- FanGraphs Baseball - http://www.fangraphs.com/blogs -

Dexter Fowler & the Rox: Love, Hate & Whiffs

The Rockies have activated Dexter Fowler from his recent rehab assignment and demoted him to Triple-A to work on his strikeouts. Haven’t we heard this all before? Recently we’ve seen Ian Stewart and Chris Iannetta struggle with the same issues and get the same treatment. At some point, there has to be some exploration into the culpability of the team itself. Is there a chance the Rockies have brought this on themselves somehow?

First, let’s establish if there is a pattern. At the very least, we know that the team has had three young players struggle with strikeouts in the major leagues. Fowler’s lifetime strikeout rate is 26.3%, Stewart’s is 32.3% and Iannetta’s 27.3%. All three have had trouble staying with the big league club — or at least they’ve all been sent down after showing decent performances in the major leagues. All three have achieved wRC+ numbers at least 100 or more, all three whiffed a little too much thereafter, and all three lost their jobs. Only Iannetta so far has retaken his job. 

Does the major league team have a problem? They could just fire the hitting coach, or at least that’s the temporary salve being used these days. Indeed, the Rockies have struck out more than every team save the Marlins and Diamondbacks since the beginning of the 2008 season. But the trick here is that these same three players have been striking out (semi-) regularly for the team, too. They could well be the reason the team is where it is in that category.

That isn’t to say that the coaching squad doesn’t have any possible liability. Before this season began, they lauded the fact that their hitters weren’t going to stay passive on the first pitch. Then again, the most direct quote from a coach in the piece was from hitting coach Carney Lansford:

“As long as it’s a quality pitch you’re swinging at, I don’t have a problem with guys doing it, but swinging at a pitch in the dirt on the first pitch is not good,” Lansford said. “Plus, it sends a message to the pitcher, ‘We’re ready to swing.'”

That doesn’t seem like a coach that’s pushing the gas too hard. Let’s look in the minor league system.

Fowler debuted at 22. Iannetta was 23 when he first came up. Stewart was 22. These weren’t baby-faced debuts. Only Fowler skipped Triple-A before hitting the bigs, and even he had logged over 500 PAs at Double-A. Recent research by Ben Lindbergh at Baseball Prospectus shows that the Rockies are right in the middle of the pack when it comes to how fast they move their prospects. Their average debut had already put in more than 2000 PAs in the minor leagues, 12th-slowest in the majors. Around baseball, center fielders debut around 23.5 years old on average, third basemen 24.2 years, and catchers 24.8 years – if the Rockie’s trio was rushed, they were only barely rushed and there’s no evidence it’s a system-wide problem.

The last remaining nexus for this contact issue could be the draft. There are some tendencies with the organization. For one, they’ve taken a lot of college quarterbacks. Rockies’ picks Todd Helton, Seth Smith, Matt Holliday, Michael Vick, and Russell Wilson were all quarterbacks. Before the 2010 draft, an MLB.com draft preview contained this one description that stood out: “It’s really simple: Bring in as many good, physical athletes as possible.” Perhaps a predilection for physical tools has brought on this strikeout scourge?

We know that there’s a commonality in the stories of Dexter Fowler, Ian Stewart and Chris Iannetta. We don’t know why. There could be a little blame for the major league coaching staff, but it’s really hard to pin the tail on that donkey completely. The organization doesn’t seem to rush their players. Perhaps the team gravitates too strongly to athleticism in their drafts, but even that possibility requires more unpacking.

Ironically, a player without the same scout-drooling tools but also without all the whiffs has currently taken Fowler’s roster spot with the major league team. But we know all about the love for Charlie Blackmon. Can we instead figure out where all the whiffs came from?