Obviously, the tools are there. Dexter Fowler can run, can hit with pop, has a good eye at the plate, and is a good defender. Those tools have made him an above-average regular by ‘real baseball’ measures and a top-sixty outfielder, worth more than seven bucks last year by our retrospective fantasy value measures.
And yet, his owners are probably getting tired of continually being teased by upside beyond. Just google his name and ‘breakout’ and see how many results you get, spread over the last three years.
One of the reasons this year was supposed to be his breakout was improvement from the left side of the plate. The outfielder — late to switch-hitting — told me himself that he was feeling better from that side of the plate in early April. Let’s revisit those peripherals from each side of the plate.
Shame on us if we read to far into those small-sample numbers. Dexter Fowler had a wRC+ over 200 batting from the left side… two weeks into April. Look back on the season with a full sample, and he actually had his worst season in the last three from the left side. He did retain some of those improvements in his plate discipline from the left side, but the results didn’t stay superlative all year. Maybe now, as he turns 28 and finishes his seventh season switch-hitting, we can stop expecting him to be anything more than league average against righties.
Hidden in those platoon split numbers is a decline in power. Fowler hit more ground balls per fly ball in 2013 — 1.23 to be exact, and that was in line with his career number (1.24) — and his isolated slugging percentage suffered for it. But in the last four years, Fowler has hit more than 1.23 ground balls per fly ball three times. In those three years, he had ISOs around league average (.145-.166). The one time he hit more fly balls (2012), he pushed that ISO to .174. Maybe 2012 was the outlier in terms of power.
Fowler’s batted ball distances don’t agree. In 2013, he hit his flies and homers an average of 289 feet. That’s well above average, good for about 72nd in the league, and in Matt Holliday and Aramis Ramirez territory. It’s also much better than his 2012 distance — that year, he hits flies and homers an average of 278 feet, or 169th in the league and in Ben Zobrist and Desmond Jennings territory. That’s probably why he spent his second year in a row with a better-than-average home-run-per-fly-ball rate in 2013. There’s enough here to remain interested, to remain hopeful for a bit more power in the coming years.
Stolen bases, though, those seem like maybe they’ll never be as plentiful for Fowler as his owners had hoped. Fowler did hit his career high with 19 stolen bases last year, but 68% is not an impressive success rate. And his four-component speed score fell for the fourth straight year in a row. Add in the fact that he didn’t sound like he makes stealing bases a priority, and it’s probably best to pencil him in for 15 or so stolen bases and be pleasantly surprised if he steals more.
The hidden thief in Fowler’s numbers comes from his inability to stay healthy. He’s never once had 600 plate appearances in a season. In 2013, Fowler suffered maladies with his left knee, right wrist, right hand, and right ankle that cost him 38 days over the course of the season. In 2012, that list was much the same, even if there were fewer big chunks missing out of his playing time. He gets nicked up, for whatever reason.
So Dexter Fowler: Will his age 27 season have that magic we’ve been waiting for? Or will he spend another with merely decent production across the board, missed time, and flaws that keep him from truly breaking out?
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