When the Chicago Cubs signed Dexter Fowler to a one-year deal late in the spring, it was a moment of overwhelming excitement for several different reasons. Whether it was the way Theo Epstein (re)introduced Fowler to his teammates in Mesa, the apparent flip-flop from Baltimore back to Chicago for significantly less money, or the increased depth that the Cubs were set to boast, there was a lot to like about the signing. But not even Theo himself predicted what we'd see out of Fowler this early in the season.
After spending the winter lingering in free agency limbo, Fowler is doing his best to ensure that doesn't happen again. According to fWAR, Fowler is currently the no. 1 position player in all of baseball. He was the first to eclipse the 1.0 mark, and he currently has a value of 1.7. The next best is Manny Machado at 1.5 fWAR.
It's obviously unreasonable to expect Fowler to continue this torrid pace as the season wears on. Nonetheless, what he's done to this point in the young season is nothing short of remarkable. At the same time, it may not be that surprising given Fowler's production in the second half of 2015.
You really don't need me to highlight the differences. Fowler was off the charts in the second half of last year, also hitting 40 points higher, with a .272 batting average in the second half of the season. Going strictly off of that sample, it may not be quite as surprising that Fowler is off to the start that he is. But exactly to what should we attribute his second half of last season, as well as his start to 2016?
In the second half of last season, Fowler saw a rise in his groundball rate (39.8 percent to 47.7 percent) and a drop in his flyball percentage (40.2 percent to 31.8 percent). Subsequently, his hard hit rate jumped up from 24.4 percent to 33.0 percent. And with those trends, his BABIP followed, moving from .283 in the first half to .340 in the second. There's a pretty clear trend here to harder, more favorable contact.
What we're seeing so far this season is largely the same as what Fowler produced for the entirety of 2015, when it was all said and done. His line drive rate is at 20.6 percent (20.3 in 2015), he's hitting groundballs at a 44.1 percent clip (43.3), and flyballs at a 35.3 percent clip (36.4). While none of that indicates that his early season swelter will continue, it does bode well for him to continue producing offense at a steady rate.
As such, these types of trends have largely carried over into 2016. Fowler doesn't swing and miss at a lot of pitches, which has obviously worked in his favor since last July, when this offensive upswing began. His swinging strike rate over that time is just 8.2 percent. His swing percentage on pitches outside of the strike zone thus far in 2016 is sitting at a cool 15.5 percent, while he's hacking at just 35.5 percent of pitches overall. He's consistently cut down on his whiffs, as illustrated below:
This is, of course, true in regard to hard and offspeed pitches, though it's also important to note that while there has been an uptick in whiffs against breaking pitches, he also swings at these pitches less than either of the other two categories.
Subsequently, his approach has lent itself to him making quality contact, as he's making soft contact at a paltry rate of 11.1 percent. His Hard% at this point in the year is an absurd 47.2 percent. Obviously, expect that number to fall, but the more patient he stays, the more likely he is to maintain a respectable figure in that regard. His early season approach and swing trends have culminated in some absolutely gaudy numbers early on in the season.
His BABIP is over .500; he's slashing .392/.523/.706/1.229; and he has a wRC+ of 226. Again, completely unsustainable. The BABIP alone will even out and take the bulk of these other figures with it. At the same time, though, we're learning a lot about what Fowler brings to the table at this point in his career. And after a season in which he failed to garner much interest because of a rumored $10 million price tag, teams are very likely kicking themselves over passing up the opportunity to grab Fowler on the open market.
Fowler has demonstrated a top notch approach. He's seeing 4.11 pitches per plate appearance and has one of the league's lowest swing rates (that 35.5 percent mark is the seventh lowest among players that currently qualify). Because he's being so selective at the plate, even more so than what was already considered a quality approach demonstrated by him in the past, he's able to make quality contact at a higher rate than we've become accustomed to seeing from him.
It remains to be seen how long Fowler can keep up his "reign" as the best player in baseball, at least is far as fWAR is concerned. Regardless of when someone like Manny Machado does eclipse him in the fWAR department, it's quite possible that we're seeing Fowler as good as we've ever seen him. And the already offensively loaded Chicago Cubs are reaping the rewards.
Randy Holt is a staff writer for Beyond the Box Score. You can follow him on Twitter @RandallPnkFloyd.