Mark Saxon wrote a piece for The Athletic about the rough relationship between the St. Louis Cardinals organization and its right fielder, Dexter Fowler. Recently, president of baseball operations John Mozeliak called out Fowler for his effort and fans have been unhappy with a guy given a huge contract only hitting .177.
I’m not sure what the reason is for the decline. Is it age? Is it unhappiness in St. Louis? Is he unhappy with his manager?
Grant Chastain has watched more Cardinal games than me and he’s seen the struggles and read the article. His take is my favorite and so I reprint it below.
I have a few problems with this article — not the least of which that Saxon spends three paragraphs (short though they are for today’s modern newspaper-reader) discussing how Fowler’s biggest problems are that St. Louis is filled with white Conservative Trump supporters who dislike Fowler over disparaging things he said about Trump’s policies and the “sociopolitical background of St. Louis.”
Mark, buddy…I might’ve been born at night, but not last night. And you want to know what I think? I think you’re making a simple situation a much more complicated one, because a narrative where Fowler’s troubles are caused by racism and tribalism is a much more interesting angle than, “Fowler’s not playing because he’s hitting like shit.”
St. Louis sports, and particularly the Cardinals, have ALWAYS been a meritocracy. Players who perform play. Players who don’t… don’t. Fowler’s right about one thing — if he’s not getting at-bats, he’s not going to bring up that below-Mendoza batting average. But guess what? The sample size of 217 at-bats this season isn’t a small number, and the tale of the tape suggests that a lot of his problems are with mechanics that John Mabry either isn’t capable of correcting, or isn’t seeing — and neither one says anything about Mabry that doesn’t start with “in” and end with “competent.” There’s not a lot you can do about a drop-off in talent that happens in one’s early to mid 30s, though. Just ask any fantasy baseball owner that took a chance on Carl Crawford after he signed that big contract with Boston. Hell, ask the ACTUAL owner of the Boston Red Sox how he feels about the Pablo Sandoval deal. Sometimes all the coaching and drilling in the world won’t take you back to where you started.
Furthermore, advanced metrics suggests this isn’t a situation where Fowler’s hitting a lot of hard-hit balls that are somehow finding their way into gloves. Fowler’s hitting weak shots directly into corner positions, and his bat speed is down, WAY down, from years past. The same thing has happened last year to Jose Bautista, who hit 227 home runs between 2010-2015, and 50 in the three seasons since (although I anticipate he may hit 5-6 more this year with the Mets, assuming they don’t unload him at the trade deadline.) Fowler’s strengths aren’t the same as Bautista, though — they’re much more nuanced, and his failure to deliver on that promised skill-set is a lot more harmful. Fowler’s job is to provide pop at the top of the order, and help the team with his feet. Yet when you look at his statistics his average is down, and he’s not swiping nearly as many bags. His total through 1.5 seasons with St. Louis are 10. He had 13 with his last year with the Cubs, and even that was down from his prior season with Chicago. And perhaps that’s just a difference in fundamental base-stealing discipline that Matheny has when compared with Maddon, and has little to do with Fowler’s desire to steal… but it doesn’t explain the severe dip in both average and slugging percentage, yet his strikeout and walk rate are remaining roughly on par with career average. That tells me the trouble isn’t with Fowler’s eyes — he’s still seeing pitches. He just can’t get the bat around as fast as he used to, and his timing is what suffers.
Again, though, this is a meritocracy. We’re not running a Khoury League team, and Dex’s mom isn’t petitioning for her son to get more playing time. The likelihood is high that Fowler will get one more year to get his poop in a group, and if not, he’ll find himself getting traded for 30 cents on the dollar to a place like the Rays or the Twins or the White Sox. I reject the idea that St. Louis fans are motivated by personal politics to boo a player. The only thing that can get a Cardinals fan to turn their back on you isn’t even a slump — it’s a perceived lack of effort. St. Louis is a working-class city, and when the fans of that city hear you’re earning $14.5 million to hit .171 and complain about it… that’s the kind of thing they notice. You earn what you make, and you don’t dog it on the base-paths.
In baseball cities, there’s no cardinal sin (heyooo) greater than sloth.