WASHINGTON -- Dexter Fowler wears No. 25 for the St. Louis Cardinals in homage to one of his mentors, Barry Bonds. Of all Fowler’s skills, the one he shares most closely with baseball’s all-time leader in walks (among other things) is an extreme awareness of the strike zone and unwillingness to stray beyond it.
Fowler spent a winter living with Bonds in San Francisco and working out with him across the bridge in Marin County.
Yet Fowler was choosy about which pitches to swing at 20 years before he met the man who led the majors in on-base percentage nine times. It started when Fowler was about 4 feet tall and the coach had trouble fitting his tosses into what Fowler viewed as the strike zone. He was 9 years old.
“I used to get mad all the time,” Fowler said. “My dad was like, ‘If it’s not a strike, you don’t have to swing.’ I’ve always played the game like that.”
The Cardinals have revamped their approach to offense in 2017, shifting their emphasis from slugging to getting on base and, when the opportunity arises, creating some offense with their feet, an approach they completely abandoned last season.
Spearheading everything is Fowler, the accomplished leadoff hitter they didn’t need but acquired anyway. They already had one of the very best in Matt Carpenter, who ranks third in OPS (.871) at the leadoff spot over the past decade.
The Cardinals are hoping that two catalysts are better than one. Fowler’s previous team, the Chicago Cubs, had T-shirts that said, “You Go, We Go,” the phrase manager Joe Maddon coined for Fowler’s importance atop a deep lineup. The Cardinals, who shifted Carpenter to the No. 3 spot in the order to accommodate Fowler, are hoping it turns into “You Guys Go, We All Go.”
So far, nobody has gone far, but the phrase still applies. The Cardinals are 2-5 in part because Fowler is batting .148 and Carpenter is batting .208, but the team didn’t acquire Fowler for one week. They acquired him for five years, and they have Carpenter under contract for at least three of those seasons. They have invested a lot of their hopes in what the two players can do for the top third of their lineup.
Taking balls and swinging only at strikes don't just lead to walks. They also lead to frustrated opponents. Although neither Fowler nor Carpenter has gotten hot yet, No. 2 hitter Aledmys Diaz has, and he has already discussed the pleasure of batting in a spot surrounded by two players with such professional approaches. The Cardinals have seen hints of the dynamic since the earliest days of spring training.
“One of the worst things you can see is the starter goes out there, and the leadoff guy makes an out on the first or second pitch. He ends up going out there throwing nothing but fastballs, getting through the lineup all the way through using one or two pitches,” manager Mike Matheny said. “You can tell he’s maybe in the driver’s seat that day. When you see hitters that grind, they can feel it, and it changes how they use their repertoire the rest of the game.”
A hitter’s results can change dramatically with repetition, but typically his approach is set early, well before he plays his first televised game. Carpenter said he had coaches throughout college and the minor leagues who got angry with him because he took too many pitches, but “they didn’t realize what it would turn into.” Now he is excited for what he and Fowler can do together to annoy pitchers.
“It’s great for our offense. It’s not great for them. They hate that. They know that, and they’ve got to game plan for it,” Carpenter said. “It just puts them in a tough spot, puts pressure on them to make pitches, and it just makes our whole offense better.”
Fowler and Carpenter have more than adequate power for top-of-the-order hitters, but their elite shared trait is selectivity. Fowler swung at just 19.4 percent of pitches outside the strike zone last season, the lowest percentage in the majors. Carpenter swung at just 22.6 percent of balls, good for sixth.
Both batters have discerning eyes that lead to more than the usual number of confrontations with umpires. Because they are willing to take close pitches with two strikes, they can be susceptible to bad calls. Both players say they make a habit of looking at pitches on video after they’re called out on strikes. If it is a strike, they will apologize to an umpire for bickering.
“It’s frustrating sometimes, for sure,” Fowler said. “Obviously, what the umpire says goes. There’s nothing really too much to argue about, but you can state your point respectfully. They know you know the strike zone.”
“Everybody’s at the whim of the umpire at the end of the day,” Carpenter said.
One important upshot to that selectivity, of course, is walks. Both players get on base at an elite rate.
Fowler was sixth in the majors with a career-high .393 on-base percentage last season. Carpenter was 12th at .380. Although neither player has gotten many hits, they each have walked four times, tied for the team lead. Fowler walked in 14.3 percent of his plate appearances last season, the same percentage as Carpenter. Brandon Belt was the only player in the NL who hit fewer than 18 home runs and walked more frequently than the two Cardinals.
In the long run, the Cardinals think the two players’ plate discipline will be the driving force for their offense, for both obvious and less obvious reasons.
“When you think about your whole roster construction or lineup construction, any time you have the ability to have someone at the top of your lineup with the ability to grind out an eight- or 10-pitch at-bat before the second hitter even comes up, it’s helpful,” general manager John Mozeliak said. “Now imagine that squared.”
Once the Cardinals don’t have to imagine it, once they begin to see it in the batter’s box and on the bases, they’re pretty confident they’ll all get going.