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A Final Resolution? Solving Left Field

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After 3 years of dismal production out of left field, will the Angels finally do something to fix it?

MLB: San Francisco Giants at Chicago Cubs David Banks-USA TODAY Sports

It’s been almost four years since the notorious and disreputable signing of Josh Hamilton. He was thought to be a long-term solution in left field and give the Angels one of the best outfields in baseball: Josh Hamilton, Mike Trout, and Kole Calhoun. At least that was the plan, it ended with the Angels trading him back to Texas and paying, essentially, the entirety of his contract after a relapse and under-performance.

I don’t think there’s any reason to discuss it further, it’s a dead horse that gets kicked once more every now-and-then by disgruntled Angels fans (which is all of us) but it’s a topic we’re mostly burnt out on. So no more Josh Hamilton, his contract is up after the 2017 season freeing the Angels up $25 million dollars, and then it’s firmly in the past where it should be. This is more to talk about one solution that I think is absolutely perfect to fill the barren void that is left field: Dexter Fowler.

I think some context on how bad left field for the Angels has been since 2014 is needed. Since 2014 (meaning including the 2014 season itself), the Angels have used twenty-eight different left fielders. Some played more than others, obviously, and some only played an inning (Brendan Ryan), but that just goes to show how horrible it’s been and how frustrating it is that the Angels have elected to try and patch it up with Minor League journeymen and other random assortments of players.

The list? Let’s start with 2014, Josh Hamilton’s last season with the Halos in which he only played 68 games/598.2 Inn (innings). In 2014 alone, the AL West Division title team, saw Collin Cowgill (44 games/272 Inn), Efren Navarro (23 games/165 Inn), J.B. Shuck (21 games/161.1 Inn), Grant Green (21 games/126 Inn), Raul Ibanez (16 games/105 Inn), Shawn O’Malley (5 games/27.2 Inn), Brennan Boesch (3 games/15 Inn), and Tony Campana (3 games/11 Inn). Blasts from the past, right? No? Oh, well you may wanna look away from 2015’s group. Matt Joyce got a bulk of the playing time there with a whopping (64 games/467.2 Inn), followed by David Murphy, Shane Victorino, Collin Cowgill (again), Dan Robertson, Efren Navarro (hey, him again), David DeJesus (at least his wife’s hot?), Kirk “Scrabble” Nieuwenhuis, Alfredo Marte, Kyle Kubtiza, Grant Green (another guy not with the team or organization), and Marc Krauss (who played an inning). 2016? Enter 10 new guys. Rafael Ortega, Daniel Nava, Shane Robinson, Nick Buss, Jefry Marte (who had never played left field before), Ji-Man Choi, Craig Gentry, Todd Cunningham, Gregorio Petit (another guy who never played left field before), and an inning from Brendan Ryan who used this as his walk-up song.

So as you can see, not exactly awe-inspiring stuff. They were right in the middle of the pack in terms of production in 2014, 28th in 2015 with a depressing .212/.272/.302 slashline, and again rank 28th in Major League Baseball this year. Combine all three years? You get them ranked 27th with a slashline of .221/.285/.330 and a, surprisingly yet still minuscule, 1.0 WAR...over three seasons. The Angels left fielders have produced one win. God this is just sad to type, let me wipe off the anger/sad tears from my keyboard real quick before proceeding.

It looked like there was hope this past offseason. There were names like Yoenis Cespedes, Justin Upton, Jason Heyward, Alex Gordon, and even some lesser names like Denard Span or Ian Desmond (apparently). While it was obviously a godsend the Angels didn’t sign any of those guys, aside from Cespedes really, there was one guy that slipped through the cracks and back onto a loaded Chicago Cubs squad, that man was Dexter Fowler. All he’s done is put up a more-than-healthy .269/.382/.436 slashline, an even 4.0 WAR, 74 runs, improved defense, and 12 dingers in a shortened season thanks to a hamstring injury earlier. Here are the slashlines from the Angels left fielders and Dexter Fowler from 2016.

Angels Left Fielders: .212/.276/.335, -0.6 fWAR, and a 67 wRC+

Dexter Fowler: .269/.382/.436, 4.0 fWAR, and a 123 wRC+

So what needs to happen this offseason? Well Fowler has a $9 million dollar mutual option, meaning both he and the Cubs need to agree in order to have it picked up, along with a $5 million dollar buyout (which the Cubs pay if either or both sides don’t pick up his mutual option). After the year Fowler had, he has no reason to pick up his option. Especially when you consider how weak the entire 2016-2017 MLB Free Agent List is. So while it’s not foregone conclusion he’ll be a free agent, I’d bet he’ll decline his half, get paid $5 million for the buyout, and see what multi-year deals he’ll get offered.

In terms of actual production? Well Fowler’s basically your prototypical leadoff hitter. He’s a switch hitter with no considerable platoon splits/issues, he has strikeout issues against RHP and doesn’t have the pretty batting average he does against left-handed pitching, but he’s still an .800 OPS player against right-handed pitching. He’s fast, even with a down year in the stolen base department, which helps make him a good baserunner (his FanGraphs baserunning metric, BsR, of 4.7 would easily be 2nd on the team between Trout and Calhoun, his future outfield gang). Any Angels fans who have seen the team this year know baserunning’s a serious problem for the Angels. Getting a good-to-great baserunner in Fowler at the top of the lineup to replace Yunel Escobar’s abysmal -6.2 BsR would already create opportunities for guys like Kole, Trout, and Pujols to drive in more runs. Gotta limit outs on the bases, these are Major Leaguers we’re talking about.

