Dexter Fowler Should Age Well, Regardless of the Defense

It would be fair to label me a skeptic of Dexter Fowler’s defense skills. Despite recording basically average fielding numbers over his two years with the Cubs, Fowler had graded out as a distinctly below-average center fielder in every season of his career before joining Chicago ahead of the 2015 season. In each of the past two years his name has appeared in my early-season defensive-outlier posts, and before last season, I wrote an entire piece wondering if Fowler had actually improved as a defender or if he had merely benefited from better positioning.

Of course, even if the pre-Chicago version of Fowler is the real one, he actually still profiles as a decent player. He has a fantastic walk rate, has exhibited average power as a major leaguer, makes good contact — and, since leaving hitter-friendly Coors Field, has managed to produce a 121 wRC+, well above league average. Dexter Fowler the Hitter and Dexter Fowler the Fielder present two different points from which to begin an analysis of his future value. Let’s take a look at both.

Opinions on Fowler’s future value have some wide ranges. At ESPN, Keith Law ranked Fowler the second-best free agent of the winter and indicated that four years and $90 million would represent solid value for him. Dave Cameron, meanwhile, ranked Fowler seventh among free agents and estimated his contract at four years and $70 million. The FanGraphs crowd was even more skeptical, estimating Fowler’s deal four years and $62 million. The projections call for something even lower than all that, forecasting Fowler for 2.1 WAR next year, his age-31 season. That value would basically make him a suitable candidate for the Josh Reddick contract.

Dexter Fowler’s Estimatedefense Value — 4 yr / $48.3 M
Year Age WAR $/WAR Est. Contract
2017 31 2.1 $8.5 M $17.9 M
2018 32 1.6 $8.9 M $14.3 M
2019 33 1.1 $9.4 M $10.3 M
2020 34 0.6 $9.8 M $5.9 M
Totals 5.4 $48.3 M

Assumptions

Value: $8.5M/WAR with 5.0% inflation (for first 5 years)
Aging Curve: +0.25 WAR/yr (18-27), 0 WAR/yr (28-30),-0.5 WAR/yr (31-37),-0.75 WAR/yr (> 37)

The thing with those projections is they assume Fowler is a -10 run fielder in center. Perhaps you believe that. If you don’t, however — if you believe Fowler’s defensive adjustments are real and sustainable going forward, and that Fowler is an average center fielder — then his estimated value over the next four years, looks more like this:

Dexter Fowler’s Estimatedefense Value — 4 yr / $85.0 M
Year Age WAR $/WAR Est. Contract
2017 31 3.1 $8.5 M $26.4 M
2018 32 2.6 $8.9 M $23.2 M
2019 33 2.1 $9.4 M $19.7 M
2020 34 1.6 $9.8 M $15.7 M
Totals 9.4 $85.0 M

Assumptions

Value: $8.5M/WAR with 5.0% inflation (for first 5 years)
Aging Curve: +0.25 WAR/yr (18-27), 0 WAR/yr (28-30),-0.5 WAR/yr (31-37),-0.75 WAR/yr (> 37)

That version of Fowler begins as a three-win player, not a two-win one — and that’s worth almost $40 million extra over four years. Meanwhile, if you split the difference between those two versions of Fowler, you end up right near Cameron’s estimate of $70 million. In other words: Fowler doesn’t even need to be a completely average center fielder to produce nearly $70 million of value over four year. Even slightly below-average fielding numbers would still get him there.

With another season of solid UZR numbers (DRS was still down on Fowler in 2015 before seeing average defense this past season), Fowler’s three-year average — which is generally a pretty good indicator of talent level — is now at -7.5 runs per season. Add the (positive) positional adjustment for center field and his 129 wRC+ and his good baserunning, and that mark would still have rendered Fowler a four-win player in 2016.

Without rehashing too much of my post on Fowler’s defense from before the season, I will note that Fowler’s Inside Edge numbers still haven’t changed significantly.

Dexter Fowler Inside Edge Fielding
Season Team Pos Inn Impossible (0%) Remote (1-10%) Unlikely (10-40%) Even (40-60%) Likely (60-90%) Routine (90-100%)
2012 Rockies CF 1026.0 0.0% (115) 11.1% (9) 33.3% (6) 50.0% (6) 91.7% (12) 98.8% (243)
2013 Rockies CF 921.1 0.0% (63) 12.5% (8) 100.0% (1) 66.7% (3) 87.5% (8) 100.0% (219)
2014 Astros CF 959.0 0.0% (44) 10.0% (10) 33.3% (9) 60.0% (5) 80.0% (5) 99.6% (229)
2015 Cubs CF 1324.1 0.0% (38) 0.0% (9) 16.7% (6) 50.0% (2) 92.3% (13) 99.1% (326)
2016 Cubs CF 1027.1 0.0% (32) 0.0% (4) 0.0% (2) 0.0% (0) 66.7% (6) 99.5% (213)
Total – – – CF 8306.1 0.0% (292) 7.5% (40) 29.2% (24) 56.3% (16) 86.4% (44) 99.3% (1230)

Looking at the numbers more closely, it appears as though Dexter Fowler was faced with fewer decisive opportunities in 2016 than previous season. If we remove the plays classified either as Routine or Impossible, the data reveal the batted balls Fowler faced that were regarded as playable but not simple.

