For the first time in years the Chicago Cubs have landed themselves a true leadoff man, but not without controversy of course. It seemed as though within minutes of being acquired, Cubs fans began looking for any weakness they could find in Dexter Fowlers’ game.
Was it his bat? No. In fact, Fowler is a very solid hitter and great at getting on base. He’s a true switch hitter to boot, although he does hit better as a righty.
Is he a bad base runner? Not going to lie, he could be better, but that is not the main issue here. He’s got bigger fish to fry.
That must leave his defense then, right? Bingo.
According to advanced defensive metrics Dexter Fowler is flat out horrendous in the outfield, particularly in centerfield, where he’ll probably spend the majority of the 2015 season.
By the numbers he was the worst center fielder in baseball in 2014.
The metric I’m referring to is UZR, or Ultimate Zone Rating, which attempts to measure a fielders defensive worth by calculating how many runs they have either saved or given up. UZR itself is complicated as a whole; it has many intricacies that would go over most fans heads.
To speak in layman’s terms, it grades each play a defender is involved in, assigning value to said play, which can be positive or negative. The value recorded varies depending on the difficulty and the outcome of the play.
Every player starts the season at a 0, which grades out as average. Above and below average are marked at +5 and -5, great and poor are marked at +10 and -10, and Gold Glove-caliber and awful are marked at +15 and -15.
It is also important to note that you need at least three years of data and large samples to safely use UZR. If you’re a complete baseball junkie like myself, you can read more about UZR, here.
Here’s how Dexter Fowler has graded out in UZR since his first full season in the MLB in 2009.
The prognosis is, well, disturbing to say the least for the 28-year-old center fielder.
It doesn’t take an expert to know that those numbers are not good. In fact, 2013 was his closest season to being an average fielder. He spent that season, as well as the previous four, patrolling Coors Field’s massive center field for the Rockies. He then spent his time chasing down balls at Minute Maid Park in Houston, dealing with their quirky outfield dynamics in 2014.
However, one important outlier that I did not mention about the UZR metric is that it is adjusted to park factors, meaning, it takes into account how the outfield plays.
This is put in place to help fielders instead of hurt them.
Basically, my attempt to use the, “Dexter Fowler has always played in a hitter’s park,” defense just completely went to shit. Theoretically, Wrigley Field should be an easier place to play than either Coors or Minute Maid Park; and the NL Central houses more fielder-friendly parks rather than the ones in the NL West and AL West Fowler was accustomed to playing in.
Wrigley Field has a smaller outfield and is shaped normally. It lacks deep power alleys, which might cut down on runners trying to take extra bases, as well as, having a shorter throw back to the infield.
Have you begun shaking your fist in the air scolding Jed Hoyer and Theo Epstein for acquiring someone with such incompetence?
How the hell do I defend Fowler’s defensive inefficiencies, if I even can?
As I sifted and dug through stats, and past team rosters searching for center fielders, I happened to find something interesting.
I noticed that some players, albeit the samples are not nearly as large as I would like them to be, seemed to somewhat improve when they played center at Wrigley.
Is there something that park factors are not taking into account?
For instance, Marlon Byrd put up an average UZR of -3.66 over his three seasons playing centerfield for the Rangers. When he joined the Cubs in 2010, he actually logged more innings in the field while posting an average UZR of 6.25 (sample size disclaimer: this is only taking into account two seasons, 2012 was not an adequate sample).
Something had to have changed, though. What was it? As I stated earlier, UZR is littered with intricacies, but is primarily made up of five components. Of those five, Byrd saw significant improvement in two of them—arm and range.
Though even smaller sample sizes, UZR improvement popped up for guys like David DeJesus, Ryan Sweeney, and Emilio Bonifacio, as well. Truly gauging a player’s improvement when coming to Wrigley has always been a tall order, as the Cubs’ turnover at the position has been unprecedented over the past ten years. Byrd had the largest sample to choose from, but if you go even further back, Juan Pierre in 2006 had an extremely good year in comparison to his previous seasons in Miami.
The hope is there strictly from a metric standpoint even if its just a small one.
However, one factor that has yet to be brought up deals strictly with the Cubs new manager. Joe Maddon is a wizard when it comes to defensive shifts, which are not accounted for when calculating UZR.
Maddon’s shifts are maddening (see what I did there) to opposing clubs. When a player has a shorter distance to cover, you give them more time to make a play on the ball, giving them an advantage.
Could Dexter Fowler have been a victim of poor positioning and that’s why his UZR numbers are so low? He very well could have, but that is a very big “could.”
We’ll see, Dexter Fowler has never posted back-to-back seasons in the “awful” category so maybe he’ll spare us in 2015. I think we should all be prepared to have our expectations met.
(Featured Image courtesy of Matt McCarron)