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April 4, 2014

Overthinking It

Is Dexter Fowler Tough Enough to Play for Your Team?

by Ben Lindbergh

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During an exhibition game against Brooklyn in the spring of 1942, then-Boston Braves manager Casey Stengel said something that seems, in retrospect, spectacularly wrong. A 20-year-old Warren Spahn started for Stengel against the Dodgers, whom the Braves believed had been stealing their signs all spring. Stengel, hoping to take the sign-stealers by surprise, switched the signs so that the old signal for a fastball would now indicate a curve. With Pee-Wee Reese up and a runner on second supposedly staring in for the sign, Stengel told Spahn to brush Reese back with his fastball when the batter would be expecting something slower.

As a 44-year-old Spahn recounted in 1965, when both he and Stengel were with the Mets in what would be their final season:

I threw three straight inside fastballs to Reese. He leaned back and took them for balls, and Casey came storming out to the mound. He lifted me because I hadn’t decked Reese then stopped me in the dugout and told me to pick up my railroad ticket to Hartford.

The next day I was back in the minor leagues with Casey’s words ‘Young man, you’ve got no guts’ ringing in my ears.

Other accounts, perhaps embellished, say that Stengel had ordered Spahn to hit Reese, and that he told Spahn that he’d never make it in the majors upon the pitcher’s refusal to comply. Whatever words were exchanged, they weren’t warranted: Spahn soon saw combat in World War II and kept cool under fire, earning both a Bronze Star and a Purple Heart. Much later, he credited the war with giving him self-confidence, but he always had the capacity for courage, regardless of what Stengel saw. Spahn never did hit many batters—among the 200-plus pitchers who’ve faced over 10,000 batters since 1901, Spahn’s HBP rate ranks ninth-lowest—but he became a pretty good pitcher.


Late last May, Dodgers manager Don Mattingly questioned his last-place team’s toughness, specifically citing the club’s struggles in clutch situations as evidence of its lack of mental fortitude. At the time, the Dodgers were 19-26 and had hit .229/.318/.293 with runners in scoring position. From that date on, though, they went 73-44 and hit .260/.334/.395 with runners in scoring position, a near match for their .266/.325/.408 overall, full-season line.

So what happened? Was Mattingly’s evaluation off, or did the Dodgers start winning without being tough for reasons that had nothing to do their desire? Or was it that the Dodgers became tough shortly after Mattingly questioned his team? “We developed toughness through adversity,” Ned Colletti explained earlier this month. “We feel like we’re tough,” Mattingly agreed.


It’s impossible to determine what each manager’s motivation for making his comments was. Did Stengel really believe that Spahn was cowardly and doomed to failure because he didn’t bean Reese? Did Mattingly really think his team didn’t have the toughness to succeed? Maybe each manager was merely trying to inspire, although even that would suggest that he felt that some amount of inspiration was needed. (Stengel, for what it’s worth, had previously said some very nice things about Spahn.)

Regardless, it’s a familiar refrain. ''We're disappointed with the way the team has played, the lack of energy and enthusiasm with the club,'' said Orioles Assistant GM Kevin Malone in 1998. ''Each player needs to look inside and ask if they're giving their best effort.'' But those Orioles were old, in decline, and probably a little unlucky, and sometimes, blaming poor performance on the players’ effort level is the last defense of a incompetent team. If it looks like a 35-year-old Doug Drabek and throws like a 35-year-old Doug Drabek, it’s probably a 35-year-old Doug Drabek.

Stengel, Mattingly, and Malone aren’t the exceptions. Joe Maddon talks about toughness, too. Nor is toughness talk unique to baseball; if anything, it’s more prevalent in other sports. And even in those other sports, we can come up with examples of players who put early doubts about their drive to rest. The San Antonio Spurs once questioned Tony Parker’s toughness; Bears quarterback Jay Cutler faced similar concerns, and now he has a seven-year deal.

It’s a new season, a fresh start, but we’re still talking about alleged toughness deficits that surfaced last season. Dismissed Marlins hitting coach Tino Martinez continues to complain, seven months after his “resignation,” about the softness of his former pupils. Martinez “didn’t mesh with many players and even fellow coaches,” Juan C. Rodriguez writes. Was that because he perceived players’ flaws more clearly, or tried to correct them in the worst possible way? Or was it because he saw softness where there was none?