Dexter Fowler Inside Edge Fielding
Season Team Pos Inn Plays between 1% and 90% Fieldable Plays % of Non-Routine Plays Fieldable Plays Per Inning
2012 Rockies CF 1026 33 276 12.0% 0.27
2013 Rockies CF 921.1 20 239 8.4% 0.26
2014 Astros CF 959 29 258 11.2% 0.27
2015 Cubs CF 1324.1 30 356 8.4% 0.27
2016 Cubs CF 1027.1 12 223 5.4% 0.22
Total – – – CF 5258 122 1352 9.0% 0.26

Whether you’re a believer in capacity of the Cubs’ pitchers to elicit weak contact or perhaps in the possibility that Jason Heyward made center field in Chicago an easier position to play, Dexter Fowler faced considerably fewer non-routine plays — and fewer plays per inning, in general — than he had in previous seasons. None of this is to say that Fowler’s positioning didn’t make him a better defensive player, but there’s a reason we look to larger sample sizes for fielding metrics, and Fowler might represent an example of why. Fowler can still remain a valuable player in the near future as a slightly below-average center fielder — or, alternatively, as a slightly above-average corner outfielder. The bat gives him a margin for error.

Typically, this is the moment in a post when I look at historical comps for guidance. Generally when I do that, I look at wRC+ and WAR in combination — which naturally tends to group together players with similar defensive value. As we’ve discussed Fowler’s defense already, I’m going to focus on offense here. To find comps for Fowler, I looked for outfielders between ages 28 and 30 over the past 50 years who’d recorded (a) a wRC+ within five points of Fowler’s 121 mark, (b) a sum of plate appearances within 20% of Fowler’s total of 1,746 during that three-year span, (c) a BABIP of at least .310 (because converting batted balls into hits at an above-average rate is part of Fowler’s game), and (d) an ISO below .200. Here are the players who meet all those critera:

Dexter Fowler Comps: Age 28 Through Age 30
Name PA BB% K% BABIP AVG OBP SLG wRC+
Alex Gordon 2064 9.2 % 19.7 % .326 .276 .349 .436 116
Matty Alou 1928 4.8 % 5.3 % .351 .333 .368 .407 125
Hunter Pence 2043 8.0 % 18.8 % .320 .283 .342 .470 126
Ron LeFlore 2042 7.5 % 16.5 % .366 .313 .366 .431 122
Robin Yount 1824 9.8 % 10.7 % .314 .297 .365 .444 122
Ken Griffey 1715 8.9 % 10.8 % .320 .297 .359 .443 124
Andre Ethier 1754 9.5 % 18.8 % .334 .289 .361 .459 126
Phil Bradley 1981 10.5 % 16.6 % .325 .280 .365 .425 120
Jose Cardenal 1790 9.4 % 10.4 % .313 .296 .363 .444 120
AVERAGE 1905 8.6 % 14.2% .330 .296 .360 .440 122
Dexter Fowler 1746 13.1 % 22.1 % .334 .266 .369 .419 121

Fowler both walks and strikes out a little bit more than this group collectively, making him more reliant on his walk rate than BABIP, which is a good thing. Generally speaking, though, these players all recorded fairly similar offensive profiles to Fowler. Gordon and Pence haven’t yet completed their age-34 seasons, so let’s first look at age-31 and -32 production for these players.

Dexter Fowler Comps: Age 31 Through Age 32
Name PA BB% K% BABIP AVG OBP SLG wRC+
Robin Yount 1419 9.8 % 11.1 % .329 .309 .376 .472 128
Hunter Pence 931 7.3 % 19.1 % .319 .277 .331 .453 123
Ron LeFlore 1241 9.2 % 15.6 % .328 .280 .346 .391 104
Jose Cardenal 1226 8.9 % 7.3 % .321 .309 .371 .413 115
Alex Gordon 928 10.9 % 25.9 % .307 .243 .342 .403 101
Andre Ethier 933 9.9 % 18.1 % .312 .262 .344 .401 112
Ken Griffey 970 8.0 % 10.3 % .314 .292 .348 .408 112
Matty Alou 1378 4.6 % 3.3 % .310 .306 .340 .384 101
Phil Bradley 495 10.1 % 12.3 % .291 .256 .349 .327 95
AVERAGE 1058 8.7 % 13.7 % .315 .282 .350 .406 110

That 110 wRC+ over the next two seasons looks pretty solid. The walk rate and strikeout rate stay exactly the same. The BABIP dropped some for this group, resulting in the overall decline in production, but these players generally remained solid hitters. The even better news for Fowler is that these numbers held at ages 33 and 34, as well. Phil Bradley didn’t play, but among the seven remaining players (Pence for age 33 only), five of them posted above-average hitting lines.

Fowler’s bat should remain an asset over the course of his contract, and there’s some evidence that he will be able to hold onto his numbers better than some. How high you go on a contract is going to depend on where you think his defensive talent lies. If Fowler ages well, he’ll only need to be produce a 2.4 WAR in 2017 — and experience typical age-related decline — to be worth $70 million. That would be without an overly positive look at his defense. If you’re a believer in Fowler’s defense, his value might be $20 million or more above that figure. Defense doesn’t often get paid, but Fowler’s contract might reveal where the market thinks Fowler’s glove is now and into the future.

We hoped you liked reading Dexter Fowler Should Age Well, Regardless of the Defense by Craig Edwards!

Please support FanGraphs by becoming a member. We publish thousands of articles a year, host multiple podcasts, and have an ever growing database of baseball stats.

FanGraphs does not have a paywall. With your membership, we can continue to offer the content you've come to rely on and add to our unique baseball coverage.

Support FanGraphs




Craig Edwards can be found on twitter @craigjedwards.

newest oldest most voted
dtpollitt
Member
Member
dtpollitt

Reddick getting 4/$52 makes me think Dexter is gonna push 4/$70.