Digging Dexter Fowler the Bittiest Bit

The Chicago Cubs acquired another major league asset this past weekend, this time via trade, albeit at the price of one of those as well as a possible other. Nevertheless, Dexter Fowler isn’t quite the same kind of asset as Luis Valbuena or Dan Straily, because Fowler plays center field and has generally in his career been cast as a leadoff man, something that his new club sort of lacked. Although Joe Maddon has reportedly taken a liking to Arismendy Alcantara, the up-and-coming Cubbies, understandably, weren’t ready to depend on the 23-year-old to produce as a one-position regular on offense in such an important year.

My reaction to the news included a little raised interest in Fowler in fantasy baseball leagues, I think. Moves like this usually don’t have a drastic effect on a player’s quote-unquote value, though. I’m a little puzzled as to whether my feeling was justified.

First, the park factors by handedness (2014 marks only, although it’s not as if they’ve changed much) from Fowler’s last two stops as well as his new home:

Team 1B as L 2B as L 3B as L HR as L 1B as R 2B as R 3B as R HR as R
Rockies 107 106 130 118 110 112 122 115
Astros 100 100 106 106 97 100 107 104
Cubs 102 102 102 95 100 101 104 105

Fowler has spent his peak years teetering between single and double digits in homers. The latter won’t be easy for him to reach again in 2015. He’s hit for a bit more power as a left-handed hitter in his career (save last season), but Wrigley Field suppresses that type of ability, whereas his previous stops enhanced it. Perhaps last year’s dive in ISO versus righties was health-related and he’ll see a resurgence. Don’t know. He’s always been pretty sharp against left-handed pitching, at least in terms of batting average, thankfully. At least one Chicago North coach believes that “there’s more power there,” overall, for what it’s worth.

The stolen-base total isn’t far behind in terms of peril. Fowler has been successful on just 94 of his 140 stolen-base attempts (67.1%) in his career. Some folks seem to think that Maddon is a pusher of the running game, but that’s probably not accurate. Check a sample of stats from his last five years as manager of the Rays. (MLB rank in the category in parentheses for the last three columns. The data is from Baseball Reference. They define SBO as “Plate appearances through which a runner was on first or second with the next base open.”)

2010 2253 172 47 79% (4) 219 (2) 9.7% (2)
2011 2271 155 62 71% (T-18) 217 (1) 9.6% (2)
2012 2144 134 44 75% (T-13) 178 (4) 8.3% (4)
2013 2308 73 38 66% (T-26) 111 (16) 4.8% (19)
2014 2307 63 27 70% (T-18) 90 (25) 3.9% (25)

Maddon isn’t an idiot. There’s at least a loose correlation between likelihood of success (dictated in large part by personnel available to the skipper) and willingness to issue green lights. Fowler is still pretty fast (Neil Weinberg’s treatise on the center fielder’s defense makes a good argument for that), but he’s not a particularly deft thief. It seems unlikely that the Cubs will urge Fowler to run much more frequently than he has in recent seasons.

Then again, if Fowler were to play in 130-plus games, there’s a good chance that he’d reach 10-plus homers and, maybe, 15 stolen bases. That’s exactly how many games and dingers Steamer has him down for, and each seems like a fair projection, with its forecast of 13 steals just a pair short. A homer here and a stolen base there, however, don’t really matter. He’s fallen just short of 120 games played in each of the past two seasons because, as has become the norm, he’s dealt with myriad injuries. He’s spent time on the DL in each of his six seasons save one, in 2012, and then he still had to sit occasionally because of various joint pains. This is a frustrating part of the package.

The effect of the change in team dynamics is purely speculative, but at least that’s interesting. The Cubs scored 15 fewer runs last year than Houston did, which is almost negligible. In theory, Chicago North’s offense will be better this season. But that’s not a gimme; it’s just exciting to ponder. As Weinberg observes, Fowler’s positioning in center seems to be what most leaves more to be desired from his defense. Perhaps Maddon, nuanced in info and prep, and his staff will make that a point of emphasis with their new CF, which might result in lessened day-to-day exertion and thus reduced stress on his body. But, boy, that’s quite a what-if.

Really, on the whole, this move doesn’t affect Fowler’s fantasy “worth,” obviously. I’d give him the 130 games, 10 homers, and 13 steals from Steamer. I’d probably land somewhere very near the middle of Steamer’s .252 average and the .271 average fans have projected thus far. I’d side with Steamer’s RBI total (49), too, perhaps even pushing it a tad lower. In OBP leagues, of course, he’ll again be a greater asset than he’ll be in AVG leagues, given his ability to draw walks. And, at least, his PT is hardly at risk.

Therefore, I’m not too much more interested in Fowler than I have been in any previous season. Used to be, I could take him or leave him, unless it was an OBP league, depending on whether he was a favored or disfavored resource that year. The difference this year is made up of only the hopeful things that come with the new team. But I’d be a little more apt in 2015 to top someone after the bidding has stalled because of them. No strong justification, just a mild attempt to earn a couple of extra bucks in the margins, because his injury history will continue to suppress his price and the ever so slight bit of potential is there. I can’t imagine being any more enthusiastic than that, so if someone else is, someone else can probably have him.

Nicholas Minnix oversaw baseball content for six years at KFFL, where he held the loose title of Managing Editor for seven and a half before he joined FanGraphs. He played in both Tout Wars and LABR from 2010 through 2014. Follow him on Twitter @NicholasMinnix.

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His skill set is my kryptonite. A respectable average, great on base skills, a little bit of pop with potential upside and some speed. I think my dream of his .300 AVG, .380 OBP, 20 HR, and 20 SB season is long dead, but I have seen Maddon work his magic before (as I am a Rays fan).