Toughness also provided an answer to one of this past winter’s puzzles. The Rockies mystified many when they traded a prime-age starting center fielder in Dexter Fowler for Jordan Lyles and Brandon Barnes, an apparent salary dump that coincided with seemingly short term-oriented moves like signing veterans Boone Logan, LaTroy Hawkins, and Justin Morneau and dealing Drew Pomeranz for Brett Anderson. But the explanation should have been obvious after reading Rockies co-GM Dan O’Dowd’s remarks about Fowler late last November, about a week before the trade:

Dexter’s a great kid and he knows that we all feel that way about him. But I think he’s got to get tougher. No doubt. He’s got to show up and play with an edge every day, not just when he thinks he has to. It’s got to be that edge that he brings every day. He’s got to be a passionate competitor in the game. He has to love the game. He’s got to compete because he loves the game and he loves his teammates and he wants to win. It can’t be for anything the game provides. It’s got to be for those reasons.

In an interview with the Houston Chronicle’s Evan Drellich last month, Fowler addressed O’Dowd’s comments, saying:

I'm still trying to figure out where they're coming from. 'Passion for the game'—I mean, you see me each and every day. This will never change. So I don't know where that was coming from. Dan's never in the clubhouse, so he probably never sees any of that.

Fowler’s new GM, Jeff Luhnow, backed him up, telling Drellich that O’Dowd’s statement didn’t dissuade him from making the deal:

I read [O’Dowd’s] comments, 'cause they came out right in the middle of the time that we were discussing the trade.* I certainly did my homework, and through our collective network of scouts and coaches and personnel, we were able to gather enough information about Dexter that we felt very comfortable taking any risk on. Any time you bring in a player from another organization, you're taking on some risk. But we felt very comfortable, and so far, he has made us much more comfortable being here, because he's exactly the type of guy we were hoping we'd get.

*Nothing like questioning your own player’s toughness to improve your leverage in trade talks.

Finally, a few days later, The Denver Post’s Mark Kiszla wrote these lines in response to Fowler’s response:

Rockies manager Walt Weiss is nobody's puppet. This is his baseball team. It will win or lose his way.

And that's why Dexter Fowler is no longer in Colorado.

After five seasons with the Rockies, it seemed obvious Fowler could not be a centerpiece in a winning franchise. He simply isn't tough enough.

Fowler is gone.

The Rockies are tougher.

The Rockies, Kiszla contended, are “better off without Fowler” and with Corey Dickerson, who gives them a better chance to “bring a dirt-bag attitude that can wrestle with the Los Angeles Dodgers in the gutter.” The obvious comeback is that no matter how good the Rockies’ gutter wrestling game, they won’t get close enough to the Dodgers for it to matter without talent, which Fowler probably would have given them to a greater degree than Dickerson. But the more interesting question than whether the move made the Rockies a win or two better or worse is what we should make of Fowler.

On the one hand, we have the Astros’ scouting network and Fowler’s opinion of himself, both of which suggest that he’s the type of player that a team with a lot of impressionable young players would want to acquire. On the other hand, we have O’Dowd and Kiszla, both of whom have presumably heard contradictory opinions from the manager and/or coaching staff of a team that got a good, long look at him. (The Rockies drafted Fowler in 2004.)

One of the most interesting recent discoveries in sabermetrics is Matt Swartz’s finding that players who stay with the same teams tend to perform better over the long run than those who sign elsewhere. The implication is that organizations know more about their own players than outsiders do, and Luhnow admitted as much when he acknowledged the risk inherent in trading for someone from outside the org. We don’t know exactly what form the longtime team’s information advantage takes, but it seems reasonable to suggest that psychological evaluations are part of the picture. However, we know that not every accusation of a lack of toughness turns out to be on target.

Kiszla is probably right about one thing: Fowler isn’t the centerpiece of a winning franchise. It looked like he might be when he hit .300/.389/.474 in 2012, but Fowler had a .390 BABIP that year, the kind that can’t be sustained. Moreover, he’s not a great defensive center fielder. (He is, however, a valuable baserunner: Despite Fowler’s lousy stolen base success rates and Kiszla’s assertion that his speed “never translated to dangerous baserunning,” Fowler ranks ninth in BRR over the past five seasons, at 21 runs above average.) That makes him a nice complementary player, but not a star. And maybe that makes him a slight disappointment, given that he was ranked just outside of top the top 10 in our 2009 prospect rankings (though it probably shouldn’t, given the expected early returns from a prospect in that range).

