It’s been a rough season for Dexter Fowler. Heading into the game on June 13th, Dexter’s batting average sits at a dismal .172. With an equally miserable .196 BABIP, the man literally cannot buy a hit. He is one of 4 major contributors to the lineup that opened the season in a slump. Two of those, Matt Carpenter and Marcell Ozuna, have found their footing. Kolten Wong continues his search, as does Fowler. And it is with Fowler that I decided to do some searching through the numbers to see if I could spot something, anything, that could explain the season’s downturn.
You would think that with a player hitting almost .100 points below his career average, there would be some glaring hole in the numbers. You would think that there would be a visible outlier. There really isn’t anything groundbreaking, but let me tell you what I found.
Splits and Shifts
Out of curiosity, I looked into Fowler’s L/R splits. He has been oddly bad against LHP’s this year. He is just 3 for 33 (.091) against them, a sharp contrast to his .292 career mark. If we normalized his numbers vs. LH’s, even just to the .252 average he had in 2017, if would add 5 more hits and put him just shy of .200 overall. Going a step further, if he wasn’t miserable against lefties, he would likely have at least 17 more at-bats (50 overall) and, again, if he carried a .250 average, he would be hitting around .202. Simply, the issues against lefties are not what sunk his average, they’ve just help keep it below Mendoza level. He is still hitting just .190 against RH’s.
While perusing some Statcast data, the first thing to jump out at me was the dramatic increase in shifts versus Fowler this season. Last season Fowler faced the shift in 35 AB, or 9.8% of the time. Already this year, he has seen it 73 times, or 42.2% of his AB’s. “Bingo,” I thought. This must be the root of the problem, the shift is killing him. Nah.
Although Fowler’s .290 wOBA against the shift this year isn’t great, it’s right in line with the .293 mark he had last year. So he isn’t doing any worse against the shift than he did a year ago. Though facing it more often is certainly a contributing factor to his down year, it is not the driver. Against standard defensive alignments, Fowler’s wOBA is just .255, so he’s actually been better this year with the shift on. To compare, last year against non-shifts his wOBA was .358. That’s a big drop off.
2018 vs. Career
Believe is or not, most of Fowler’s metrics are at or close to his career norms. I’ll start by showing you his plate discipline numbers (courtesy of Fangraphs):
The numbers are down a hair across the board, but its nothing dramatic. He is still walking at a healthy pace and the strikeouts are nothing abnormal. The slight differences don’t explain the big drop off. So his plate discipline is not the issue.
Next I looked at his Batted Ball Profile:
|GB%||FB%||LD%||Hard-Hit%||Med. Hit%||Soft-Hit%||Avg. Exit Velo.||Launch Angle|
You will see, and hear, a lot of folks citing his below league average exit velocity as a major problem. I’ve been guilty of doing the same. Here’s the deal though, he’s not hitting the ball that much softer than his career average, with a difference of just -1.1 mph in Exit Velocity. In fact, if you look at his Hard-Hit%, he’s actually outperforming his career. More of his batted balls are hard hit than normal. The average exit velocity is just being dragged down because some of his softly hit batted balls, are really softly hit. But he is also not having the weak contact any more often than normal. So it’s not really about how hard he is hitting the ball.
Here is what I found the most interesting in these numbers: Fowler is hitting a lot more fly balls than ever before. Prior to 2018, the highest FB% he’s ever had in a season was 38.2% in 2017, which was 2.5% higher than his career average. He is nearly 8% higher than his career average to this point. He has NEVER hit more fly balls than ground balls in a season, until 2018. With the line drive rate still floating around 20%, Dexter has flip-flop the extremes of his batted ball profile.
Why all the Fly Balls?
The launch angle shows us the root of the issue. He has added an average of 3 degrees, so he’s getting a little more air under the ball. For a guy that doesn’t particularly put on a show with exit velo, that means could-be first-row HR’s die on the warning track, and balls in the gaps hang in the air for the extra fraction of a second that it takes for an outfielder to run it down.
Here are the spray charts for Fowler this year. The first shows his hits/outs, the second shows the batted ball type:
Quick notes from these two charts. He has just 2 hits on balls classified as Fly Balls this year. He has 7 hits on the ground. Unsurprisingly, most of his hits are line drives and he is converting those into hits at a 57% rate. Fly Balls are never going to turn into hits at a high percentage, and that’s kind of the point. And getting 2 hits out of 62 fly balls is a big reason for that .196 BABIP.
Bottom line: Fowler is basically profiling as the same hitter this year as he has always been, except he is hitting a bunch of fly balls.
Which leads me to this major oversimplification.
Where Marcell Ozuna hit his stride by adjusting his stance and restoring the lift in his swing (AKA not hitting down on the ball), Fowler should consider going in the opposite direction. Perhaps overcorrecting and consciously trying not to hit the ball in the air (where he has gotten no positive results) will help him level out his swing and allow him to be the hitter that we all want him to be. The hitter the team needs him to be.
Trying to put the ball on the ground (or at least not lift it) goes against current trends, and even conventional wisdom. But tab this point, what’s it going to hurt?
Thanks for reading!