While Matt Carpenter has turned his season around after a dreadful start, and Marcell Ozuna and Kolten Wong made strong showings in June after struggling previously, Dexter Fowler has yet to get going. In fact, the Cardinals’ 32-year-old right fielder ranks among the league’s worst hitters and least valuable players, and lately he’s been losing time to younger alternatives — all of which is surprising given his recent track record. He wound up in the headlines earlier this week when Cardinals president of baseball operations John Mozeliak singled him out publicly in a weekly podcast spot with a team broadcaster, questioning Fowler’s level of effort and energy in a manner rarely seen these days, at least from the type of model organization that the Cardinals fancy themselves.
It was bush-league stuff, particularly given its timing, as Fowler was preparing to go on paternity leave for the birth of his second child and thus unavailable to respond directly.
Speaking to Dan McLaughlin for the Scoops with Danny podcast, Mozeliak said of Fowler:
“I’ve had a lot of people come up to me and question his effort and his energy level and those are things that I can’t defend. What I can defend is trying to create opportunities for him, but not if it’s at the expense of someone that’s out there hustling and playing hard. I think everybody just needs to take a hard look in the mirror and decide what they want that next chapter to look like. In Dexter’s case, maybe taking a brief timeout, trying to reassess himself and then give him a chance for a strong second half is probably what’s best for everybody. I’m hopeful to touch base with him in the near future to really just decide what makes the most sense, but clearly he’s not playing at the level we had hoped.”
Ouch. Within that statement, Mozeliak didn’t identify whether it was teammates, coaches, managers, front office personnel, or angry fans — a cross-section of observers, not all of whose opinions should carry equal weight — complaining about Fowler. Nor did he cite instances where Fowler failed to hustle, the discipline for which would generally fall upon manager Mike Matheny. Think Nationals manager Matt Williams pulling Bryce Harper for failing to run out a ground ball to the pitcher circa 2014 or Dodgers manager Dave Roberts benching Cody Bellinger earlier this season — two cases of a manager transparently using a young star to set an example for a slow-starting team. And in saying “I’m hopeful to touch base” with Fowler, Mozeliak all but admitted that he was airing laundry publicly instead of first going to the player to discuss whatever problems had arisen. This isn’t the way well-run 21st century baseball teams typically function.
It’s worth noting that Fowler began receiving an ugly reception from a subset of Cardinals fans even before he’d played his first game for St. Louis. In February 2017, Fowler, whose wife Aliya is an Iranian-born Muslim, expressed his unhappineess over President Donald Trump’s attempt to institute a travel ban on immigrants from several predominantly Muslim countries, telling ESPN’s Mark Saxon, “It’s huge. Especially any time you’re not able to see family, it’s unfortunate.” In turn, Fowler received a slew of rather nasty replies for speaking his mind. Last month, both Fowler and his wife were chased off Twitter after being further harassed. At the very least, it’s possible Mozeliak is throwing red meat to the base in singling out a vulnerable and unpopular player for criticism.
“Really, what I was trying to say was I hear what our fan base is saying, and I hope our players understand what’s going on. There’s still time to win. There’s still time to change. I wasn’t trying to single out Dex in any way.
“When I’m out, people have no problem telling me what to do… I get feedback. What I was trying to say was, ‘I hear it. And I just hope our players are hearing the same thing and that they adjust to it.'”
Mozeliak told Langolsch that he’d spoken to Fowler to clarify his comments and added that the right fielder “has a different approach with how he deals with stuff… I know Dex is working.”
So basically the top executive of an underachieving but still-contending team — the Cardinals were 42-40 at the time and are now 44-41, with Playoff Odds just south of 30% — is admitting that he’s got rabbit ears, and so he’s lashing out at his team? You don’t have to be from St. Louis to know that’s not the vaunted Cardinal Way. But we all have our bad days, and perhaps Mozeliak was in the midst of one or two himself.
It was Mozeliak who signed Fowler to a five-year, $82.5 million deal in December 2016. Fowler, 30 years old at the time, was coming off career highs in wRC+ (128, on .276/.393/.447 hitting) and WAR (4.6) in just 125 games, having missed time due to a right hamstring strain. His top-of-the-lineup table-setting and average defense in center field helped the Cubs win their first World Series in 108 years. Defense was the key to his deal: from 2012 to -15, he’d averaged -10 UZR/-11 DRS, but with the Cubs positioning him deeper in 2016, he’d been basically average that season, and the contract valuation that Craig Edwards anticipated reflected a market view of him being closer to average than to a liability.
