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What’s behind Dexter Fowler’s early season slump?

Dexter Fowler St. Louis Cardinals

photo by @cardinalsgifs

It’s no secret: Dexter Fowler is off to a terrible start to 2017. Even after going 1 for 3 with a triple and a walk, his wRC+ for the season stands at 21. That’s not what the St. Louis Cardinals paid $82.5M for this offseason, and it shouldn’t be what to expect from him going forward.

Yet, it’s worth examining what has gone wrong so far, and whether it’s the result of differences in approach or contact quality, which might raise some early warning flags, or luck, which we would expect to even out going forward. The best way to do this is to analyze his plate discipline statistics available through FanGraphs, as well as his batted ball data hosted by Baseball Savant.

Dexter Fowler St. Louis Cardinals

 

The first thing that jumps out in Fowler’s batted ball stats is the extremely low BABIP. While a poor BABIP is often just attributed to luck, it can be explained, in part, by contact quality. Exit velocity and launch angle are the best ways to measure contact quality, and Statcast is using that batted ball data to estimate hit probability.

As you can see above, while Dexter Fowler has seen a 1.2 mph drop in average exit velocity compared to 2016, his average contact quality is similar to his 2015 season. That year, while his BABIP was below his .348 career mark to that point, it was still above the league average of .299. Thus, it’s surprising to see his 2017 BABIP sitting so low.

While Statcast does not yet have a leaderboard for expected BABIP (xBABIP), the hit probability metrics are available in each game feed. I went back and aggregated Fowler’s hit probabilities for the season over his 36 tracked batted balls, and calculated an xBABIP of .306. Therefore, it appears so far that Dexter Fowler is getting unlucky on the balls he puts in play. We’d expect that to even out going forward, assuming he maintains the same level of contact quality. However, that BABIP would only raise his average to about .200, in large part due to his high strikeout rate and absence of any home runs.

Dexter Fowler St. Louis Cardinals

Plate discipline statistics are arguably the best indicator of how a player is approaching their at-bats. A focused approach leads to improved contact quality and better walk and strikeout rates. Thus far, as shown above Dexter Fowler has worse contact quality than last year. Additionally, his walk and strikeout rates have both deteriorated. So, it looks like something is up with his approach at the plate.

Dexter Fowler has a reputation for working the count and taking long at-bats. For his career, he’s averaged 4.1 pitches per plate appearance (P/PA), which ranks 49th of 486 qualified hitters since 2009. Yet, this year he’s averaging 3.7 P/PA, below 4.0 P/PA for the first time in his career.

Taking shorter at-bats isn’t necessarily a bad thing, especially if you’re attacking good pitches to hit. Unfortunately, that doesn’t look like the case for Dexter Fowler. His chase rate (O-Swing%) is up more than 8% while his zone swing rate (Z-Swing%) is up 6%. Yet, at the same time he’s swinging more often, he’s making less contact (Contact%). All this should sound familiar to what I said a couple days ago regarding Aledmys Diaz, who looks like he’s pressing too much thus far.

Based on the plate discipline numbers, the same could probably be said for Dexter Fowler. Since walking five times in his first 24 plate appearances (20.8 BB%), he has drawn exactly one walk in his last 38 plate appearances (2.6 BB%). While it’s a very small sample, any time a player with Fowler’s reputation walks only once in nearly 40 PAs, there’s likely something going on. Here, I’d venture to say that Fowler is pressing mentally as a result of his early season slump. It doesn’t help that pitchers are getting ahead of him on first pitch strikes (F-Strike%) more often, either.

Hopefully, Dexter Fowler turns the corner soon. His average exit velocity over the last three games (ten batted balls) is back up at 88.3 mph, including a 102.8 mph leadoff triple on Tuesday, and he drew his first walk since April 8th later in the game. Additionally, he’s struck out only 4 times in his last 18 PAs, on par with his 22% strikeout rate from 2015 and 2016. While these are all very small samples, they’re a little more positive than what we’ve seen so far.

Fowler’s importance to the lineup is hard to overstate. While he’s only reached base fourteen times, he’s scored eight runs. That (unfortunately?) leads the team. If he can turn it around, he’ll provide a big boost to the Cardinals  offense.

St. Louis probably won’t use Fowler’s “You go, we go” motto from his time with the Cubs. Of course, the Cardinals would be better off if he kept on living up to that standard.

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