From the Pages of Vine Line: Dexter Fowler is setting the table for the Cubs

Fowler

 (Photo by Stephen Green)

At just 29 years old, Dexter Fowler has already played parts of seven big league seasons and solidified himself as one of the better leadoff hitters in the game. But many still believe the best is yet to come for the talented center fielder. The following story can be found in the April issue of Vine Line.

Prototypical leadoff hitters are a dying breed in baseball. As speed has declined in value and the importance of power has spiked around the game, there are fewer and fewer players who are able to work the count, take walks, run well and get on base at a decent clip.

Since the turn of the century, the Cubs have had only four guys you could truly label leadoff men—and one of the best, Alfonso Soriano, probably would have been much better suited to the middle of the order. Prior to that, there was one year of Juan Pierre in 2006, a few fleeting moments in the mid-2000s when it looked like Corey Patterson might be a decent table-setter, and then you have to go all the way back to Eric Young in 2000-01.

Former manager Rick Renteria deployed seven different leadoff men in 2014, and they combined to hit just .253 with a .303 on-base percentage. In other words, like most major league teams, the Cubs have had a big hole in the leadoff spot for years.

Cubs President of Baseball Operations Theo Epstein and Executive Vice President and General Manager Jed Hoyer hope they have solved that problem—and added a proven center fielder to boot—with the Jan. 19 trade that sent Luis Valbuena and Dan Straily to Houston in exchange for switch-hitter Dexter Fowler. At just 29 years old, Fowler has already played parts of seven big league seasons, and, despite floating around the Houston lineup last year, he has all the skills to be an old-school leadoff man.

“I see a lot of pitches,” Fowler said. “It’s a fact of knowing when to be aggressive and knowing when not to. Just being a leadoff hitter for my whole career, basically, it’s a job that I’ve become accustomed to. [Getting on base] is part of my game, and it’s been part of my game since early in my career, so it’s nothing new to me.”

FAST TRACK
After the Rockies made Fowler a 14th-round draft pick in 2004, he quickly worked his way up to the majors, making his big league debut in 2008 at the age of 22. He was a mainstay at Coors Field until December 2013, when he was traded to the Astros. During his career, the athletic outfielder has played all but one defensive inning in center field and has taken the majority of his cuts from the leadoff spot, a role he’s expected to fill in Chicago.

Despite relatively high strikeout totals—he’s averaged 115 K’s per year over his six seasons of regular playing time—he’s exactly what you want in a leadoff man. During that same six-year stretch, he hit .272 with a stellar .368 on-base percentage, averaging 65 walks and 16 stolen bases per season.

“He has a very good idea of his swing,” said Cubs hitting coach Jon Mallee, who worked with Fowler last season as Houston’s hitting coach. “His approach is second to none in the box, the way he recognizes pitches and the way he doesn’t expand out of the strike zone. He’s one of the best in baseball at just swinging at strikes.”

Though Fowler has always been an above-average big league player and has all the tools to be a star, injuries and inconsistency have thus far kept him from reaching his ceiling.

Between 2009-14, he averaged 128 games per year. But as he enters his age-29 season, the true prime of his career, many on the Cubs are expecting the 6-foot-5, 195-pound player to have a breakthrough campaign.

“This guy is probably on the verge of becoming really, really good,” said Cubs manager Joe Maddon. “He’s at that age when things start making sense all the way around. He’s a young veteran. He’s had enough experience. So I’m really eager to watch this all unfold.”

For his part, Fowler is glad to be making a return to the National League, where he’s more familiar with the pitchers, and he is ecstatic to be reunited with Mallee in Chicago. He’s also spent several years watching what the Cubs have been building from afar. On a brief rehab assignment at Triple-A Oklahoma City last year, he matched up against the Cubs’ Iowa affiliate and came away impressed with what the organization has percolating.

“It’s an exciting lineup, with the guys coming in,” Fowler said. “We’re all pretty young, but we all have some time in the big leagues. There’s experience there and definitely a lot of talent. My role is just to get on base and just play my game—get on base any way I can, whether it’s hitting a line drive in the gap and running or taking a walk.”

And if Fowler takes his share of walks, that’s just fine with Maddon and the Cubs. The team’s major offensive weakness in recent years has been a low on-base percentage coupled with too many strikeouts. The Cubs ranked 28th in the game last season with a .300 team OBP and led all of baseball with 1,477 whiffs.

While most agree that patience at the plate is more innate than learned, the Cubs coaching staff is hoping Fowler’s pitch recognition and approach will rub off on some of the organization’s younger hitters. At the very least, having an experienced player at the top of the order who can grind at-bats will give the rest of the lineup a better chance to see what the starting pitcher’s stuff looks like on a given day.

“It does help to have a guy who has that [leadoff experience] because the younger players will see how he goes about his business, how he goes about his at-bat,” Mallee said. “It kind of sets the tone. And then he does a really good job of talking to the young guys and telling them, ‘Hey, in this situation, just try to look for something right here. If not, just take your walk.’ Coming from a coaching perspective, it’s nice to have players who have that experience to be able to help the younger guys.”

