive seasons of 100 and 110.
  • Alex Rios: after a horrible 60 wRC+ in 2011 at age 30, he jumped to 126 wRC+ in 2012 at age 31.
  • Carl Crawford: had a 76 wRC+ in 2003, and increased it to 101 wRC+ in 2004.
  • Lou Piniella had a 73 wRC+ in 1973; but jacked that up to 114 wRC+ in 1974 … an increase of 41 percent.

Fowler lost bad speed and sprint speed in 2018, so his first test will be to prove that he’s physically sharp. And then it comes down to performance. If Fowler hits well, and returns to his 2017 form — no one will be raising hell. But if Fowler looks bad at the plate, and can’t break through, then at some point he’ll have to sit.  If Fowler is hurting the Cardinals with his offense and defense, then Shildt will have to make the necessary decision and go with another option in right field.

I have an open mind. I’m hoping for the best for Dexter.

But it always comes down to performance.

Thanks for reading …