Dexter Fowler and the Importance of Clubhouse ‘Chemistry’

If you went on Google right now and looked up ‘Dexter Fowler’ – like I did earlier when I wanted to do some research for this article – the majority of articles that would be returned from your search involve Fowler doing something off the field.

Dexter Fowler’s Importance to the Cardinals Goes Far Beyond Baseball

Dexter Fowler’s Mission: Change Tune in the Cardinals Clubhouse

Fowler Already Having an Impact on Cardinals

You have to dig a little bit, but eventually you might find something about how his switch hitting ability or high on base percentage will add a different dynamic to the Cardinals lineup this year. But the point here is that Fowler’s initial impact on the Cardinals has mostly come off the field.

Keeping up with baseball over the past few seasons has become more difficult as each year goes by. Every year it feels like more statistics are added and baseball becomes less and less of a game and more and more of a robotic numbers business. Too many people forget that a player’s impact on a team can’t just be quantified by on field performance.

Some of the best players that I ever played alongside were vile teammates that pushed away the rest of the locker room and were not fun to be around. It’s something that’s hard for any non-baseball players/athletes to understand when looking in from the outside, but clubhouse chemistry means way more than on field performance ever will.

This is going to be pure speculation, but take Barry Bonds for example. Excluding the claims that he was a PED user for most of his key earning years, Bonds is, based strictly off of numbers, probably the best player to ever play the game of baseball. I could list his career accomplishments and it would go on forever. The man was the greatest hitter the game has ever seen, steroids or not.

Barry Bonds never won a World Series.

But considering the numbers he put up over his career, that’s not his fault though, right? It might not be entirely his fault, but there is no way that the single greatest player in the history of the game not winning a World Series is a coincidence.

Look at all the other great players up in the same echelon as Bonds. Out of all 32 players that have ever accrued over 100 bWAR in the history of baseball, Bonds is the only one without a World Series title.

Please, I dare you to try and convince me that this is a coincidence.

Well, based purely on reputation alone, Barry Bonds was not a good teammate. He had a reputation for being selfish, and he often carried himself in a manner that would reflect it. In an article written in mid-December chronicling Bonds’ friendship with Dexter Fowler – funny enough – Bonds said that, “he didn’t handle himself the way he wanted to be handled during his career.” And the article goes on to casually say that Bonds is, “known as one of the coldest men in baseball history.”

Not exactly a glowing review.

The greatest statistical position player in the history of baseball. Career numbers that will never be matched by anyone, steroids or not. And a reputation as possibly the coldest man in the history of the game.

Starting to see how Bonds’ non-possession of a World Series Title can’t be a coincidence?

A clubhouse atmosphere and clubhouse chemistry matter, and they were clearly lacking in St. Louis last year. Patrick Cramer, a clubhouse attendant for the Cardinals, notes that “last year, some players were walking on eggshells around here. Dexter came in during spring and just stomped all over those eggshells.”

Everything in this article revolves around speculation and word coming out of Cardinals camp. I will never exactly know the full impact that Fowler is having on the clubhouse of the Cardinals. But I can tell you that, personally, I play my best baseball when I’m having fun.

The Cardinals have never been a club associated with the word ‘fun’. I mean sure, winning is fun, but the way the Cardinals have always won has never had a ‘fun’ feel about it. The club is buttoned up, serious about the work they do, and even makes every prospect and new team employee read an 80 page manual entitled, ‘The Cardinal Way’ – which is exactly what it sounds like.

Fowler, a key member of the 2016 Cubs’ team that finally broke the 108 year World Series curse, has seemingly come in and flipped everything about ‘The Cardinal Way’ on its head.

Listening to music during batting practice is completely normal; hell, we do it on my college team. But it’s making waves of headlines from Cardinals camp because it’s never happened before. Fowler brings a boombox to batting practice every single day and lets a different member of the roster choose the music.

