Dexter Fowler’s 2018 is one that he’d rather forget. In the three seasons prior, Fowler’s play approached or surpassed All-Star caliber. In his first season with the Cardinals, Fowler slashed .264/.363/.488 for a 121 wRC+, but in his follow-up season, his performance got cut in half. Last season, Fowler posted a Jeff Mathisian .180/.278/.298 and 62 wRC+. Unlike Mathis, Fowler can’t rely on his defense to carry him. In limited playing time, Fowler cost the Cardinals five runs in right field by Defensive Runs Saved and that was an improvement over 2017.
Fowler ended the year with -1.2 fWAR, the seventh-worst mark of any hitter last season. Despite a five-year, $82.5 million contract, Fowler may find himself the odd man out in the Cardinals’ outfield. Jose Martinez continued to be a productive hitter, and even if his defense is somehow worse than Fowler’s, he could force Fowler out of playing time. Tyler O’Neill adds a little more pressure as well. O’Neill hit nine homers and slugged over .500 in 142 plate appearances last year. He also struck out 40 percent of the time, so he’s not completely ready.
Fowler essentially has two paths to maintain his starting role in St. Louis. He can either hope that Jose Martinez gets traded or he can play like Dexter Fowler again.
The good news is that Fowler’s discipline hasn’t changed. Fowler has always had good on-base skills. Even if his 11.4 walk rate was his worst mark since 2010, it’s still above average. Fowler remained about as patient as he’s always been. He can depend on his patience to get him on base.
It could be tempting to look at Fowler’s untenable .210 BABIP and think that he’s due for some better luck. Sure, he hit fewer line drives than he had ever hit in a full season, but he ought to have had more balls fall in for hits. PECOTA, Steamer, and ZiPS all project Fowler to be an above average hitter again, though his best days at the plate are probably behind him.
The problem is that Fowler made less contact than he had the previous three seasons. His 75.4 percent contact rate was four percentage points lower than 2017, and it effectively tied for the lowest mark of his career. To make matters worse, he was seemingly incapable of hitting the ball hard when he did make contact. His average exit velocity dropped two ticks to 85.3 MPH, and his hard-hit rate fell to 28 percent.
Fowler has always relied on punishing fastballs. In 2017, he hit fourseamers and sinkers about as well as Anthony Rendon and George Springer according to pitch values. Fowler actually saw a higher percentage of fastballs in 2018 than he had in the previous season, but he wasn’t able to capitalize. It wasn’t that pitchers were approaching him much differently. They were throwing him more sinkers, but in that case, they were doing him a favor. It’s simply that Fowler wasn’t making solid contact.
This is a small sample, but it points to just how off Fowler was last season. Out of twelve grooved fastballs, Fowler only collected one hit: a single.
If Fowler is going to be good again, he’ll have to get back to raking fastballs. The Catch 22 is that if Fowler doesn’t get his timing down against fastballs, he might not stay in the lineup, and if he doesn’t stay in the lineup, he might not get his timing down.
Kenny Kelly is a writer for Beyond the Box Score and McCovey Chronicles. You can follow him on Twitter @KennyKellyWords.