But most of all, he’s a great leadoff hitter. He does strikeout, at a 23.2% K clip, but he walks (13.8% BB rate), hits for decent power, and would be the best leadoff hitter the Angels have had in years (sorry, Yunel). If we use an wOBA, weighted on-base average, graph from FanGraphs (a stat based on linear weights to measure a specific players overall offensive production per plate appearance), Fowler leaves the rest of Major League Baseball in the dust. First, Fowler vs. the league average.

Dexter Fowler wOBA vs. League Average

Next, Fowler alongside current leadoff hitter Yunel Escobar vs. league average production.

Fowler and Yunel wOBA

Notice the consistency (especially there at the end where Fowler trajects upwards), and this doesn’t even take into consideration baserunning or defense which Fowler easily surpasses Escobar, this is just hitting. Yunel’s a good leadoff hitter, when he’s not hitting into double plays (he’s currently tied in 4th place for grounding into double plays) or negating any value he provides by making errors (he has 17 errors) or making outs on the bases (another negative “asset” of his). Fowler does all of those exceptionally well.

So he adds another left-handed (sorta) bat to the lineup, he adds much needed speed and quality baserunning to an Angels club that sorely lacks both, he gets on base a lot, he’s basically the perfect catalyst to be the leadoff hitter in front of Kole, Trout, Pujols, Cron, etc. So what’s missing?

There is another aspect and it’s an important one; that’s defense. Something Fowler never rated very well on based off of advanced metrics, until this year, and it’s not some random anomaly or the grey area that is “defensive metrics”, Fowler’s made adjustments to improve his defense. He’s always had the speed and athleticism to be a good center fielder. It was as easy as playing deeper in the outfield. I highly encourage reading this entire article from FanGraphs on his defense, but here’s a highlight.

Fowler did play very shallow defense prior to his arrival in Chicago. As the piece linked in the previous paragraph noted, Joe Maddon instructed Fowler to play deeper, potentially preventing more extra-base hits, which could have led to the observed improvement in Fowler’s defensive numbers. Pushing the narrative further, we have a bit of a proxy for scouting with the Inside Edge numbers.

Hmm, advanced metrics were a contributor to improve Fowler’s defense? Maybe statistics aren’t so dumb after all, but don’t mistake my sarcasm for validation, ask the “Mad Scientist” himself in an interview former Major League center fielder Doug Glanville from ESPN had with Joe Maddon.

"What caused you to play Dexter Fowler deeper?" I asked.

"The stats guys," (aka "The Analytics Department") Maddon said.

It’s not rocket science, Maddon goes even further.

"All of a sudden, he is a good outfielder," Maddon said. "But if you have the same player with the same skill set, and he is doing nothing differently other than playing in a different spot, and his rating goes up, it would seem that the rating system is telling us that it only matters where you start."

So Fowler was even able to turn into a plus defender in the same sense that Trout ranks as a plus defender, just above average. Fowler actually ranks slightly higher than Trout using FanGraphs’ defensive metric tool, pegging Fowler at a 3.6 rating and Trout at a 1.7. Again, not gonna set the world on fire, but he’s above average-to-good. That number could get even better with a move to left field where Fowler will have to cover less ground. You combine that with Mike “The GOAT” Trout in center and Gold-Glove winning Kole Calhoun in right field, and you have an outfield where flyballs go to die.

I can’t predict what Fowler will get on the open market, he’ll at the very least get three guaranteed years with options or even four guaranteed years, but I’d gladly take Fowler for that duration. I think, with his skillset, he could easily be worth the money. Speed, great eye at the plate, not dependent on power providing value, no chronic or super serious injuries in the past that should really manifest into future debilitating injuries. I think if Billy Eppler can get him on a three-year deal with a higher average annual value (perhaps in the $15-$17 million dollar range) and some sort of option for a fourth year, they should absolutely jump on it. Fowler offers immediate value and won’t cost the team their draft pick since the Angels’ pick will more-than-likely be protected since it’ll be in the top 10.

Fowler won’t move the needle on his own, the Angels have numerous holes, and even harder positions to fill, on the roster (second base, catcher, the bullpen, and a starting pitcher or two), but him replacing Escobar at the top of the lineup could give the team one of the more potent 1-2-3’s in the game in Fowler, Kole, and Trout. It also gives them the luxury of shopping Escobar to fill another need (maybe Yunel nets the team a decent starting pitching prospect and/or a cost-controlled relief arm), while letting Jefry Marte play his natural position at third base.

Eppler has his work cut out for him, but this move just requires money, which Arte should have more of with Weaver and Wilson’s contracts off of the books after the season concludes. Eppler and Co. will have to spend if they want to get the Angels back on the right track. Getting Richards and Bedrosian back and healthy will be a nice start, but finally cementing left field could be just as big, if not bigger. Particularly when you look at the production the Angels have gotten out of left field the last three seasons. Say it with me, “Dexter Fowler! Dexter Fowler! Dexter Fowler!”