For the second night in a row since returning from the paternity list, Dexter Fowler is not in the starting lineup for the St. Louis Cardinals.
And that’s okay.
To be clear, this isn’t about bashing Fowler or praising Mike Matheny and John Mozeliak. It’s unfortunate that their dysfunction is playing out in public rather than behind closed doors. None of this makes any dissension easier to mend or a player easier to trade.
But moving aside from any personality conflicts or other issues, there is a story to be told by the numbers as to what kind of actual opportunity and production has taken place this season.
To open the year, like others on the team, Fowler started slowly but he did receive the opportunities to get back on track and help the team. He started 48 of his 53 games through June 12th. In that stretch, Fowler batted .196 and had a .274 OBP.
During that same time, Harrison Bader started only 25 of the 51 games he appeared in and batted .267.
“Yeah, it’s not easy–it’s hard. There’s no great way to handle it except come in here and keep working. He’s going to continue to get opportunities, but we’ve had a couple situations here the last two days with left-handed starters and it’s obvious what Harrison has been able to do against the left-handed pitchers…even though he’s a switch-hitter, from the right side for him hasn’t been as strong so far this year and Harrison has been very, very good against the lefties. I’d like to say that all our players get it when they see all that information kind of coming together, but when it’s them they believe–and they should, that they can get the job done. They just want the opportunity.”–Mike Matheny, pregame of June 13th 2018
But as the above comments from Matheny pointed out, the defensive play and overall contributions of Bader were hard not to notice and warranted more playing time. And moving forward, that’s what began to happen.
From the time of those comments on June 13th through the end of the month, Bader started 14 of 19 games and hit .288 with a .344 OBP. Meanwhile, Fowler saw his starts reduced to 7 of 13 games and he had five hits in 30 at-bats. There was no sudden benching. It was a gradual transition of moving from one player to another based on production.
So whether or not they like each other, speak to each other, respond to texts from each other–Matheny did give Fowler multiple opportunities to work himself back into contributing. The results simply were not there.
Some have suggested playing Fowler in every game until the All-Star break to try and get a final determination on the situation, which could be done in the form of a rotation through the outfield to keep Bader, Tommy Pham, and Marcell Ozuna still involved as well.
But there is another way that could work as well–Dexter earning his playing time back.
Just as Bader played his way into a more regular role. Just as Jose Martinez hit his way into a more regular role. The same thing can happen for Dexter Fowler.
His pinch-hit appearance on Thursday was an opportunity. Maybe not ideal, but it was an opportunity.
He struck out on three pitches.
How different a feel would that at-bat have left if Fowler had battled through six or seven pitches, fouling off a couple of tough pitches before eventually striking out? There would have been a feeling of progress. A step in the right direction.
Martinez, Greg Garcia, Luke Voit, and others have all shown the ability to adapt from everyday roles and give competitive at-bats as pinch-hitters. All of them have praised John Mabry and the hitting staff for having them ready in that position.
Bader has repeatedly praised Willie McGee as a resource for everything baseball and Tommy Pham too has sought the advice of the Cardinals Hall of Famer. McGee has equally been impressed with the willingness both have to work at their craft and he is often on the field early as Bader is going through his various extra drills on the bases and in the outfield.
On more than one occasion, Fowler has mentioned that he considers Barry Bonds a mentor and the slugger has helped him with his swing. Perhaps while the Cardinals are in San Francisco, the two can get together and work on some of the issues for Fowler at the plate.
Again, coming off the bench is not ideal for the hitter but it’s a process that others have had to go through to earn or re-establish regular playing time.
One can appreciate Fowler expressing his desire to be part of the solution and needing to play to do so, but he needs to be in the lineup not to mend hurt feelings but because his being there gives the Cardinals the best chance to win.
photo credit: Gregory J. Fisher, Wendell Cruz-USA TODAY Sports