The embers of the Hot Stove free-agent market are just beginning to flicker, but it will be heating up soon enough as teams finalize their wish lists for 2017.Several teams will be faced with tough decisions on whether to re-invest in a star player with a lucrative new contract. One
The embers of the Hot Stove free-agent market are just beginning to flicker, but it will be heating up soon enough as teams finalize their wish lists for 2017.
Several teams will be faced with tough decisions on whether to re-invest in a star player with a lucrative new contract. One of those decisions rests with the World Series champion Cubs and the man who ignited the top of their lineup, Dexter Fowler.
A useful player in Colorado and Houston, Fowler blossomed into a star over the past two seasons with Chicago, culminating with his leadoff home run in Game 7 of the World Series, which helped propel the Cubs past the Indians to their first championship in 108 years. Fowler will turn 31 in March and is hitting the free-agent market at the peak of his value potential. That means Chicago will likely have to pay much more to keep Fowler than last offseason, when the center fielder spurned a potential offer from the Orioles at the last minute to sign a one-year contract with the Cubs at a hometown discount.
Coming off a career year, here's a look at five statistics from Fowler's recent history that could predict his 2017 performance for whichever team is fortunate enough to sign him:
Setting the table
No leadoff hitter was as adept as Fowler at setting the table last year. His .393 on-base percentage was best among Major League hitters with at least 500 plate appearances atop the lineup, as were his 79 walks. Fowler's 2016 performance wasn't a fluke, either, as his cumulative 176 walks from the leadoff spot over the last three seasons ranks second in baseball behind the Cardinals' Matt Carpenter, and his .367 cumulative OBP over that time ranks third behind Carpenter and the Astros' José Altuve -- some pretty good company to keep.
Racking up the bases
Fowler's .393 OBP ranked sixth in the National League last season, but his .447 slugging percentage also showed he could do more than draw walks and hit singles. Fowler is one of only 18 players to post a season with at least a .390 OBP and a .440 slugging percentage over the last three years. Fowler's skill set becomes even more exclusive when you factor in the 13 steals he collected in 2016; making him one of eight players to pair those on-base and slugging benchmarks with double-digit stolen bases.
Another asset Fowler brings is the ability to battle just about every time he brings a bat to home plate. He chased only 28 percent of pitches outside the strike zone in two-strike counts last season, according to Inside Edge, the second-lowest rate of all qualified hitters in baseball. Fowler was particularly persistent against right-handers, seeing an average of 4.48 pitchers per plate appearance against them -- the third-highest rate in MLB. Both of those figures explain why Fowler posted a career-high 14.3 percent walk rate, tying Carpenter for sixth-best in the NL.
Handling the heat
In an era in which pitchers are throwing harder than ever before, Fowler proved to be a master of velocity last year. Fowler's .417 batting average on all fastballs with a velocity of at least 94 mph was best among all Major League qualified hitters, according to Statcast™. And his .607 slugging percentage against those pitches ranked sixth among NL batters. Fowler has posted a .300-plus batting averages on balls in play (BABIP) on 94-plus mph fastballs in each of the past two seasons.
Coors effect? Forget it
Fowler first made a name for himself playing home games in Coors Field, whose thin mountain air makes it the friendliest park for hitters. Since he was traded to Houston before the 2014 season, however, Fowler's offensive numbers have almost remained the same. Fowler slashed .271/.367/.427 with an average of eight home runs and 24 doubles per year in his first five full seasons in Colorado from 2009-13. Over the last three seasons between Houston and Chicago, Fowler has slashed .266/.369/.419, and actually seen his power tick up slightly to an average of 13 homers and 25 doubles per season.
Matt Kelly is a reporter for MLB.com based in New York. Follow him on Twitter at @mattkellyMLB.