The 2015 Chicago Cubs had a breakout season. Many rookie stars were called up to the show and performed exceptionally well, including Kyle Schwarber, Kris Bryant, Addison Russell, and Jorge Soler. There was veteran leadership from guys like Anthony Rizzo, Jon Lester, David Ross, Miguel Montero, and even Dexter Fowler. But 2015 is over.
Changes have certainly come about for the Cubs. As is the case when dealing with the business side of baseball, not every player will be returning for the 2016 season, one of which is Dexter Fowler. Giving the perceived defensive liabilities at the corner outfield spots from Jorge Soler and Kyle Schwarber, who is a catcher by trade, this would appear to pose a serious issue, in terms of need for the ballclub. But, alas, as we all likely know by now, the Cubs signed Jason Heyward shortly after the conclusion of the Winter Meetings and intend to have him take over in CF, despite his being a Right Fielder by trade. So what will this change mean for the 2016 version of the Chicago Cubs? In other words, does having Jason Heyward make up for losing Dexter Fowler? In order to answer that question, we have to take a look at what level of production the Cubs were getting from Fowler. Let’s take a look at some of the numbers.
Defensively, according to multiple metrics, Dexter Fowler may have been one of the worst center-fielders in all of baseball in 2015. As a comparative analysis, using Defensive Runs Saved (DRS), you can get an idea how an individual performed at his position compared to other players at the same, or similar position. According to fangraphs.com, DRS is “a defensive statistic calculated by The Fielding Bible, an organization run by John Dewan, that rates individual players as above or below average on defense”. If you’re interested in learning more about DRS, visit http://www.fangraphs.com/library/defense/drs/
With the knowledge of what DRS is able to tell us, it’s rather surprising (at least it was to me) that amongst the 31 Center Fielders with a minimum of 500 innings logged at the position, only 3 players were worse than Fowler, who has a DRS rating of -12. Reference the chart below, for information on the tiers of single season DRS ratings:
The bottom line is that Fowler ranged somewhere between very bad and terrible in comparison to other centerfielders. Given the defensive woes of the other outfielders, I can’t say it’s particularly surprising that issues arose on fielding plays in the NLCS for the Cubs outfield. It was a matter of when, not if, something of that nature would happen, particularly in a playoff atmosphere where every mistake is amplified that much more.
I know what you might be thinking. “So what”, you say. “Fowler made plays. Fowler was a good dude”, and so on. Regardless of the fact that the latter may very well be true, the former most certainly was not. Compared to his peers, his did NOT make plays. Not very well, anyhow. It seems to me that this is not a great loss from a defensive standpoint, as Fowler was most literally one of the worst in all of baseball at his position. No, it’s not a fluke. Stop telling yourself that. Even if you expand the field to CF’s with 200 inning played, which would increase the field of players to 53, guess what? That’s right. He’s still only better than 3 people. Only Adam Eaton, Angel Pagan and Cameron Maybin were worse than Fowler, in regards to DRS ratings. “Well maybe it was just 1 bad season.” Nope, sorry. I reviewed DRS from all CFs from 2013-2015, and Fowler was dead last. Other statistics also support this assertion. Outfield Arms Runs Saved (rARM), “evaluates the frequency runners advance on hits and are thrown out trying to take extra bases” (fangraphs.com). Amongst qualified CF’s, once again, Fowler is dead last (tied). Kind of a moot point. The guy isn’t a good defensive center fielder. He is the Pedro Alvarez of CF, if you will.
Given this information, for further comparative analysis, let’s take a look at Jason Heyward in terms of defensive production. Well, to put it bluntly, he’s elite. In 2015, amongst all qualified OF’s, Jason Heyward ranked 3rd overall (+24), and since 2013, he ranks as the best defensive outfielder in all of baseball, with a cumulative DRS rating of +72.
Theoretically speaking, if you figure that Fowler cost the Cubs 12 runs and Heyward saved 24, we are looking at a shift of 36 runs that never score. That’s what Heyward could bring to the Cubs. Think of the impact on the pitching staffs, respectively. In 2015, the St Louis Cardinals had a league best ERA of 2.94, and the Cubs were 3rd in the majors with an ERA of 3.36. It may not seem like much at first glance, but that is nearly a half run worse than the Cardinals. Consider for a moment if the roles were reversed. If the Cardinals had Fowler and the Cubs had Heyward, in theory, the Cardinals ERA would have been 3.01 and the Cubs ERA would have been 3.14, which honestly could be the difference between a team winning a division or…well, finishing 3rd.
I think we’ve established that Heyward is going to be a great asset in terms of defense. What about offense? With the Cubs being better in the field, simply by Dexter Fowler not being on it, is it possible that the offense will be somehow diminished? In some ways, yes. In most ways that are meaningful and important – no. Dexter Fowler hit 17 homeruns compared to Jason Heyward’s 13. He also scored 102 Runs, compared to Jason Heyward’s 79. The homeruns are really relatively comparable. Hitting 17 versus 13, isn’t going to make enough of an impact to be noticed; particularly with guys like Rizzo and Kris Bryant around to keep the folks happy in the bleachers with plenty of souvenirs. The difference in runs, is almost certainly attributed to the fact that Fowler was batting in the leadoff spot, thus giving him more opportunities to get on base and be driven home.
I believe it is Heyward’s batting average that will be the biggest difference. Heyward batted .293, which was 43 basis units higher than Fowler at .250. The On Base Percentages were comparable, but Heyward’s was better. Slugging was comparable but, again, Heyward’s was better, and the same is true of wOBA. Heyward struck out much less than Fowler, at only 14.8%, compared to Fowler’s strikeout rate of 22.3%. All in all, Heyward’s offensive runs created was rated 121, compared to Fowler’s wRC+ rating of 110.
As defined by Fangraphs, at http://www.fangraphs.com/library/offense/wrc/
Conclusion? The Chicago Cubs are going to be significantly better on the defensive and offensive sides of the diamond with Jason Heyward, as opposed to Dexter Fowler. It is within reason that he could also help Jorge Soler learn the nuances of playing right field. Who better to provide guidance regarding the best techniques to utilize in right field, than the best right fielder in baseball? So, I guess what I’m trying to say is that, as much as I’d like to have kept Dexter Fowler, it was ultimately for the best. Jason Heyward is going to make the Cubs an exponentially better baseball team. Ultimately the goal is to win a championship. I honestly feel like Heyward is an important piece to make that dream, a reality.