In 2014, Dexter Fowler was 20 runs worse than an average defensive center fielder, according to Defensive Runs Saved (DRS). It was the worst figure posted by any center fielder in Major League Baseball. Fowler has always had bad defensive ratings, but until this season, many were willing to dismiss them—or at least hedge against them—because Fowler called Coors Field home. However, he was dealt to Houston for the 2014 campaign, and while the excuse for the poor numbers stayed in Colorado, the numbers themselves came along for the ride. Despite his long strides and fluid body language, it’s clear that Fowler just isn’t a good defensive center fielder.
The Chicago Cubs didn’t care. They gave up Luis Valbuena, who has only slightly less offensive and positional value than Fowler, and who is under control through 2016, and even threw in spare arm Dan Straily to land Fowler, as the Astros went another direction. (Fowler will be a free agent after this season.) Fowler will now take up residence alongside Chris Coghlan, the incumbent left fielder, at Wrigley Field. Coghlan cost the Cubs 19 runs with his poor defensive work in left last season, meaning that the Cubs now have two of the worst regular defensive outfielders of the 2014 season penciled into their lineup.
It won’t matter. The Cubs are going to be a better defensive team in 2015 than they were last season, and it shouldn’t even be terribly close. There are three reasons for that:
- A dramatic change of frame. The Cubs lost the second-most runs of any team in baseball to framing in 2014, nearly 35 below average over the course of the season. If Miguel Montero and David Ross port their 2014 performances to the 2015 team, the Cubs will realize a 50- or 60-run gain in this small phase of the game alone. Ross was frequently tied to Jon Lester while both were free agents, and he might be used much like a classic Greg Maddux caddy. He’s historically hit lefties well, though, and so, he might catch a few other assignments per year, as Joe Maddon tries to protect Montero from his brutal platoon splits. Jettisoning Welington Castillo would have helped almost no matter whom the Cubs brought in to replace him, but they sought strength precisely where Castillo was weakest, leveraging the change tremendously.
- Athletes all over. Last year, Valbuena played a lot of third base, even as he began to show clear signs of having lost a step. His left-handedness and on-base skills (plus, career-best pop) made him too valuable to remove from the lineup, and there weren’t other good places to put him. Alas, his limited range proved costly, because the Cubs need someone at the hot corner who can help Starlin Castro cover the hole. The left side of the infield was awful last year, nearly as bad as the Coghlan-Fowler-Soler outfield days might be this year. With Arismendy Alcantara now a utility man, though, and with Kris Bryant on the way, and with Addison Russell and Javier Baez and Mike Olt and Christian Villanueva all offering the ability to play third better than Valbuena did, the number of options available has skyrocketed. That same modularity will apply to the middle infield, and even to the outfield, where Coghlan should sit against left-handed pitchers, nudging Fowler to left field and sending the fleet-footed Alcantara out to patrol center.
- Shifts, man. Twenty-eight teams deployed defensive shifts more often in 2014 than they had in 2013. The leaguewide average number of shifts used rose by 170—fully one use per game. Joe Maddon’s Rays used 824 shifts, the second-most of any team in the league. The Cubs, though, were one of the two teams who went backward in this regard. They shifted only 316 times, nearly 200 fewer than in 2013, and only saved three runs with aggressive positioning over the course of the season. Nine teams saved at least 10 runs that way. It’s clear to me, especially since the Cubs had previously been an aggressive shifting club, that Rick Renteria was uncomfortable with the shift and didn’t use it as often as he should have. Maddon certainly will.
Fowler’s arrival hurts the defense; there’s no getting around that. That small loss, though, is swallowed by the very large boost he provides to their offense, with strong on-base skills and good baserunning. The Cubs could afford to make that tradeoff, and did so without hesitation, because they made such strides to shore up the other problems with their defense that they won’t need to worry about the few runs Fowler will give away.
Here’s a fun aside, apropos but not particularly relevant: Juan Pierre played center field for the Cubs in 2006, and did a fine job out there. The shallow dimensions in center field at Wrigley limited the damage his weak arm could do, and his range was good. Since Pierre left, though, the Cubs have only briefly employed anything resembling a true center fielder.
- The 2007 team started a 32-year-old Jacques Jones in center more often than anyone else. Jones had been a right fielder for years before being asked to move to center. He held up just fine.
- In 2008, Felix Pie got the first crack at the job, but fell flat on his face. Reed Johnson filled in admirably, but that team was good, and needed one more bat to round out into a contender. Jim Hendry brought in 38-year-old Jim Edmonds, who would post a .937 OPS that led the team—and more than covered his poor defensive showing.
- After Edmonds left the following winter, the Cubs moved Kosuke Fukudome to center field, having been impressed by his work in right as a rookie. Fukudome was 32, and had signed with Chicago in part because they were one team willing to give him a regular job in a corner outfield spot. He was that uncomfortable in center. Still, he more than held his own in 2009, posting a slightly subpar defensive rating but having a stronger year at the plate.
- Marlon Byrd signed on to play center beginning in 2010. He was 32, but had posted acceptable numbers in all three outfield spots over the previous two seasons, with Texas. He held down the position for two seasons, but spent a good chunk of one of them on the disabled list. Byrd wasn’t a defensive liability, per se, but he was so stout and heavy-framed, even then, that my wife nicknamed him ‘The Boulder.’ That’s not a pure center fielder’s nickname.
- While Byrd was on the DL in 2011, the Cubs finally experimented with a glove-first center fielder. His name was Tony Campana, and he was a joy to watch. He was also comically overmatched at the plate, and if he ever failed to run down a fly ball with his terrific speed, the team paid the price of an extra base taken by whoever was running. Campana’s arm made Pierre’s look like a cannon. Campana’s reign in center would last well into 2012, not because it was working, but because the team shifted into an aggressive rebuild, and prized prospect Brett Jackson took a long time to slog his way up the final rungs of the ladder, to the parent club. Jackson then performed as badly as Campana and Pie before him, and faded away.
- Therefore, the Cubs did what the Cubs do to fill a center-field vacancy: They moved over an aging corner outfielder. David DeJesus got the bulk of the time in center in 2013, at age 33, and actually performed well there. He was dealt in August, though, leaving a black hole that was filled, but never filled well.
- Since that time, Ryan Sweeney has had injuries derail two perfectly good chances to take over a significant role. Emilio Bonifacio signed a minor-league deal, made the team, earned regular playing time and looked like he might be the guy who got the most time out there, until he was traded at the deadline. Alcantara took over, and ended up being listed as the team’s regular center fielder on its Baseball-Reference page. He played only 48 games there, but that was 11 more than anyone else.
So a revolving door in center would be nothing new. And indeed, even if Fowler takes that position every single day, he will be far from the least qualified defender the Cubs have called upon to fill the role recently. If history is a guide, he might even surprise us, and be something on the right side of terrible with the glove.Next post: EW Rewind: Episodes 17 and 18
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