If you’re looking for reasons why the Cardinals offense has struggled, you could point in almost any direction and be right. Today, I’m pointing at the three-hole in the lineup. Then, since Dexter Fowler has taken 21 of his 22 plate appearances in the three-hole since returning from the DL, I’ll look at his offensive profile and see how he fits there.
When measuring offensive value, I prefer to use wRC+ (Weighted Runs Created Plus). wRC+ is scaled so that 100 is league average; every point above 100 is one percent above average, and every point below 100 is one percent below average. Here’s how each team’s three-hole production stacks up.
The average wRC+ among all three hitters is 116 this season. It’s the most productive lineup position this year, with a 6% lead over the cleanup spot. The Cardinals three-hitters have combined for an 88 wRC+, third worst in the MLB and 28% worse than the average three-hitter. The eight worst teams in this ranking all are playing below-.500 baseball. It’s no surprise that teams who fail to get production from the heart of their order lose games.
And no matter how we look at three-hitter production, the Cardinals have been terrible. Their 45 RBI are the seventh fewest from the spot, despite owning an average OBP in the two preceding lineup slots. The Cardinals three-hitter batting average of .219 is last. Their .373 slugging is last. Their .154 isolated slugging is third-worst. Their .701 OPS is third-worst.
Most of the team’s three-hitter plate appearances have come from Matt Carpenter (197) and Stephen Piscotty (138). Recently, the Cardinals have installed Dexter Fowler in the spot. While Fowler was signed to be a leadoff hitter and centerfielder, Carpenter’s inability to hit anywhere other than leadoff has changed the plan for Fowler’s batting order position. Soon, Fowler’s own injuries may change the plan for his defensive position, too. Maybe Fowler will be a three-hole hitting left fielder by the end of his first year with the St. Louis Cardinals. Baseball is weird.
So, how does Fowler look compared against three-hitters?
As it turns out, not too bad. This year, his 108 wRC+ would rate the same as Boston’s three-spot. While that’s still below average for the spot, it puts the St. Louis Cardinals in more respectable territory. FanGraphs Depth Charts projections see Fowler maintaining a 108 wRC+ for the remainder of the year, which suggests Fowler can hold his own in the three-hole.
Looking over the last three years, Fowler’s 117 wRC+ is barely below the MLB three-hitter average of 119. So, while Fowler isn’t your conventional three-hitter, he can probably handle the job.
This year, Fowler’s production has actually looked more like a middle-of-the-order hitter. He currently owns a .229 ISO, which would be a career high by more than 50 points. His power has come primarily from the left side of the plate, where he’s posted a .255 ISO. He’s historically been a better hitter when batting right handed, so this sudden left-handed surge comes as even more of a surprise.
Fowler saw a small jump in average exit velocity from both sides of the plate in 2016. In 2017, while his AEV from the right side declined back to 2015 levels, his AEV as a lefty took a huge jump. Now, he’s producing an above average exit velocity from both sides of the plate for the first time since Statcast began tracking in 2015.
To get the most information from exit velocity (and launch angle), we should view them as a distribution rather than an average. Baseball Savant uses exit velocity and launch angle pairs to define six types of contact quality. Below, I compiled Fowler’s contact category rates from 2015 through 2017 and compared them to the aggregate MLB rates since 2015.
Unsurprisingly, given Fowler’s exit velocity increases, he’s started generating barrels and solid contact (together, called “strong” contact) at a higher rate. He’s currently outperforming the average wOBA on barrels and solid contact. We should probably expect his results on those batted balls to regress toward the MLB average going forward.
If he does see regression in his results on strong contact, he could make up for it by getting more out of his flares and burners. Historically, Fowler has outperformed the MLB average wOBA on flares/burners by an average of 47 points, likely due to his speed and ability to spray the ball to all fields. If he can start getting better results on these types of batted balls, then we might not notice regression in his wOBA on strong contact. His overall power numbers would likely drop, but his batting average would probably rebound.
Fowler’s results on topped balls is another area of concern. Historically, he has outperformed the average MLB wOBA on those batted balls thanks to his speed. This year, he’s significantly underperforming. Is he slower than before? A little, but his 28.4 ft/s sprint speed and 105.0 Sprint+ is still well above average. Sprint speed doesn’t capture acceleration or low-effort plays, though. Is Fowler’s heel injury limiting his ability to accelerate and beat out ground balls? Probably not: his 6.2% infield-hit rate is in line with his 2015 and 2016 numbers. So maybe he’s just getting unlucky and not finding the holes on topped ground balls, and maybe he will more often going forward.
What does all that mean? By contact quality, Dexter Fowler has been better than expected. His expected-wOBA is higher than either of the past two years. Whereas previously he outperformed his xwOBA by about 25 points, he’s underperformed this year by 10 points. That’d be a 35 point positive swing, which would put his wOBA at .376 this year. Anthony Rizzo is at .375.
If healthy, Fowler should bounce back. If he does, with his new-found batted ball authority, he’ll fit as a middle-of-the-order hitter.