At first glance, Dexter Fowler’s defensive numbers aren’t very pretty. A -20.6 UZR/150 is hard to dress up. But I also think it is possible it is misleading. Fowler’s poor defense reminded me of the talk that David DeJesus’ defense was also poor, that he was strictly a corner outfielder by the time when he came to the Cubs.
Indeed, the statistics did bear that out. DeJesus averaged a -20.7 UZR/150 in the 4 years leading up to his signing with the Cubs. That was compiled over a total of just under 750 innings. It looks very similar to that number Dexter Fowler put up in just over 950 innings last year in Houston.
There is another thing the two outfielders have in common. They tend to play very shallow. See this article by Fangraphs by Mike Petriello. It included this quote from a separate study…
A study last year by fielding analytics guru John Dewan ranked Colby Rasmus fifth among centre-fielder’s in terms of playing shallow in the field.
Measuring the number of times a player needed to break back on balls as opposed to breaking in, his going back rate of 40 per cent tied Michael Saunders and Adam Jones, trailing only Denard Span and Ben Revere at 42 percent, and Dexter Fowler and David DeJesus at 41 percent.
In other words no outfielders had to run back on the ball more than Fowler and DeJesus. Most people who have played the outfield will tell you it is much more difficult to go back on the ball than it is to come in on it. Perhaps it is no coincidence that the CF’ers in the study generally graded out pretty poorly in CF.
In the case of Dexter Fowler, it is likely he plays shallow to take away shallow singles thinking he had the speed to compensate. But playing in such a cavernous CF in Houston (not to mention the hill and the odd contour of the park), he may have made things a lot more difficult than it had to be. Not only did he already have to cover more ground, but he had to do so going back on the ball. Sure he may have had compensated by catching more shallow flies, but it is questionable that he was able to make up the amount of balls he missed deep by playing shallow, especially since he likely had to share some of those catches with his middle infielders.
Wrigley Field, by comparison, is much easier to play. It is not as deep and the park is symmetrical in CF. Sure there is the brick wall, but I don’t think that is as difficult to deal with than the extra space, the hill, and the assymetrical contour of Minute Maid Park.
Do I think Fowler can be a Gold Glove player at Wrigley? Well, no. But I do think he can be better, maybe much better. Remember that -20.7 UZR/150 David DeJesus had in 750 innings over 4 years in CF prior to coming to Wrigley? Well, it was 0.6, roughly league average, in 2 years over 950 innings after joining the Cubs. We certainly don’t expect players to improve in their 32 and 33 age seasons, yet DeJesus did once he played CF at Wrigley.
Could Dexter Fowler make a similar improvement?
The degree of difficulty at Wrigley is certainly easier and perhaps the Cubs can position Dexter Fowler to play a little deeper. It certainly doesn’t hurt that the Cubs figure to employ very athletic middle infielders who are adept at going back on the ball in Starlin Castro, Javier Baez, and Arismendy Alcantara.
There are some saying that Fowler is no longer a CF. Maybe, but we heard that same thing about DeJesus. Or how about Emilio Bonifacio? He had a very good 13.9 UZR/150 in one season with the Cubs. His average in the three previous years? A -16.0 UZR/150. How many were calling Bonifacio a plus CF’er before he came to the Cubs? Probably not many. We also heard Ryan Sweeney was a corner OFer, yet he played a very good CF here when healthy. We can also go back to Reed Johnson, who put up acceptable numbers at CF after being moved off of the position in Toronto following declining defensive performances over the 3 previous seasons.
I am not saying Fowler will make a similar improvement, but I think we should at least consider the possibility rather than writing him off after an atrocious showing last season. He wouldn’t be the first player to see his defensive metrics improve playing CF at Wrigley.
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