Bernie’s Offseason Audit: Next Up, Cardinals Outfielder Dexter Fowler

Welcome to another edition of The Audit. It’s a look back at relevant members of the 2019 Cardinals — and a look ahead to what we might expect in 2020.

(Just a quick reminder: when I cite wRC+, which is park-adjusted runs created, 100 is league average. And the same applies to OPS+; 100 is average.)

Today: Outfielder Dexter Fowler.

We begin with defense: It was a mixed bag in 2019. Using the defensive runs saved metric Fowler was a minus 4 in right field (761 innings) …meaning that he cost the pitchers an estimated four runs with his defense. But in center field, Fowler was a pleasant surprise with +4 defensive runs saved. But I think a lot of that had to do with positioning. According to Fielding Bible’s plus-minus ratings, Fowler was terrific (+6) on deep fly balls — and not so great on shallow (minus 5) or medium (minus 2) fly balls. Fowler did OK in preventing extra bases with his throwing.

Base-running: Fowler had a disappointing performance. He had eight stolen bases in 13 attempts for a below-average success rate of 61 percent. According to Bill James Online, Fowler had a net baserunning gain of minus 10. And in the Baseball Prospectus metric, Base Running Runs, Fowler was minus 0.5 BRR — which ranked 21st among 28 Cardinals.

Offense: Fowler recovered nicely from his horrendous 2018, but let’s be blunt here: the bar was set awfully low, and his improvement in 2019 was a virtual certainty after manager Mike Shildt made a dedicated effort to lift Dexter’s confidence and morale. But if we’re evaluating Fowler’s 2019 on normal terms, his 2019 was nothing special. He batted .238, put together a decent .346 onbase percentage and slugged .409. That amounted to three percent above average in wRC+ and two percent below average in OPS+. Fowler finished with 1.5 WAR, which tied him for 39th among qualifying MLB outfielders.

The Good: When Shildt reinstalled Fowler into the leadoff spot on Aug. 6 — too late, in my opinion — the move ignited Fowler’s offense and put a charge in the Cards’ attack. Over his next 143 plate appearance Fowler batted .280 with a .399 OBP and .483 slug and was 35 percent above league average in wRC+.

The Bad: Fowler faded over the final two-plus weeks of the regular season, and bottomed out during a 2-for-33 postseason that prompted Shildt to remove him from the lineup for Game 4 of the NLCS. And despite his August and early September hot streak as the leadoff man, Fowler did a poor overall job while batting first in 2019. In 233 plate appearances at leadoff, he batted only .211 with a .335 OBP and .356 slug for a .690 OPS. As the No. 1 hitter he was 11 percent below the league average in wRC+.

Switch-hitting: Fowler has been much better against RHP (.764 OPS and 104 wRC+) than LHP (.681 OPS, and 86 wRC+) in his three St. Louis seasons.

Before/After: The Cardinals pursued Fowler in the free agent market in advance of the 2017 season for his proven track record as a leadoff man. The plan was to bat him first, and move Matt Carpenter down into the middle lineup to provide power in the so-called RBI spots. But except for a brief flurry here and there, Fowler has flopped as a leadoff hitter in St. Louis. And it’s surprising. Here’s a look at the before and after:

Fowler at leadoff before St. Louis, 2009 through 2016, in 3,041 plate appearances: a batting average of .269 with a .368 OBP and .433 slug for an OPS of .801. And he was 13 percent above league average in wRC+.

Fowler at leadoff as a Cardinal, 2017 through 2019, in 541 plate appearances: a .202 average, .312 OBP, .359 slug, .671 OPS. His 82 wRC+ as the St. Louis leadoff man is 18 percent below average. So there’s been a 31 percent change — for the worse — in Fowler’s before-and-after leadoff performance since signing with the Cardinals.

Trouble with the offspeed and breaking pitches: As we’ve noted many times, the 2019 Cardinals had the worst offense in the majors against non-fastballs. Regrettably, no Cardinal was worse in this area than Fowler in 2019.

From Inside Edge:

= Fowler batted just .147 (32-for-217) on non-fastballs in 2019 … the lowest average by a major-league hitter and 98 points below the league average of .245.

= Fowler slugged .221 on non-fastballs in 2019 season — also worst in MLB and more than 200 points below the league rate of .427.

= Fowler particularly struggled against changeups, batting .135 (second worst in MLB) and slugging .183 (worst in MLB.) His Hard-Hit Average on changeups, .067, was the sixth worst.

= Fowler had a Hard-Hit Average of just .075 on breaking pitches in 2019 season … 5th worst in MLB. His .274 slug against breaking pitches was sixth worst. (League average: .426.)

A couple of other notes on Fowler from Inside Edge: 

1. Fowler’s overall Hard-Hit Average of .150 was tied for 12th worst in the majors.

2. He had a hard time doing much with outside pitches including fastballs away. Fowler batted just .176 on fastballs away in 2019 season … 4th worst in MLB and 11o points below the league average of .286. And Fowler batted just .158 overall on all outside pitches in 2019 … second worst in the majors and well under the league average of .251.

3. On the positive side: Fowler was excellent at handling inside fastballs in 2019; his .424 batting average on such pitches was tied for first among MLB hitters with at least 250 plate appearances. And his .718 slugging percentage on inside fastballs ranked seventh in MLB.

The Bottom Line: In his two seasons with the Cubs before coming to St. Louis, Fowler averaged 3.8 WAR. In his three years with the Cardinals, Fowler has averaged 1.0 WAR per season. Fowler’s 97 OPS+ in St. Louis is 18 points less than his OPS+ in Chicago. And his OBP in Chicago (.367) was 32 points better than his OBP (.335) so far in St. Louis. Fowler has two seasons remaining on is five-year, $82.5 million guaranteed contract and will turn 34 on March 22.

Baseball Reference Projection for 2020: 520 plate appearances, .231 batting average, .328 OBP, .411 slug, .738 OPS.

Thanks for reading …

–Bernie