Here we are with a week left in April and fans are starting to ask for Tyler Colvin in centerfield over Dexter Fowler already. I have seen both Patrick Saunders and Troy Renck answer questions on Twitter about Colvin replacing Fowler. Last year Dex couldn’t catch a break with Jim Tracy and now some of the fans are turning on Dex. The guys on Root Sports continue to talk about Colvin’s athleticism and his ability to play all over the fans patience level has been readjusted due to the short and “must win every game” NFL schedule. The baseball schedule is long. Really long. Every player goes through a slump and just because Colvin has started off hotter than Dex does not make him a better option.
Both players are in their age 26 season. Colvin has amassed over 2,000 plate appearances in five minor league seasons compared to under 1,800 plate appearances for Fowler in seven season (a few of those “seasons” are less than 30 games). In Colvin’s minor league career his triple slash was .256/.270/.478 compared to Fowler’s .300/.395/.457. Their minor league stats are important because that gives us a starting point and this starting point says Dexter is the better player. We all know that minor league stats do not always translate into big league performance but it does give us more meat in our comparison as both are still a bit green.
This season, in only 32 plate appearances, Colvin is batting .323/.344/.516 and has Rockies fans fawning over his bat. Compare that to Fowler’s early line of .222/.327/.422 in a few more games worth of at-bats and it is easy to see why fans are starting to get restless. But hold on one minute! We can’t base our judgment on just a few weeks of baseball; we need to look at a larger picture.
In Fowler’s career (1,667 plate appearances) he is batting .261/.354/.412. That on-base percentage is a nice number and something that Fowler and the Rockies should continue to showcase at the top of the lineup. Combined with his speed he is a threat to score runs since he is on base at a high level (the MLB average for OBP usually floats around .330).
In Colvin’s career (669 plate appearances) he is batting .221/.278/.426. Colvin has more pop as he has 10 more home runs than Fowler in 1,000 fewer chances but his average and on-base percentage are awful. Colvin strikes out more than three times for every base on balls that he draws. Colvin has 173 strikeouts in his MLB career and only 135 hits. In fact, if you add his walks to his hits you have 162 times on base versus 173 whiffs.
(Fowler has been on base 570 times vs 369 K’s.)
If you think any of that offense above is due to his park, you are wrong. Fowler’s career OPS+ (which factors in the park) is 96 while Colvin’s is 86.
According to Baseball-Reference.com Colvin has been worth -0.5 wins over his career (that’s right, he has cost his teams a half of a win and that includes his 2010 season in which he hit 20 home runs). Fowler has been worth 2.6 wins in his four years with the Rockies. Fangraphs.com offers a different calculation on WAR and on Fangraphs Fowler has been worth 5.3 wins over his career while Colvin has been worth only 1.0.
Finally we have the most important piece of the advantage of starting Fowler over Colvin: defense. Sure Colvin can stand in centerfield and portray a centerfielder, but he cannot play the position as well as Fowler.
According to UZR/150 on Fangraphs Colvin has been worth -22.7 runs when playing centerfield over his career. Fowler hasn’t scored great according to UZR/150 either but his cost of -11.2 runs over his career isn’t as bad as Colvin. In fact, when looking at Baseball Info Solutions plus/minus ratings both players score poorly with Fowler performing slightly better (but still average or below) in the field.
Defensive metrics are still in their infancy and after watching Fowler night after night I find it hard to believe he is rated as poorly as he is in the outfield.
Fangraphs polls its readers on a yearly basis and when looking at how the fans rate the two players Fowler is significantly better earning a rating of 63 over his career versus Colvin’s 48 rating.
Colvin is not a better option than Fowler in centerfield.
However I will say this: writing this has soured me a bit on Dex. I almost always start a piece like this with an expected result. In this case I expected Fowler to be quite a bit better than Colvin. That is not the case.
For years I continue to tell myself that Fowler is young and that he didn’t learn to switch hit until the Rockies signed him. I continued to tell myself that the Rockies need to give him some time and let him mature and grow. I might have to stop talking to myself.
I still firmly believe Fowler needs to play every day until the All-Star break, at least. If he is absolutely putrid for a month straight then maybe he gets the hook, but his track record of posting a good on-base percentage suggest that he is an asset atop the Rockies lineup and I doubt that will change.
After writing this piece, however, if he doesn’t step up some more at the plate the Rockies need to start looking for a replacement (and that replacement is not currently on the roster).