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Dexter Fowler's Cardinals contract hinges on his plate discipline

How plate discipline could help justify his new contract, even if his defense declines.

Jerry Lai-USA TODAY Sports

Something you’ll hear about the Dexter Fowler contract in the coming days, or perhaps years, is that he bet on himself and won. And that is true. The 2016 season was one big game — some portion chance, some portion skill — to determine whether his decision to accept a one-year, $8-million contract from the Cubs was a good decision or a bad decision.

The $82.5-million deal he just signed with the rival Cardinals tells you that he won this particular game. What portion you believe was chance and what portion you believe was skill is basically a baseball-watching Rorschach test. And an important one.

Generally, it is difficult for a player to move his worth from $8 million (or even $35 million, which is what the Orioles were reportedly willing to pay him before the negotiations exploded in their face) to $82.5 million in one season. When they manage to do that for human-brained decision-makers, it looks a lot like Fowler’s campaign. He raked — logging a 129 wRC+ — while justifying his premium place on the diamond with above-average defense in center field.

The next thing you hear is often have the computer-brained projection system dropping in to say something like, oh, I don’t know, “That 30-year-old player you just signed for 5 years is projected to be just 7 percent better than the league average hitter and play below-average center field defense. In the first year of the deal.”

Or, “Sucker.”

There’s a way to look at this deal wherein its ultimate success or failure depends on Fowler’s glove. His track record, though, suggests that even if his gains in center are real, he is unlikely to stay above average there for more than half the deal. So let’s concern ourselves with whether his offensive performance is capable of justifying the contract (and the draft pick the Cardinals gave up as a result).

Steamer’s 2017 projection, the one that foresees a 107 wRC+, seems very pessimistic to our very human brains. We just saw Fowler play a whole season as one of the 10 or so best outfielders in the game. But it exists for a reason. You have to look back to only 2015 to find a version of Fowler with a 110 wRC+ (and some much smaller contract offers).

Steamer has doubts about Fowler’s OBP — the bedrock of his value. And it apparently has “we need to talk”-level doubts about his SLG. Those doubts are most easily traced to his very high BABIP (.350 in 2016, .342 for his career) and an ISO that has taken some twists and turns.

Add it all up, and Steamer sees Joe Mauer’s 2016 plus speed.

However, Steamer doesn’t see exactly how Fowler is doing this. Namely, it doesn’t see the plate discipline he exhibited in 2016.

Based on his strikeout and walk rates, Fowler appears to be a very patient hitter — plenty of walks and a hearty helping of Ks, as well. In fact, my colleague Ryan Romano took a deep dive into his somewhat unusual profile last offseason, and found a two-strike deficiency that likely drives his K rate above its expected levels.

In 2016, the always selective Fowler managed to take it up a notch, posting the lowest chase rate in baseball. But that wasn’t really the accomplishment. Fowler’s offensive boost button was more likely tied to his preference for fastballs, and his increasing ability to force pitchers into fastball counts.

First, so we can all agree that he likes fastballs: Using FanGraphs’ pitch values, we can see that Fowler produced the fifth-most runs per 100 fastballs last year, and ranks seventh over the last five years (min. 400 PA and 400 PA/season). He wants to see the heat.

So that makes it doubly useful that he managed to conclude an incredible, league-leading proportion of his plate appearances with the count in his favor. Look through the last 5 seasons (thanks, Baseball-Reference Play Index), and you’ll find that only Chipper Jones in 2012 finished a smaller percentage of his plate appearances behind in the count.

Rk Player Year PA PAtot %
1 Chipper Jones 2012 81 448 18.1
2 Dexter Fowler 2016 114 551 20.7
3 Joey Votto 2015 145 695 20.9
4 Carlos Santana 2015 148 666 22.2
5 Carlos Santana 2014 147 660 22.3
6 Yonder Alonso 2015 90 402 22.4
7 Adam LaRoche 2012 145 647 22.4
8 Joey Votto 2013 164 726 22.6
9 Yonder Alonso 2012 140 619 22.6
10 Joey Votto 2012 108 475 22.7
11 Bryce Harper 2016 143 627 22.8
12 Joey Votto 2016 156 677 23.0

It’s a list that slots Fowler in with the likes of contemporary plate discipline bosses such as Joey Votto and Carlos Santana.

More importantly, it means he is working 80 percent of his at-bats into especially favorable situations — with a skill set that doesn’t wash away with the sands of time. Take that knowledge and apply it to his larger offensive numbers, and his BABIP and ISO numbers start to look more sustainable.

Given what we know about balls hit in the zone, and about Fowler’s preference for fastballs, it seems that this could spell success until Fowler loses the ability to catch up to fastballs.

There are, of course, a wide array of things that could go wrong. The computer the Cardinals brain trust is hoping to outsmart has envisioned Fowler’s future performance in many more ways than we have. But as of right now, the picture of Fowler’s payoff looks more like one of skill than one of luck.