“Dexter is kind of a personality that we haven’t had, that we didn’t have last year,” starting pitcher Mike Leake said in an interview with Ben Hochman on Saturday. “His personality, which is very outgoing, I think helps this team.”

General Manager John Mozeliak echoed Leake’s sentiment when he commented that, “…on the field and off, he’s been everything we could’ve hoped for. The one word I would use to describe him is inclusive. What he’s been able to do in this clubhouse so far is extremely positive.”

Listening to sabermetric-based baseball pundits on television talk about how clubhouse chemistry is a myth and it doesn’t matter as much as on-field numbers has always annoyed me. The type of energy that Fowler can inject into a club can mean so much more than a 5 or 6 WAR season ever will.

The 2015 Cardinals won 100 games and were the best team in baseball before an untimely exit from the postseason. A virtually unchanged 2016 Cardinals team won 86 games and missed the playoffs, underperforming expectations and being just a general pain to watch on a nightly basis. And further pointing towards clubhouse division in 2016, Stephen Piscotty mentioned in an interview with Mark Saxon that, “Already, this year seems more fun, and I think we’ll play looser. I think that’s a good thing, instead of tight and rigid like last year…when you play this game, if you’re not having fun, it’s just an absolute grind.”

That grind is the reason why I believe the Cardinals underachieved last year. And with everything that’s being said this year, combined with Fowler’s reputation as one of the clubhouse leaders of an energetic and fun Cubs team last year, the Cardinals seem to have signed the perfect guy to help reinvigorate a seemingly dead and dry clubhouse.

Having played on a team that wasn’t overly talented but was very tightly knit and had a strong clubhouse bond, I can attest to how much a team atmosphere can mean. A positive team atmosphere is infectious, makes the game more fun than it normally would be, and can cultivate overachievement, something the Cardinals might desperately need from players like Kolten Wong, Matt Adams and Randal Grichuk.

Whether Dexter Fowler is worth -1 or 7 WAR in the 2017 will not and should not be the complete end-all evaluation of him. No, Fowler’s value should be measured in something that can’t be fully quantified and that very few of us will ever understand.

Making the Cardinals fun again.

Thanks for reading

-Ryan

 

Author’s Note: This article was written in March of 2017, but I never got around until publishing it until July 30th of 2017. The perspectives reflect this

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Dexter Fowler and the Importance of Clubhouse ‘Chemistry’

Everyone Chill on Dexter Fowler

$82 million is a lot of money. It would be a lot of money regardless of who was collecting that money, but it really looks like a lot of money when it is being paid to a 31 year old center fielder who has spent as much time on the disabled list as he has on the field.

Just over halfway through the first year of his 5 year contract with the Cardinals, Dexter Fowler already looks like a mistake. Offensively, Fowler has been okay. His .452 slugging percentage and 14 home runs have been a pleasant surprise. However, the on base skills that were the primary reason behind the Cardinals being willing to pay him $82 million have diminished to the tune of a .334 mark and only 4 stolen bases.

And the improved center field defense that took Fowler from being a -20 DRS player during the 2014 season with the Houston Astros to being a +5 DRS player with the 2016 Chicago Cubs? Yeah, it’s been pretty awful to the tune of -12 DRS and a -3.3 defensive fWAR in only 631 innings.

Yikes.

With yesterday’s announcement that Fowler was headed to the 10 day disabled list for the 3rd time this season, I heard a lot of kicking and screaming on Twitter about his contract. And after top prospect Harrison Bader’s heroic performance last night, that kicking and screaming has only gotten louder this morning.

Well, as the headline says, everyone needs to chill.

Fowler 3
Photo Courtesy of St. Louis Post-Dispatch

Firstly, Dexter Fowler hasn’t been that bad. His on base skills have always been prevalent, and if he can shake the injury bug and find himself some consistent at bats, he’ll be right around the .380 – .390 OBP mark that we all expected prior to this season.