But is he a disappointment because he lacks the willpower to make the most of his talent? Or is he a disappointment because his talent wasn’t superstar caliber to begin with? After all, if Fowler never has an offensive season better than he did in 2012, he’ll be just the latest in a long line of players who peaked at age 26.

To be clear, I don’t doubt that toughness varies from player to player, even among professional athletes who’ve all proven themselves tough enough to devote themselves to their craft and beat out intense competition to reach an elite level. Nor do I doubt that it’s a desirable and important quality,* or one that can be assessed to a certain extent. But it’s still a shaky foundation on which to make multi-million-dollar moves. Stats aren’t open to interpretation; makeup is. In October 1964, David Halberstam writes that long after integration, Yankees GM George Weiss “simply could not see black players as having the toughness and drive that the Yankees built their teams on.” I’m not suggesting that Fowler has faced the same discrimination that black players did as late as the 1960s. Clearly, though, Weiss was wrong, which tells us that perceptions of toughness must be somewhat subjective and biased by the eye of the beholder.

*Although when you read this, you might reconsider: Alex Rodriguez is tough, too.

When we critique toughness, we have to be wary of the Fundamental Attribution Error: “People’s tendency to place an undue emphasis on internal characteristics to explain someone else’s behavior in a given situation, rather than considering external factors.” That’s a cognitive bias to which members of individualist cultures like the United States are particularly prone, and perhaps it’s at work here. Fowler has suffered a string of nagging injuries, and he told Drellich that the Rockies pressured him to play through them. You can understand why Weiss or O’Dowd, whose own success and security depended to some extent on Fowler’s presence in the lineup, might regard that missed time as a reflection on his character. But maybe Fowler knows his body best. As he explained:

I pressured myself into playing back last year with my finger, then I messed up my wrist, then I strain my (knee). Towards the end of the year they were like, 'Hey, you need to get out there and play.' I mean, my knee doesn't even feel stable. I don't think that's the best decision for my career to be out there. I understand that you want me out there. Don't get me wrong, I want to be out there more than anybody. It's no fun sitting on the bench. But, at the same time, you've got to put your life in perspective, and your family as well.

Maybe Weiss or O’Dowd didn’t want to hear that Fowler cared about his career, or anything other than the Rockies’ immediate success. But in most cases, the best interests of the player and team are pretty closely aligned. We don’t know the details of Fowler’s situation, specifically. But a player who’s hurt and at risk of aggravating his injury isn’t usually a help to his team until he heals.

In the Astros’ first series of 2014, Fowler went 6-for-12 with four extra-base hits, and he’s been a model teammate and mentor. That's an impossibly small sample, but so far, so good. Whatever Fowler’s flaws, his makeup got him to the majors, where he’s been a pretty productive player. And if some lack of roughness really has held him back—well, maybe that’s not such a bad thing. Which would you rather have? A two-win player who has one-win talent but 10-win toughness, or a two-win player who has four-win talent but one-win toughness? The one with four-win talent seems like a better bet to improve, since he hasn’t maxed out his potential. As long as he’s a pleasant person—as Fowler is, by all accounts—whose lack of toughness isn’t contagious, why not take a chance that, as with previous players, his toughness will come with time?

“I think human analytics are just as important as statistical analytics,” O’Dowd said last year. “Hard to measure it because there’s no statistical formula for that, but really understanding what’s inside a guy is actually more important than what comes out of a guy because that’s the only way you know if you’ve got a winning player on your hands.”

As Russell Carleton and other authors have pointed out at BP, the fact that we can’t measure chemistry doesn’t mean that we need to dismiss it. But fetishizing it might be just as serious a mistake. Makeup isn’t the only way to know if you have a winning player—not after you have several seasons of stats. We know that Fowler has a .365 career on-base percentage, but his toughness grade differs depending on the source. Over the long haul, I'll take the team that makes trades based on psyche and stats over the team that makes trades based on interpretations of toughness alone.

Ben Lindbergh is an author of Baseball Prospectus. 
Click here to see Ben's other articles. You can contact Ben by clicking here

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