Dexter Fowler has made no bones about his desire to be a leadoff hitter. Does his claim to the top spot in the St. Louis Cardinals’ lineup have merit? (Spoiler: No, it doesn’t).
Of all the polarizing figures on the 2017 St. Louis Cardinals roster, few inspired as much argument or discussion as Dexter Fowler. Is he worth $82 million? Should he play center field? Why did the Cardinals sign him in the first place?
Dexter Fowler’s 2017 season was not bad at all.
No matter how you shake it, Fowler was productive for the Cardinals this season. In 491 PA, Fowler slashed .264/.363/.488 with a career high 18 HRs, 64 RBI, a 12.8% walk rate, career low 20.6% strikeout rate, and career-high .224 ISO, all of that adding up to 121 WRC+ and 2.7 fWAR.
Is that ideal production from a guy who was given an $82 million contract this offseason, the richest free agent deal in St. Louis Cardinals history? No, it’s not ideal production, but it’s above-average and extremely useful.
In a Post-Dispatch article posted on Monday morning, Fowler bemoaned injuries as a reason for his production slip this season and told Derrick Goold that:
"“I feel like I missed out on 200 at-bats, 200 plate appearances…I’ve got to play more.”"
And, in all fairness to Fowler, that’s a legitimate assessment of his season. If you were to stretch out Fowler’s season numbers over 600 PA instead of 491, Fowler would have topped 3 WAR, easily beating out his 2017 Steamer projection of 2.4 WAR in 570 plate appearances.
So, it’s completely reasonable to give Fowler the benefit of the doubt and agree with his judgement that he would have been more productive if able to stay healthy for more than 118 games.
However, I’ve been a firm believer in Fowler’s production all season long and I’m not here to convince you that he was a quality player in 2017 or that he was and will be worth his $82 million price tag. Fowler said something else in that same interview that left me scratching my head.
"“No, I don’t think I’m the guy,” Fowler commented when asked about hitting in the middle of the order, “I feel like a leadoff hitter.”"
Now, considering that Fowler was signed to be the leadoff hitter in hopes of allowing Matt Carpenter to slide down into a spot where his run-production skills could be better taken advantage of, it’s understandable that he still thinks of himself as a leadoff hitter.
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Dexter Fowler is not a leadoff hitter anymore.
In 227 plate appearances out of the leadoff spot in St. Louis this season, Fowler slashed .205/.308/.390 with only 3 SB, a 23.9% strikeout rate and 85 WRC+. No matter how you shake it out, that’s just plain bad and there is no excuse for that level of production to be batting at the very top of a Major League lineup.
It looks especially bad when compared to how Fowler hit when he was placed 3rd, 4th or 5th in the lineup. Over 189 PA, Fowler slashed .302/.405/.501 with a 13.2% walk rate, 18.6% strikeout rate, 138 WRC+ and 5 stolen bases just because he could.
So, when compared to Dexter Fowler the 3/4/5 hitter, Dexter Fowler the leadoff hitter walks less, strikes out more, gets on base way less, slugs less and also doesn’t steal as many bases.
The course of action seems pretty simple here. Keep Fowler out of the leadoff spot, let him get his 600 plate appearances in the middle of the order and reap the benefits. Problem solved.