St. Louis Cardinals: Dexter Fowler’s contract was not a mistake
Dexter Fowler has become a punching bag for many St. Louis Cardinals fans over the last four years, but Mozeliak and Co. were not out of line to bring him in for the price tag.
Dexter Fowler’s time with the St. Louis Cardinals has been a roller coaster, to say the least. After being the catalyst to the curse-breaking 2016 Chicago Cubs, Fowler hit the 2017 free agent market coming off the best statistical season of his nine-year career.
Fowler’s fantastic 2016 season was capped off by his leadoff home run in game seven of the World Series off Corey Kluber, but his stat line that season was the shining star. In 551 PA, he posted a line of .276/.393/.447, walking at a 14.3% clip. That cumulatively turned into a 129 wRC+, the highest number of his career to date, and a 4.6 fWAR, also the highest of his career.
He was your ideal leadoff hitter: elite on-base skills and a very smart base runner. Despite only stealing 13 bases that season, he still posted a 6.1 BsR (baserunning rating), which was the 8th best in all of baseball.
Despite putting up very poor defensive metrics in the years leading up to 2016 in center field, he even improved his fielding to the point of being a league-average fielder at the position, putting up a 1.9 dWAR. That isn’t great at one of the most important defensive positions on the field, but it’s still much better than being the liability he was in years prior.
Just five weeks after winning the World Series in Chicago, Fowler signed a five year, $82.5 million ($16.5 million AAV) contract in St. Louis. The Cardinals had a gaping hole in center field after Matt Holliday was not re-signed, which moved incumbent center fielder, Randal Grichuk, to left field – a position in which his defensive skill set was much more suited to handle.
Many fans like to bash Mozeliak and say he overpaid for a career year in Fowler.
Although 2016 was his best season to date, Fowler wasn’t a one-hit-wonder. He was a consistently productive top-of-the-lineup hitter for many years prior. From 2011-2016, his wRC+ by season were: 106, 120, 103, 126, 109, 129. That’s six consecutive years of a productive major league hitter. Even his first two years in the Majors, his wRC+ was 97 and 94, but he still posted very good OBP numbers at .363 and .347.
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Fowler had a very consistent track record of success on three different teams: Rockies (2008-2013), Astros (2014), and Cubs (2015-2016). He succeeded in many different environments, with varying levels of team success. He wasn’t just accumulating meaningless stats on bad teams: He was the catalyst for a World Series-winning team in 2016. He didn’t just hit well because pitchers were avoiding him to pitch to worse hitters behind him: the Rockies only had two winning seasons with him as a full-time contributor.
Fowler’s top skill is undoubtedly his plate control. He knows the strike zone better than just about anybody in baseball. His chase rate in 2016 was just 17.6%, compared the MLB average of 28.2%. Plate discipline and control are things that rarely fade away with age. His top skill is something that could be counted on to stand the test of time.
The one thing I do disagree with is the length. Fowler was entering his age 31 season in 2017. For someone who relies on his legs on the bases and for range in center field, it was pretty clear his legs would be one of the first things to deteriorate. I would’ve much preferred a 3 year, $49.5 million contract.
So when I say his contract wasn’t a mistake, I’m only talking about Average Annual Value (AAV). He was not overpaid on an annual basis, but total contract worth was too much.
Let’s look at a few outfield comparisons for Dexter Fowler. Josh Reddick signed the same offseason as Fowler for 4 years, $52 million ($13 million AAV) with the Astros. Jay Bruce signed in the 2018 offseason for 3 years, $39 million ($13 million AAV) with the Mets.
In Josh Reddick’s three prior seasons before signing his contract (2014-2016), he put up wRC+ of 118, 116, and 104, respectively. His worst season of the three was his contract season. He was a a below-average defender, his highest dWAR of those seasons was -3.3, while playing the much easier right field. Top fWAR season of the bunch was a 2.8 in 2015.
Reddick was a clearly inferior player to Fowler, and he was making $13 million per season while entering his age 30 season. Fowler was more than $3.5 million per season better than Reddick. I don’t think anyone is complaining that we didn’t sign Josh Reddick.
Jay Bruce is an interesting comparison. Although he signed the following offseason, the salary numbers are still very comparable year to year.
Bruce and Fowler are very different players. Jay Bruce’s strongest skill on the baseball diamond is his slugging approach at the plate. From 2015-2017, he posted a .482 slugging %, which is just behind Fowler’s season-high for his career at .488.
Bruce is a very bad defender, posting a -37.4 dWAR over his three seasons leading up to free agency. Bruce is a liability on the bases with a negative BsR in those same seasons. His fWAR in those three seasons were 0.2, 0.3, and 2.6.
The only thing Jay Bruce did better than Dexter Fowler was hit home runs, and he still made $13 million per season.
The value of a player on the open market is determined by what other teams are willing to pay for him. Although people like to say Fowler is overpaid, he makes a more than appropriate amount given what comparable or lesser players are making across the league.
His career in St. Louis has a relatively underwhelming 101 wRC+, but if you get rid of his mysteriously bad 2018 season, that jumps to 107 with a very respectable .342 OBP. But the point of this article is to talk about his time prior to St. Louis and what earned him the contract, not what he did in his time here.
Dexter Fowler was a well-rounded player, a leader on the field, and a leader in the clubhouse. Not to mention that stealing a key cog in the lineup of the Cubs had to be part of the motivation. After they signed both Jason Heyward and John Lackey away the prior offseason, it felt good to take away one of their leaders as some well-deserved revenge.
Side note: The Cardinals could be stuck with Jason Heyward’s contract, if you want to talk about reckless spending…
Hindsight is always 20/20, and he (for the most part) hasn’t been worth the money he had earned. Anyone claiming he was overpaid is saying that due to the new information of the past 3.5 years in St. Louis, not looking at the reasoning of the signing when it was made. At the time it was a perfectly reasonable contract.
Dexter Fowler will leave an interesting legacy in St. Louis, hopefully he can pick up another ring over his final year and a half in The Lou.