When the Oakland A’s acquired Dustin Fowler last summer in the Sonny Gray trade, he was tabbed as the team’s CF of the future. That future finally arrived on the recently completed 10-game road trip, in which he started in center eight times. We all got a glimpse of why he ranked No. 4 on our preseason Community Prospect List and made most of the national Top 100 lists.
Granted, Fowler technically made his MLB debut last year for the Yankees, and he officially got his first plate appearance in the last game of the A’s previous homestand. However, this trip marked the functional beginning of his big league career, and our first look at the 23-year-old in an everyday role.
The big question surrounding Fowler for the last year has involved his speed. It was one of his best tools before his major knee injury last summer, and the key aspect of his recovery was whether his wheels would be the same as before. Fortunately that plus speed appears to be intact, as he zipped around the field both on offense and defense and already ranks as by far the fastest player on the A’s (and top 10 in MLB). Here’s an example:
That’s a standup triple, to the left-center gap, without even an attempt to throw to third base. Fowler didn’t start sprinting until he’d already passed first. Dude is fast.
On top of that play, we saw Fowler score from first on a double against the Yankees, and in the final game in Toronto he went all the way to third when the RF missed a catch. He also stole a pair of bases on the road trip, though he was nabbed on a third attempt by one of the most perfect throws you’ll ever see (respect to Luke Maile).
At the plate, Fowler didn’t light the world on fire but he definitely contributed. He recorded his first MLB hit in his first start against the Yankees, and that RBI triple in the video above was an essential part of a tight one-run triumph in Boston. However, his big day came in the second game against the Blue Jays, when he almost single-handedly carried the A’s to victory.
In that game on Friday, Oakland lost their starting pitcher to injury after one inning and the bullpen needed all the support they could get. Fowler was the hitter who stepped up, blasting a homer for the game’s first run. When Toronto came back to tie the score, Fowler struck again with an RBI double to put the A’s back on top for good. The 3-1 win also required some clutch pitching and strong defense from the whole team, but the bottom line is that two of the runs were created by Fowler on a night when someone needed to break through with a couple big hits.
Overall Fowler’s numbers are only mediocre so far through 34 plate appearances, but there are some encouraging aspects to his batting line.
Fowler, 2018 MLB: .207/.294/.414, 90 wRC+, 11.8% BB, 11.8% Ks, .200 BABIP
Forget the low batting average for now. In this tiny sample, I’m looking more at his plate discipline. His career walk rate in the minors is 4.4%, which isn’t necessarily a dealbreaker on its own for a speed-and-contact guy but is definitely not ideal either. The fact that he’s drawn a few walks in the early going is a great sign that he’s recognizing which pitches to swing at and what not to chase, which could also help him make his best contact possible when he does swing. Even if that walk rate comes down over time, it’s still a promising way to start.
Furthermore, he’s avoiding strikeouts as well. He’s always been good at putting the ball in play (minors career: 17.4% Ks), but it’s especially nice to see him translate his contact skills to the majors. Of course, we can reasonably expect his strikeout rate to climb as the sample size grows, but the point is he wasn’t getting overwhelmed in his first MLB action. His microscopic 4.0% swinging-strike rate is tied with team leader Jonathan Lucroy, who is consistently among the best in baseball in that metric. Fowler’s aggressive approach also helps keep the Ks down (3.68 pitches per PA, second-lowest on team), but that didn’t stop him from drawing a free pass for every strikeout when pitchers gave him nothing to swing at.
Finally, the lefty showed plenty of power as well. Granted, his speed helps him take some extra bases, but he wasn’t just running out lucky grounders. His triple, although maybe catchable, did go all the way to the wall, and his double was a legit extra-base gapper as well. His homer went opposite-field. His .207 isolated slugging is a great starting point, even if/when it settles down a bit lower. According to Statcast, he’s hitting the ball about as well as Mark Canha and Chad Pinder, with a .339 xwOBA that ranks as slightly above league average.
On the defensive side of the ball, Fowler didn’t look perfect but he was certainly promising. A couple times he was slow to break in on a shallow fly and let a catchable ball land in front of him, which could be partially explained by anything from rookie jitters to not being fully comfortable on Toronto’s fake turf. He also missed a ball at the wall that he otherwise got to in time, but again I wouldn’t blame him for being a bit apprehensive about colliding with stuff to make catches right now in the early going. That’s how he tore his knee last summer, after all.
The point is, these seem like coachable shortcomings, as opposed to simply not being good enough or fast enough to make plays. I’m willing to give him a mulligan for now on those miscues, and instead focus on how smooth he looked gliding after everything else that was hit his way. It would be nice to see him make some web gems out there, but even if he only ends up average in CF that would still make him a valuable player and represent an upgrade for Oakland’s defense. I hate myself for bringing up advanced metrics after eight games, but both DRS and UZR give positive early reports, for whatever that might be worth.
Add it all together, and it was an impressive debut road trip for the A’s newest rookie. He didn’t leap onto the scene as an insta-star, but he showed flashes of all the kinds of things we hoped he could do and he made a real difference in a couple of team wins. The CF of the future has arrived, and it’s gonna be fun to see how good he can be.