Few athletes are willing to dub themselves a “team leader,” especially when they’re new to an organization, and Fowler is no exception. But people who have played with him before rave about the intangibles he brings to the clubhouse. The charismatic Georgia native, who came through the famous East Cobb Little League program and was recruited in multiple sports by Dartmouth and Harvard before deferring to his big league dreams, is a cerebral hitter who studies pitchers and is happy to pass his knowledge along to others.

“He’s an awesome teammate,” said pitcher Jason Hammel, who played with Fowler in Colorado from 2009-11. “[He’s] a high-energy guy, always a positive guy. He fits the mold of what they’re trying to bring in here now. [He’s] obviously a guy who is ready to play, understands his duties. He’s prepared, and then he also knows how to have a good time.”

Throughout his career, Fowler has had many influences. He grew up idolizing Ken Griffey Jr., which is why he wears No. 24, but he also watched Andruw Jones patrol the outfield for his hometown Braves. One of his biggest mentors since he turned pro has been none other than all-time home run leader Barry Bonds. When Fowler was still in Colorado, he connected with Bonds through former Rockies coach Glenallen Hill. Fowler said Bonds preaches patience at the plate and the value of getting a good pitch to hit, lessons Fowler first learned from his father years ago.

FIELD WORK
Though Fowler fills another big need for the Cubs as a proven center fielder, one of the knocks on him throughout his career—at least as far as stat-heads are concerned—has been his defense. Long and lanky with a graceful stride, Fowler glides through the outfield, covering a ton of ground, and he’s blessed with a cannon for an arm. Yet, in 111 games in center field last season for the Astros, he had a -21.8 ultimate zone rating and -20 defensive runs saved, well below what you’d expect from an elite center fielder.

It basically comes down to the eye test versus advanced metrics. By the naked eye, Fowler more than looks the part and makes his share of outstanding plays. But the numbers seem to contradict what the eye is seeing. Fowler said all he cares about is what his pitchers think. And if Hammel is any indication, the Cubs’ hurlers will be more than happy to have Fowler prowling the Friendly Confines’ vast outfield.

“I want him out there,” Hammel said. “I couldn’t care less. I don’t even know what the hell all the new [analytics] things that you put together are—FIP and all that crap, whatever it is. I know when he has a glove on, he’s going to go run the ball down. Any time you get a guy in center field who can basically cover all three outfield positions from one, it’s going to help your team.”

Though Fowler has heard the questions about his defense before, he puts very little stock in the critique. And he is definitely not going to be cowed by playing defense at Wrigley Field, which is notoriously tough on outfielders. In his career so far, he’s manned center field in two of the game’s most expansive ballparks—Colorado’s Coors Field and Houston’s Minute Maid Park. He knows what he can do and is confident that Cubs fans will appreciate the effort he gives every day.

“Come watch me,” he said. “That’s the best answer for that. If you know the game, you can watch the game, and you’ll see me go get fly balls and do all that. Then I think you’ll be a fan. You ask pitchers, you ask coaches, ‘Who do you want in center field?’ See what they say. It doesn’t matter what the computer says. Ask the guys who are in the game and watching the game.”

SETTING THE TABLE
Fowler is smart enough to know he’s joining the Cubs at the right time. After several subpar years, the team had a big offseason, adding players like Jon Lester, Miguel Montero and Hammel to an already strong core. Though Fowler becomes a free agent after 2015, he’s most certainly not looking ahead to the offseason or focusing too much energy on putting up a great walk year. He’s too focused on what Epstein calls “the single greatest pursuit left in professional sports.”

“My expectations are to win a championship, as always,” Fowler said. “The excitement around the team right now is second to none. We just want to go and do it for Ernie [Banks].

“It’s awesome being here. You really see what the ‘C’ stands for when you look at the fans, and you look at the organization. To have that on your chest is definitely an honor. It’s a historic organization, and it’s very exciting.”

Many, including Mallee, believe the next step for Fowler is increased power at the plate. His career high is 13 home runs, which he hit with Colorado in 2012. Like most switch-hitters, his overall numbers are better from his natural, or right-hand, side. He didn’t pick up switch-hitting until he was drafted by Colorado in 2005, and he’s worked hard to even out his left-handed swing ever since.

“He’s got more power than he’s shown,” Mallee said. “He’s really an amazing right-handed hitter, and he’s a really good left-handed hitter that gets on base. I think he’s going to hit for more power this year left-handed than he has in the past.”

If the Cubs have, in fact, found a true leadoff hitter who can consistently get on base for the heart of the order, they’ll have a commodity that’s growing ever rarer in today’s game.

They’ll also have a perfect mentor and role model for a young offense still searching for its identity. And that might be just what the organization needs as it turns the corner and becomes a perennial contender in the NL Central.

“The experience is a huge thing,” Mallee said. “Plus, he’s a switch-hitter so it’s like having two guys—a righty leadoff hitter and a lefty leadoff hitter. … For what we’re trying to do to increase our on-base percentage and then get some guys on base in front of the big boys who can drive them in … having that guy set the tone, and leading off the game, and really putting an at-bat on the pitcher, and wearing him down, and seeing pitches and taking pitches for the other guys—that’s just great to have. I’m so excited that we got him.”

—By Gary Cohen

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