Dexter Fowler has long been considered a below average center fielder, at least according to the advanced statistics, that is. But it’s never really looked that way.
For example, Fowler made this incredible catch up against the wall in yesterday’s win over the Nationals:
Great tracking, great timing, and great job protecting his body from getting too blasted by the wall.
Sure, his defense was never his calling card, but Fowler always had the speed, instincts and glove to be a perfectly capable center fielder. Yet, for some reason, the advanced defensive metrics all identified him as among the very worst in baseball.
One big theory for why the metrics don’t like him has revolved around his defensive positioning. When Fowler was in Colorado, the story goes, he was taught to play a very shallow center field and it has stuck with him every since (tied for shallowest positioning in MLB in 2015). However, that may have actually been a big part of the problem. In other words, where Fowler starts at the beginning of every play might have been – at least in some small part – throwing the defensive metrics for a loop, while also making Fowler slightly less effective.
Well, that’s change big time in 2016 and it’s already showing up in the defensive metrics.
According Statcast, via Mike Petriello at MLB.com, Dexter Fowler is now among the deepest playing starting center fielders in all of baseball (5th). In fact, he’s moved back 18 feet(!!!) from his average starting spot last year. Not coincidentally, Joe Maddon is a fan of the new alignment. “To get guys a little bit deeper is probably the right thing to do.” Maddon said, via Petriello, “Keep the extra-base hit out of it and permit the single.” Because of Fowler’s positioning, he’s able to track down more would be extra base hits, even if it’s at the expense of a few more singles here or there.
And so far the defensive statistics are digging it.
Before we jump into this, let me be clear: defensive metrics come with a lot of baggage. Not only are they not entirely effective at describing an individual’s defensive abilty at any given position, they are especially sensitive to small sample sizes. In other words, having a big sample is more important with defensive metrics than many, many other statistics. Obviously, there has not been a very large sample for Dexter Fowler in 2016. So, while what follows is both surprising and encouraging to see, I would recommend treading lightly as it is just a step in the right direction, not an end to all of his problems in center.
Enough throat clearing?
From 2008 until 2015, Dexter Fowler was worth a combined -65 Defensive Runs Saved. Put differently, his defense in center field allowed 65 more runs to score than the average center fielder. Here’s how that broke down year by year, with the relative ranking among qualified center fielders in parenthesis:
- 2009: -13 (17th/18 qualifiers)
- 2010: 0 (8th/19 qualifiers)
- 2011: -5 (16th/20 qualifiers)
- 2012: -12 (19th/2o qualifiers)
- 2013: -4 (15th/19 qualifiers)
- 2014: -20 (19th/19 qualifiers)
- 2015: -12 (19th/23 qualifiers)
Although there are some average or close to average seasons sprinkled in, Fowler has almost always been among the bottom handful of qualified center fielders in terms of DRS. However, we know that he’s made some defensive adjustments, so let’s take a look at where he’s at in 2016 (to date):
- 2016: 1 (4th/24 qualifiers)
Finishing with the fourth most defensive runs saved among all center fielders would be a fantastic accomplishment for just about anyone, but for Fowler it’s night and day. Now, to be fair, DRS can go down over the course of a season (like WAR), so we’re not necessarily out of the woods quite yet. Still, it’s a nice early trend, and, importantly, it’s one that can be tied back to a real, dedicated, tangible shift in strategy.
But if you really want to get crazy, stick with me for a second, because DRS isn’t the only stat Fowler’s improved upon. In fact, it might not even the most impressive early season return. Fowler’s Ultimate Zone Rating (UZR) is currently 1.5, which is not only 9th best in baseball, it would be the only time in his career that Fowler has had a positive UZR.
When combined with his much improved Defensive Runs Saved, it’s not hard to see why Dexter Fowler’s defensive rating (Def) is also very solid, at 1.9, or 8th best in baseball.
I’m reminding you a final time not to take these to heart just yet. The season is very young, and defensive metrics can change drastically (indeed, Fowler’s defensive numbers have actually trended down in the last few days). But, considering the known change in defensive positioning and the immediately positive results, it’s okay to be a little excited about Fowler’s actual defensive abilities in center field.
I hear he’s been pretty good with the bat, too.
Brett Taylor contributed to this post.