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Dexter Fowler Breaks Out, Barely

Hello everyone and welcome back to our positional review of the 2012 season. Hope you enjoyed your turkey, but now it’s back to business. This morning, Zach Sanders published the final season values for outfielders. Sitting at number 53 and earning $6 is perennial breakout candidate Dexter Fowler. But while the absolute ranking and dollar value don’t suggest he outperformed projections, he actually did. And now the question of course is whether these new skills are repeatable.

Whether it has been a slump that has gotten him benched or various minor injuries, Fowler has never crossed the 500 at-bat plateau. His career high is just 481 and he recorded 454 this season. That relatively low at-bat total is one of the primary reasons why his ranking and dollar value made him look like just a 5th outfielder. But, he set a career high in wOBA, ISO, BABIP and HR/FB ratio.

One of the hopes that fantasy owners had was that Fowler would get back to being a strong base-stealing threat. He stole 43 bases at Single-A in 2006 over just 458 plate appearances and has swiped 27 bases with the Rockies back in 2009. But he then ran much less frequently, and was not very successful to boot. Fowler has good speed though, as he has routinely hit double digit triples (of course, Coors Field dramatically inflates triples to begin with) and has always posted well above average Spd scores. No one was projecting a 40-50 steal season, but just a return to the 20-30 steal plateau would have done wonders for his fantasy value. Although he cut down slightly on his caught stealings, he still stole just 12 bases this year, the same as he had in 2011.

Speed is a skill of the young, so it is probably time to simply give up hope that the stolen base breakout is ever going to come. If/when he does enjoy his first 500 at-bat season, the steals will increase proportionally, but it’s doubtful at this point that he’s suddenly going to increase his frequency too significantly.

One driver of Fowler’s career best wOBA was his Major League leading .390 BABIP. Obviously, that’s not sustainable. He does, however, boast a .353 career mark. He always hits line drives at an above average clip, avoids the pop-up, and calls Coors Field home. So, a high BABIP should remain in his future, but he’s no .300 hitter. It’s difficult to maintain a batting average that earns positive value in fantasy leagues when you strike out a lot and don’t have a ton of power. When you rely upon a .350 BABIP just to have a neutral effect on a fantasy team’s average, there is usually more downside than upside and the risk increases.

Now we move on to Fowler’s power, a skill that first surged over the final month of the 2011 season. He hit three of his five homers on the year in that last month, which was fueled by a 10.3% HR/FB ratio. Obviously, this is a tiny sample and could have very well been meaningless. But when it ends up being a harbinger of things to come, you wonder if maybe an adjustment had been made at that point that led to his newfound power.

Fowler actually got off to a torrid start in the power department, hitting eight homers in just the first two months of the season. That was already a career high! Even though we knew it was unsustainable, with HR/FB ratios each month of 22.2% and 33.3%, it was in the books and we had to consider that Fowler was now a true talent mid-teen HR/FB rate hitter. Well, regression caught up, and he hit just five long balls over the final four months, as his HR/FB ratio never again jumped above 10%.

Before looking at the distance data, a telling negative sign might be the precipitous drop in doubles rate. He went from hitting one every 14 at-bats in 2011 to every 25 in 2012. This suggests to me that his overall power didn’t increase at all, but he benefited from a couple of gusts of wind that took balls that normally would have been doubles just over the wall. It’s just a simple redistribution of extra-base hits and happens all the time. Now let’s see if the distance data bears that out.

In 2011, his average fly ball plus home run distance was 287 feet, which is pretty good and solidly above the league average in the low 270 range. Of course, the thin air at Coors Field would boost this number. In 2012, his average distance actually fell, to just 283 feet. Hmmmm. So his HR/FB ratio tripled, but on average his balls didn’t travel as far? His ESPN Home Run Tracker data doesn’t provide any reason for optimism either. Both his speed off bat and average distance marks are below the league average. Plus, 5 of his 13 homers (38%, versus 27% league average) were classified as “just enough” or “lucky”. All of this data, along with the doubles rate decline, leads me to believe that Fowler will be back to his sub-10% HR/FB ratio ways next year and likely closer to his 2011 mark than 2012.

In 2013, Fowler has a good chance to see a regression in both batting average and home runs, while only the potential for additional at-bats will lead to more stolen bases. Given that he didn’t stand out in any category this past season, he may not be drastically overvalued, but you won’t be able to get him as a late round flyer anymore.