JUPITER, Fla. (AP) — When considering where to slot Dexter Fowler in the batting order, St. Louis manager Mike Matheny isn’t concerned about last year.
There’s additional data to consider.
“He’s got a pretty good track record of being successful at the top of the order,” Matheny said. “You don’t take any small sample and put that in concrete. He’s done a nice job over the course of his career of getting on base and making things happen at the top.”
A career .268 hitter, Fowler batted just .205 in 51 games last season as the Cardinals’ leadoff man. That came after hitting .277 from the leadoff spot for the World Series-winning Chicago Cubs the previous year.
That performance, the allure of a disruptive force on the basepaths and a good glove in center field prompted the Cardinals to sign Fowler to a five-year, $82.5 million contract prior to the 2017 season.
With Fowler and the offense struggling as a whole last season, Matheny juggled the lineup. Not primarily known as a run producer, Fowler hit .333 and had 15 RBIs in 18 games as the Cardinals’ cleanup hitter. In 22 games at the third spot, Fowler hit .271.
Last year Fowler hit from every slot in the lineup except seventh and eighth — he had five hits in nine at-bats hitting ninth spot. At every slot other than leadoff, his average exceeded his career batting average.
“I felt like I was hitting leadoff even when I was hitting third or fourth,” Fowler said. “I took ABs like I was hitting leadoff.”
Including Matt Carpenter and Kolten Wong, the St. Louis lineup will feature three experienced leadoff hitters. Matheny, however, believes putting Fowler and his career .366 on-base percentage in the top spot gives the Cardinals the best chance to produce early runs.
Tommy Pham, who hit .306 with a .411 on-base percentage during last year’s breakout season, will follow Fowler, with Carpenter, an on-base machine, hitting third.
“Our potential one through three, you’re talking about three guys that could go over .370 or more in on-base percentage,” Carpenter said. “There’s going to be a lot of guys on base.”
And ready to clean up those base runners waits new acquisition Marcell Ozuna, fresh off a 37-homer, 124-RBI season.
“Having people on base, it just changes things for you as a hitter,” Carpenter said. “When you’re struggling or you’re not getting off to a great start I know when you have somebody standing out there there’s something it just does for you.”
Fowler’s spring isn’t as productive as he’d hoped. His double in the sixth inning of Sunday’s 10-0 victory over Washington, the highlight of a 1-for-3 day, raised Fowler’s Grapefruit League average to .235.
While Fowler is returning to a familiar spot in the batting order, he’s moving to a new one defensively.
Pham’s emergence as an every day player last season prompted Fowler’s move from center to right field this year. With Ozuna in left, the Cardinals will start three outfielders with center field experience.
Fowler doesn’t see much difference between center field and right, except maybe less potential for chaos on any given play.
“You don’t have to worry about the guys on each side of you,” Fowler said. “There’s only a guy on one side, so it’s less to worry about.”