Early in a season, some players excel while others fail miserably. Due to the length of the season, and the intensely small sample size of the first few weeks, it is considered statistical treason to begin making assumptions with any significant confidence on a player's early season production. Still, certain aspects of a player's production can become evident early on, and either way, it gives writers like this one a chance to talk about what's going on knowing full well we are dealing with small samples and thus likely very noisy data.
Players like the red hot Chris Davis or the ice cold Jason Heyward will, over the course of the season, straighten out and perform closer to their talent level and previous numbers. Still, Orioles fans should relish in Davis' early season performance, hoping that he has figured something out to give him this extra boost, while Braves fans pray Heyward will find his stride soon. In Colorado, where the Rockies have been estimated to win few games in 2013, one player performing well thus far in 2013 is outfielder Dexter Fowler.
Fowler broke into the league in 2009 at the age of 23, immediately showing his speed both defensively and on the base paths, while providing flexibility as a switch-hitter. He spent all year with the Rockies, scoring 73 runs, stealing 27 bases, and putting up a 97 wRC+. His performance felt the luxurious home effects of Coors Field leading to a wRC+ of 101 in Colorado and 92 on the road. Still, those splits did not possess a huge gap, showing that in the coming seasons Fowler could not only exploit Coors Field's hitters boost, but also put up solid enough numbers on the road to make him a very viable everyday outfielder
After hitting only 13 home runs in 2012, Fowler has felt a power surge in 2013, blasting 4 bombs and 2 doubles, good enough for a .389 ISO and .694 slugging percentage. Obviously Fowler cannot sustain these numbers, but his early success, especially in the clutch, caused Denver Post writer Troy Renck to publish a piece on Fowler. After touching on Fowler's frustrating play in the past, Renck writes:
"He has added a leg kick that has created power. He gets his hands in a position that produce a consistent swing path. Better mechanics have produced better pitch recognition."
After 4 years in the league, Fowler has begun to tinker with his mechanics and approach in order to combat pitchers' ever-constant exploitation of a hitters' weaknesses. At this point we can't be certain those changes have amounted to any significant results, but if Fowler can keep up even a fraction of his increased power production, it would indicate that the changes he's made have had a positive effect.
Renck then touches on a separate issue contributing to Fowler's impressive start.
"There's something else at work here as well: security. Fowler received a two-year, $11.6 million contract, leaving him with one season of arbitration before free agency. For the first time, he believes he's part of the core going forward, not the pawn to land pitching."
In the offseason, amidst trade rumors, the Rockies and Fowler avoided going to arbitration by inking a 2-year extension worth $11.6 million or an AAV of $5.8 million. Players often remark that a feeling of financial and locational security allows them to focus solely on baseball. This is especially important for a young player like Fowler, as veterans, volatile personalities aside, tend to focus on baseball despite contract uncertainty due to experience and increased fortitude.
Neither Fowler nor the Rockies have to worry about Dexter's contract situation until 2015 when Fowler is eligible for his 3rd and final year of arbitration (his current extension covers years 1 and 2 of arbitration). In 2016 Fowler is set to become a free agent, at which time he'll be 30 years old and in line for a lucrative contract. So, using MLB Trade Rumors' extension tracker tool I looked up other outfielders with similar service time that signed extensions similar in years and money to Fowlers.
The tracker popped up a few names including Josh Hamilton, Nate McClouth, Matt Kemp, and Andre Ethier. Hamilton received twice the money as Fowler and did so at an older age, while McClouth got 3 years on his deal, not the 2 that Fowler received. Kemp and Ethier both received 2-year extensions after 3 years of service time. Kemp received 2-years and $10.95 million while his Dodger teammate Ethier got 2-years and $15.25 million.
Since that time, both Kemp and Ethier have signed longer extensions with LA, Kemp for more than $100 million and Ethier at 5-years and $85 million. In the four seasons Kemp played prior to signing the 2-year extension in 2010, he had posted a combined fWAR of 9.3, or 2.3 wins per season. Ethier posted a 9.7 fWAR in 4 seasons prior to signing his 2-year extension, which comes out to 2.4 wins per year. In comparison, Fowler has posted 6.6 wins from 2009-2012, averaging 1.7 wins per season.
Fowler has yet to show the power production that Kemp and Ethier displayed early in their careers, and Fowler relies more on making contact to get on base as opposed to Ethier and Kemp who had higher walk rates. So far, Dexter Fowler seems to be a great candidate for a contract in the $50-60 million range either with the Rockies going into the 2015 season, or with another club when he becomes a free agent in 2016. Still, if Fowler adds a little more power and more patient disciplined approach at the plate, he could receive an Ethieresque deal.
Whether it's the changes in his approach and mechanics, his increased experience, or his newfound financial and contractual security, Dexter Fowlers seems to be putting it to good use. His numbers are inflated by a small sample size, but even with drops in ISO and SLG%, the Rockies will definitely benefit from Fowlers fairly inexpensive contract. The question that lingers is whether the team believes in Fowler's recent success enough to consider locking him up long-term. Whether the Rockies pursue that avenue or not, Dexter Fowler remains a commodity on the upswing, and his momentum could make him a very rich man sooner rather than later.