ST. LOUIS — One bad year can derail just about every shred of hope in the world of sports. Case in point: Dexter Fowler.
When it came to the 2019 St. Louis Cardinals, Fowler was picked least likely to succeed. Fans had enough after a 2017 season that didn't live up to lofty expectations, and an abysmal 2018 season erased any goodwill that came with him from the Chicago Cubs, where Fowler had just won a World Series in 2016. One could say Ex-Cubs need to be heroes in this town to fully drown the blue in their baseball blood.
The plan that was drawn up seemed simple: Fowler gets on base, Matt Carpenter gets on base, and the rest of the lineup does all sorts of damage. The plan spiraled pretty quick. After missing 44 games due to injury in 2017, despite putting up solid numbers, Fowler lost his center field job to Tommy Pham and Carpenter took over the leadoff spot.
2018 saw Fowler produce a negative WAR and finish with a .180 batting average in 334 plate appearances. Worse, Fowler's .278 on base percentage was nearly .100 below his career average. Something was wrong, but what was it? A rift formed between not only Fowler and former manager, Mike Matheny, but President of Baseball Operations, John Mozeliak, as well. Things were said, apologies were delivered, and a season ended with a broken bone in Fowler's foot.
Over the winter, Fowler's story gained resonance, depth, and a new book cover. He reportedly suffered from a severe bout of depression last season, finding little resolve in the game and the leadership in the dugout. Baseball had become a game of tragedy instead of joy for Fowler. The smile was gone, and at one point in the season, the outfielder deleted his Twitter account due to abuse from angry fans who were mad the $16 million asset wasn't producing. Like I said, life comes at you fast in the Major Leagues if you malfunction for one season.
Many fans and writers were throwing logs of wood on the fire in their brain trying to think of ways to trade, release, or outright dismiss Fowler. I went there, trying to clear a spot for then free agent, Bryce Harper. I didn't care that before the 2018 season, Fowler was a decent bet. He put up fWAR of 3.0, 4.6, and 2.5 the previous three seasons. He was an OBP machine with some pop and an ability to play all fields, showing some improvement while navigating Wrigley Field's center field treacherous path.
In 2017, he hit a career-high 18 home runs while posting a .851 OPS and giving the Cardinals some much-needed middle of the lineup protection.
Due to one bad season and a contract that many thought was a rebound attempt after the miss of Jason Heyward (dodged a bullet there), Fowler was left for dead when it came to 2019 projections.
41 games into the season, and Fowler is reliable again. While the power isn't back, and the strikeouts are still hanging around, he's getting base, hitting for a solid average, and spraying the baseball around the field. There's a spring to his step and the right curl in his lips. He's smiling again, sharing goofs with Jose Martinez and Harrison Bader. In a fun moment a few days ago, as Bader came out late in the game to relieve Martinez, Fowler stood there smiling as if he was leaving the game. The old Dexter was back.
A boulder had fallen off his shoulders. Baseballs were dropping in front of outfielders, and he was hitting with authority again. Fowler has seven doubles this year, or 75% of the amount he put up last year in 187 less at-bats. After missing a string of games recently, Fowler came back and picked up right where he left off.
The defense still isn't great. Fowler will never be a weapon out there, but in the early going, he's saved the Cardinals four runs instead of costing them five like last season. Those four runs saved came in center field when Bader was injured.
Fowler doesn't have Tyler O'Neill's power, Bader's defense, or Martinez's dynamic bat, but he's got OBP and consistency back in his corner again. Maybe he never really lost them. Perhaps the downward spiral in the team combined with Matheny's reign ending and a terrible start just drowned a season instead of a career.
Fans, and writers as well, have a short-term memory in this game and pay rent to a "what have you done for me lately" mortgage. It's a cruel game at times, and Fowler tasted the brutality up front and center last season. Instead of falling further or allowing a bad lap to determine his future, he's back in the game.
The .392 batting average on balls put in play is helping the hits accumulate, but last year, a pitiful .210 BABIP doomed any form of progress, so take each number with a grain of salt. What's the biggest difference and most encouraging stat in Fowler's 2019 season? Line drive percentage. Last year, it was a sad 18%. This year, Fowler's LD rate is 35%. That's what the experts call a healthy rip rate.
Why do I believe Fowler can keep this up? Simple. Look at the past six seasons and draw a measure. Don't dwell on 2018. Look at all of it. When right, Fowler is a weapon. He isn't a savior, and he wasn't signed to be one. Fowler is a pillar on this team once again, and that's a dangerous thing. When Carpenter, Paul Goldschmidt, and Marcell Ozuna start to pick it up, the lineup will be lethal.
No longer a liability, Fowler is back in the good graces of fans. Well, most of them. If he strikes out or gets thrown out on the basepaths, fans show no mercy, and that's fine. He has two years left on his contract after this season, and he will be 35 when the deal reaches its conclusion.
Just remember this. Fowler's #1 job when traded here was to get on base and mix in some pop and clubhouse swagger. He's doing that. After all, Fowler's career OPS is .781. His OPS in 2019? .797. Take it. Take it all day.
Dexter Fowler was picked least likely to succeed this season, but he's flipped the script. Can it last? I have no idea. I do know a career tells a better story than a single season. With Dexter Fowler, that lesson has become paramount.