- FanGraphs Fantasy Baseball - http://www.fangraphs.com/fantasy -

Asking Dexter Fowler About Breaking Out

The Rockies came to town, and with them they brought their enigmatic center fielder. Dexter Fowler is dripping with tools, but has averaged about seven homers and 16 steals per season to go along with his .272 career batting average to date. Ostensibly, I was asking Fowler about baseball. But I couldn’t help it. I ended up asking him about fantasy baseball, and his prospects of breaking out this year.

Off and on throughout his career, Fowler has been dogged by the suggestion that he should give up switch-hitting. At one point they might have had a point. Until the second half in 2011, Fowler hadn’t shown league-average offense from the left side of the plate. And he’d only begun switch-hitting in late 2005, when he hit pro ball for the first time.

“It feels natural to me now. It doesn’t really matter which hand I hit with, right-handed or left-handed, I feel comfortable,” he said to me. After laughing with me about how terrible my lefty swing looked, we talked about how hard it was to start swinging left handed when he first got to the pros. “My hand-eye coordination was always there, I could always hit the ball, but the mechanics weren’t quite there,” he said. But did it look silly? “Naw, it didn’t look too bad, but I definitely had a lot of work to do.”

Switch-hitting is tough. Most players have been playing ball for at least a decade before they debut in pro-ball. In 2011, Fowler had been switch-hitting for half that time, and all of it against professionals. That’s when things locked in:

Righty Lefty Righty Lefty Righty Lefty Righty Lefty
2009 8.2% 15.0% 18.4% 24.2% 0.161 0.132 118 87
2010 14.1% 9.4% 18.5% 21.9% 0.110 0.172 95 92
2011 15.1% 10.9% 13.8% 26.5% 0.135 0.177 103 109
2012 11.4% 13.5% 19.2% 26.4% 0.147 0.186 124 123
2013 14.3% 3.8% 14.3% 26.9% 0.167 0.48 64 230

Most of his indicators were demonstrably worse from the left side of the plate going into 2011. But since then, he’s improved his walk rate from that side, and increased his power. To the point that he’s now been above league average from that side for two seasons… going on three. In fact, this improvement from the left side is probably the driver behind the good things Ben Duronio saw when he wrote Fowler up earlier this week.

But you might notice that he strikes out more from the right side, and shows more power, too. Is that something he’s noticed? “I don’t know man, I leave the numbers to y’all,” Fowler laughed.

Okay! So he does, in fact, have more loft in his swing from the left side than the right side. His career ground-ball-to-fly-ball ratio from the right side is 1.46. From the left side? 1.15. As for the swing and miss, let’s see what swinging strike rate has to say:

Righty Lefty
2009 5.85% 8.79%
2010 7.36% 7.32%
2011 5.80% 10.79%
2012 7.36% 9.62%
2013 11.54% 11.21%

It looks like he’s been more hit-or-miss from the left side, fairly consistently over the course of his career. If he can carry over some of the gains he made in that department in 2012, he could put more balls into play and take advantage of his career .353 batting average on balls in play.

In fact, Resident Master of Spending Tuesday Mornings in Pajamas Trying Not to Do Anything Valuable, Blake Murphy, found that since 1960, the number of guys with a BABIP over .350 and a walk rate over 11.5 with more than 2000 plate appearances is two. Joey Votto and Dexter Fowler. Whatever Votto has going, Fowler has some of that… minus some contact rate.

As for his speed, Fowler admits that stealing bases is “not really” a huge part of his game, but affirms that speed is — “If a guy hits a ball in the gap, I can score anyway,” he put forth. Does Colorado then change whether he has the green light or not? “I’m free to run whenever I want. It’s really on me. Stealing bases is an art, and it’s definitely part of my game, and you just gotta learn tendencies and know pitchers,” Fowler explained.

Dexter Fowler was drafted out of high school, so he just turned 27. He’s in his athletic prime, and perhaps he’s learned more about pitchers and when to run. Fowler also only (relatively) recently learned switch-hitting, so he’s a baby from the left side. But he’s hitting his stride and has made organic progress hitting lefty, as well. If he puts what he’s learned together with his still-strong physical tools, this could indeed be the year he breaks out.