Before the season started, you may have occasionally heard something about how the Cubs were going to be good this year. Immediately after they were swept out of the 2015 NLCS by the Mets, they were already contenders again, and that’s before they went and had a ridiculously successful offseason, signing Jason Heyward and Ben Zobrist. When I gave the Cubs an “A” for their offseason moves (the only “A” given out), that was even before they re-signed Dexter Fowler to a one-year deal.
We spent a lot of time talking about the qualifying offer system this offseason and, regardless of your opinion about the QOS, the Cubs were certainly smart to extend a qualifying offer to Fowler this offseason before he hit free agency. Fowler was purportedly close to signing a three-year deal with the Orioles and it was reported by numerous sources as done. However, the deal was never finalized, according to Fowler’s agent, because of the Orioles’ refusal to include an opt-out clause in the contract, leading to consternation all around. While we’ll never know exactly what happened for sure, it all worked out for the Cubs, as they signed Fowler to a $8 million deal with a $9 million mutual option or $5 million buy-out.
Fowler is currently hitting .316/.433/.537. That’s good for 2nd place in OBP in MLB (1st goes to his teammate Ben Zobrist). By fWAR, Fowler is 3rd in MLB with 3.2, right behind Mike Trout and Manny Machado who are tied for 1st with 3.4 fWAR. Fowler’s previous best season was 2015, where he was good for 3.2 fWAR over the whole season. If you’ve reached your previous season-high WAR total in only 47 games, you’ve either really figured something out or you’ve gotten really, really lucky. So which is it?
Fowler’s BABIP is currently sitting at .391. His career BABIP is .344, and that doesn’t take into account the fact that he played his first six seasons in the pitcher’s den of despair that is Coors Field. Fowler may have had a year where he maintained a .390 BABIP over 143 games but, again, that was in Coors Field. His BABIP with the Cubs last year was .308, which was a career low for him. While it’s unlikely that balls will continue to find holes at their current rate, that’s not the whole picture, so what else is going on?
Fowler’s power is up: his ISO is at a career high at .220 (his career average is .155). He’s seeing less fastballs than ever before (although that’s a chicken-and-egg issue since he’s been so hot this season). If you look at his plate discipline, he’s swinging at less pitches outside the zone and making contact a little bit more often than he has on those pitches when he does swing, but, really, none of those numbers are far enough off from his career numbers to explain what’s going on by themselves. He’s also walking a little bit more (14.4 BB% in 2016 v. 12.5 career BB%) and striking out less (20.5 K% in 2016 v. 22.1 career K%). If you look at his batted ball profile, he’s hitting more line drives and less grounders and shooting the ball up the middle more.
All in all, it looks like Fowler hasn’t made some huge change to his approach that has turned him from a really good player to a superstar. Rather, he is simply doing everything just a little bit better at the plate and then icing that cake with a heaping helping of good luck, which is unquestionably a recipe for a breakout season from an already solid player. Whether or not Fowler will be able to keep this up is still up in the air like a blooper at Coors Field, but he’s certainly looking like a better player than ever before, even if you account for his BABIP coming back down to earth a bit.
The Cubs have certainly gotten lucky with Fowler (and Zobrist) outperforming expectations, but they’ve also been unlucky elsewhere, with Kyle Schwarber out for the season and Jason Heyward having forgotten what to do with a bat. In the organization’s case, it’s definitely a case of diligence being the mother of good luck with regard to their decision to extend a qualifying offer and then re-sign Fowler. One thing is for sure though, assuming that Fowler stays healthy, it almost certainly looks like Fowler will opt out and be back on the market next year. At this point, it’s starting to look like the interesting question on that front is whether Fowler gets stuck with another qualifying offer or if there was any kind of off-the-record agreement not to extend one again, because that would be a pretty rough reward for the one of the players that’s been helping carry the team thus far.