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Can Dexter Fowler Really Keep This Up?

For most of his three full seasons in the big leagues prior to 2012, Dexter Fowler had been a decent (if unexciting) placeholder in the middle of the Colorado outfield. His wOBA marks of .345, .335, & .346 between 2009-11 were roughly average, and while he chipped in a few steals (52 over the three seasons) and a nice amount of triples (39), he was generally an unremarkable player, held back largely by a strikeout rate (23.1% last year) that usually only works when it’s balanced out by considerable power. Last June, he really hit rock bottom when instead of rejoining the Rockies after recovering from an abdominal injury, he was optioned back to Triple-A. And why not? At the time, he was hitting just .238/.340/.348 with only two successful steals in eight attempts.

Fowler even struggled back in the minors, hitting only .237/.345/.381 in 27 games for Colorado Springs. When he returned to the Rockies after the All-Star Break, it was less because he had forced his way back and more because Carlos Gonzalez had been dealing with a sore wrist, creating a need for another outfielder. But Fowler doubled in his first game back and scored ten runs in his first eight games; over the remainder of the season, he was a new player, hitting .288/.381/.498 with 37 extra-base hits and ten steals.

Despite his hot finish to 2011, few believed he’d suddenly turned a corner. At Yahoo!, for example, he was ranked as the 48th-best outfielder heading into 2012; here at FanGraphs, our consensus rankings placed him 62nd. Yet here we are, two months into 2012, and Fowler has the sixth-highest wOBA of any qualified outfielder, a ranking which had been third overall before Tuesday’s hitless outing.

Should we have seen this coming?

The answer, I suppose, is “probably not”. Dan Wade, writing here in March, called out Fowler as a nice sleeper heading into his age-26 season, noting that “Fowler finally looks less like a bundle of tools and more like a composed baseball player”. Dan looks great for writing that now, and it’s hardly rare for a young player to scuffle in their first few years in the bigs before breaking out in their mid-to-late 20s; Fowler’s great finish to 2011 had all of the indications of someone who was ready to put it together. Yet it’s hard to look at his peripherals and see obvious suggestions that this was definitely going to be more than just a nice second half. After all, even James Loney put together two great months last year before reverting to his usual abysmal self so far this year.

Compare Fowler’s 2011 to the previous two seasons. His strikeout rate was slightly higher than in 2009-10, while his walk rate was essentially where it had been. His line drive rate was unchanged, while his groundball and flyball rates were within the ranges he had defined as “normal” over the previous two years. Despite breaking it down into “very cold” followed by “very hot” rather than being regularly decent over the full course of the season, Fowler was more or less the same player as he always had been, and that’s how his wOBA scores remained so consistent.

It didn’t help, either, that Fowler had a tough spring, where he hit just .149 (and before we get into the “spring training stats don’t matter” discussion, let’s at least all agree that a questionable player having a bad spring certainly isn’t helping his own reputation) and then started the season slowly, bottoming out at .222/.314/.400 on May 9. Demoted into a psuedo-platoon with Tyler Colvin, he showed some power with two pinch-hit homers over the next two weeks, but now he’s completely exploded over the last week-and-a-half, collecting sixteen hits and seven walks over just eight games from May 28 – June 4. The monstrous stretch has been so unbelievable – I mean, arbitrary endpoints and ludicrously small sample size concerns or not, it’s still fun to see “.516/.605/.935” over those eight games – that it alone has been enough to raise an OPS that was a paltry .732 on May 26 to the robust .986 it was after the first game of Colorado’s set in Arizona on Monday.

That being the case, it’s no surprise that Fowler is the most added player in fantasy baseball right now, going from around 14% owned in ESPN leagues two weeks ago to 95% today. Yet while the production is nice, I’m having a hard time seeing what’s really changed other than one of the hottest stretches we’re likely to see from anyone all season. Even with the scorching streak, he’s not really a fundamentally different player. His line drive percentage is slightly down from last year, his groundball percentage slightly up. He is walking more, which is nice, though the strikeouts are still higher than they should be.

If anything’s different, it’s the completely out-of-nowhere and totally-unsustainable 22.9% HR/FB rate, a massive increase from a player who had never topped 5.5% before and something that is absolutely certain to come back down. That’s the kind of rarified air that puts him right next to noted mashers Giancarlo Stanton & Chris Davis in the rankings, and while I apologize for the bad pun, a lot of this is indeed about air. Coors Field air, that is, where he’s been absolutely unbelievable (.496 wOBA, seven of his eight homers) as compared to his unacceptable performance on the road (.264 wOBA, one homer). It should come as no surprise, then, that with the exception of Tuesday’s series opener in Arizona, every game of Fowler’s incredible run came at home in the mountains of Colorado.

If you’ve been riding Fowler’s hot streak, consider yourself lucky for having been there. But it might also benefit you to consider him a massive sell-high prospect, since a player who is only performing at home, only against righty pitching (since his wOBA platoon splits almost exactly mirror those of his home/road splits) and working on a streak that simply can’t keep up is a hard player to count on to carry your team. Despite Fowler’s amazing run, his uninspiring track record and lack of fundamental improvements to his game set him up to disappoint a lot of owners as the season goes on. Make sure that owner is someone else.