Fowler’s first season in St. Louis was a mixed bag; while nearly as productive with the bat as in 2016 (.264/.363/.488, 121 wRC+), he was limited to 118 games by a bone spur in his right heel and a left forearm strain. His defensive marks regressed (-7 UZR, -18 DRS), and he finished with 2.6 WAR in a season where the Cardinals won just 83 games, missing an NL Wild Card berth by four games.
This past winter, the Cardinals chose to move Tommy Pham — who had acquitted himself well while filling in for Fowler — from left field to center and shift Fowler from center to right, a position where he had all of one previous inning of major-league experience but one vacated by the trades of Randal Grichuk and Stephen Piscotty. By both DRS and UZR, Fowler’s defense at the new spot is a few runs in the red, as is Pham’s in center, and the latter’s offensive production has declined as well (.251/.333/.418, 107 wrC+) after a breakout season. But that’s nothing compared to Fowler’s dismal .171/.276/.278 line.
Among NL hitters with at least 250 PA, only the Marlins’ Lewis Brinson has a lower wRC+ (51) than Fowler’s 57, and nobody in the league has a lower WAR than Fowler’s -1.1, though that’s still a far cry from Chris Davis‘ -2.2. The Orioles first baseman is threatening to have the worst season in modern history, and while he’s owed $92 million beyond this year and was recently benched for more than a week, you didn’t hear Dan Duquette popping off to the media about his effort level. (Broadcaster Jim Palmer is another matter, but he’s not part of the team’s decision-making structure.)
Fowler’s .201 batting average on balls in play is the pits, down 104 points from last year and lower than any major leaguer with at least 250 PA save for the Yankees’ Gary Sanchez (.194). He’s hitting the ball in the air more often than he ever has — which has worked for a whole lot of hitters lately but isn’t a blanket prescription for success. He also just isn’t hitting it as hard:
Through Tuesday, Fowler’s average exit velocity was tied for the 36th lowest among 281 qualifiers with at least 100 batted-ball events; the three players with whom he was tied ranged in wRC+ from 69 (Carlos Gomez) to 98 (Tucker Barnhart), the latter thanks in part to a .313 BABIP. So exit velo is only part of the story. Fowler’s 3.0% rate of barrels per batted-ball event is tied for 35th lowest in that same group, and his .288 xwOBA is the 22nd lowest of 180 players with at least 250 PA.
Speed can be a factor in the gap between wOBA and xwOBA, and here it’s worth noting that according to Statcast, Fowler has gone from gradually losing a little every year — dropping from 28.5 feet per second in 2015 to 28.3 and 28.1 feet per second in the next two seasons — to a steeper drop-off this year, to 27.4 feet per second. That’s still above the league average of 27 feet per second, and middle-of-the-pack among players with at least 50 qualifying events (156th out of 300), but it’s a sharp decline nonetheless. Of the 234 players with at least 50 events this year and 100 events last year, Fowler’s drop is in the 93rd percentile; it’s half that of teammate Jose Martinez, who is tied with the Cubs’ Ian Happ for the largest drop (-1.4 ft/sec), and it also trails notables such as Bryce Harper (-1.1 ft/sec), Charlie Blackmon (-0.9), Odubel Herrera (-0.9) and Yadier Molina (-0.8), some of whom have dealt with injuries.
Is Fowler hurt? He missed the Cardinals’ April 30 game after banging up his left wrist diving into the stands in pursuit of a foul ball. MLB.com’s Joe Trezza cited “scrapes and swelling,” and while it wasn’t a long absence, Fowler followed it with a 3-for-36 slide, though two of his hits were homers (he has just five this year). On May 26, he was hit in the right knee by a pitch and left the game. X-rays proved negative, but he missed three games and the Cardinals considered DL-ing him, but he collected five hits in his first two games back from that one. While it’s possible that both injuries have lingered and had an impact upon his season, neither represents a discernible point of inflection in his performance. He hit .170/.279/.298 (63 wRC+) from Opening Day until the wrist injury, .136/.271/.271 (57 wRC+) between the two injuries, and .206/.275/.254 (49 wRC+) after the knee injury. That’s not to say that either incident has been a non-factor; wrist and knee injuries can both seriously sap a player’s production, but it is on Fowler to let the Cardinals know if he’s unable to play.