The unexpected slugging has been beautiful to see. Fowler’s 2017 ISO of .210 would be a career high mark by nearly 50 points, and project out his 14 HR’s in 333 plate appearances over a full season of 600 plate appearances and we’re looking at 25 HR’s. Combine that with the on base skills that will show with consistent at bats and the Cardinals have themselves a dynamic offensive player.

Secondly, Fowler’s injuries this year have been small, nagging things that no player can control. Injuries are the worst and it’s not fair to already call his contract a ‘mistake’ just because of the injuries he’s dealt with.

Personally, I believe that those nagging injuries have been a part of Fowler’s determination to play center field in St. Louis. Earlier in July, when asked how the outfield would shake out after Fowler’s initial return from injury, Tommy Pham commented, “Dex is in center field, we know that for sure.”

Center field is a tough position to play every day. It’s especially tough for a guy dealing with small, nagging injuries. So, to do our part in trying to solve some of Fowler’s injury issues, just move him to a corner outfield spot. The Cardinals already have several in-house replacements to take his spot.

In just 178.1 innings played in CF, Tommy Pham has been worth 6 DRS and 1.1 defensive fWAR. His defense hasn’t just been good, it’s been exceptional. So why keep trotting out a terrible defensive center fielder when there’s a great defensive center fielder hanging out next to Fowler?

And thirdly, we all have to take a look back at the state of the Cardinals when they initially signed Dexter Fowler.

On December 9th, the Cardinal outfield looked unstable, at best. Randal Grichuk was coming off of a rough year during his debut season in CF. Stephen Piscotty was locked into the right field position, and beyond those two players, there didn’t seem to be any options that could be counted on to produce in 2017.

Tommy Pham was an oft-injured Triple-A guy that didn’t seem to have a spot. Jose Martinez wasn’t a name that anyone knew, Harrison Bader wasn’t ready yet, and Tyler O’Neill was still in Seattle.

The Cardinals needed a center fielder. The trade market was exploding, and players like Adam Eaton were being dealt away for entire farm systems. St. Louis was wise to avoid an inflated trade market, and Fowler was clearly the best fit on the free agent market.

Fowler 2
Photo Courtesy of St. Louis Post-Dispatch

At the time of the move, it was imperative. Fowler slid right into the Cardinals immediate plan and the 5 year deal provided St. Louis with future stability, which was desperately needed entering the 2017 season.

Since then, Tommy Pham has played his way into becoming the Cardinals’ most productive position player and a 5 WAR outfielder. Jose Martinez has turned heads and become one of the best pinch hitters in the sport. Harrison Bader has crushed Triple-A and now made his mark in the Major Leagues. Tyler O’Neill has been acquired from the Seattle Mariners and players like Magneuris Sierra, Randy Arozarena and Adolis Garcia have shown themselves to be potential Major League impact players.

If, on the day Dexter Fowler signed his contract, you saw all of this coming, you’re lying.

Hindsight is everything, and being able to look back on all that has transpired during the 2017 season allows us to see that yeah, if we were given the option right now of whether or not to sign Dexter Fowler before the season, we would gladly pass on him.

But he was needed at the time and that’s all that matters. So everybody take a second and chill; have some patience.

Fowler simply needs to be moved out of center field, which will hopefully solve the nagging injury problem. Being moved to a corner outfield spot will improve his defense by giving him less ground to cover. With the nagging injury issue presumably solved, Fowler will be able to gain his stride and get consistent at bats. With consistent at bats, the on base numbers will get back to where we expected them and can combine with the improved power to create a highly productive corner outfielder.

So everybody just relax. Put away your pitchforks and torches about Dexter Fowler’s contract and have some patience. Baseball is a fickle beast and unexpected things happen. Fowler is not suddenly a horrible player that needs to be cut. He’s a productive and dependable Major League player that simply needs a few adjustments to harness that production and dependability.

Let’s all enjoy Harrison Bader and Tommy Pham for right now, but stop going too far and calling Fowler a mistake.

He’s not. So chill.

Thanks for reading.

-Ryan

Everyone Chill on Dexter Fowler