Beyond Fowler’s deteriorating speed and quality of contact, there’s also his non-contact results. While there’s nothing particularly remarkable about his 11.6% walk rate or 21.6% strikeout rate, they’re both a bit below career norms, with the former down 1.2 points from last year and 2.7 points below 2016, when he set a career high. His 10.3% swinging-strike rate is his highest since 2013, up 1.5 points from last year; in both seasons, he swung at a hair under 25% of pitches outside the zone, compared to about 20% in 2015-16, his two seasons with the Cubs.
Relatively speaking, Fowler is having trouble with all kinds of pitches, but some more than others. Here’s a breakdown of his wRC+ by the five most common pitch types he’s faced, which together have accounted for about 92% of what he’s faced over the past three seasons:
Now, there are some small sample sizes at work, but ay caramba! Fowler has just one hit and one walk in 18 PA ending with curveballs, and one hit and three walks in 28 PA ending with sliders. His whiff rates on both are career highs, 13.5% on the curve (up from 10.5% last year) and 18.6% against the slider (up from 14.7%). The two pitches together account for just about 20% of what he’s seen, but again, small samples. Perhaps more alarming are his results against sinkers. Even against a backdrop in which the pitch has been losing popularity — its 17.2% usage rate is the lowest of the pitch-tracking era, and down from 18.6% last year — the frequency with which Fowler has seen the pitch has risen from 16.5% to 19.6%, a 4.5-point swing relative to the league. In 53 PA ending with sinkers, Fowler has just six hits and 11 walks, for a .143/.321/.262 line. He rarely swings and misses at one (3.0%) and rarely chases (12.7% out of zone), but he can rarely do anything productive with them. And even within his still above-average results against four-seamers, there’s cause for worry, as Fowler’s whiff rate has risen from 4.7% last year to 8.7% this year, and his outside-zone swing rate has climbed from 17.0% to 21.9%
There doesn’t seem to be one area in particular that has caused Fowler’s fall-off so much as several areas all at once, or at least in close proximity — more swings and misses, particularly against breaking pitches, lower quality of contact, diminished speed. Whether or not there’s an off-field component to what’s happening, such as the distraction of his wife’s pregnancy or the frustration of spiraling into a slump and a part-time role, his decline has been sudden and shocking.
Over the past four weeks, Fowler’s hold on full-time work has slipped. Through May 26, he started 39 of the team’s 49 games; since then, just 16 out of 35 and seven out of the last 20, including his absences for the knee injury and paternity leave. Harrison Bader, a 24-year-old rookie, has been the primary beneficiary, with 25 starts in right and 39 starts overall; in limited duty, he’s hit for a 100 wRC+ with good defense (3.5 UZR and an off-the-charts 14 DRS) and 1.2 WAR. Tyler O’Neill, a 23-year-old righty who was recalled for his third stint with the team during Fowler’s leave, has four starts and a sizzling .304/.365/.663 line at Triple-A Memphis. On Tuesday, Matheny started Martinez in right for the first time this year (he had 10 starts there last year, and dreadful small-sample metrics at both corners in 48 carer games), with Carpenter playing first base and Jedd Gyorko at third.
The Cardinals don’t lack for alternatives to Fowler, but Mozeliak — whose teams haven’t made the playoffs since 2015 — publicly tearing him down only undercuts their position. No team is going to give them a break by taking an expensive, struggling player off their hands, particularly if they’re claiming, even without substantiation and in contradiction to his reputation as a clubhouse leader, that he’s a problem. Maybe Fowler’s skills have eroded, and maybe he’s no longer the right player for the starting job, but at the moment, it looks as though the Cardinals’ problems start at the top.
Brooklyn-based Jay Jaffe is a senior writer for FanGraphs, the author of The Cooperstown Casebook (Thomas Dunne Books, 2017) and the creator of the JAWS (Jaffe WAR Score) metric for Hall of Fame analysis. He founded the Futility Infielder website (2001), was a columnist for Baseball Prospectus (2005-2012) and a contributing writer for Sports Illustrated (2012-2018). He has been a recurring guest on MLB Network and a member of the BBWAA since 2011. Follow him on Twitter @jay_jaffe.