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Friday Rockpile: Dexter Fowler and the Need For Speed

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A regular criticism of Rockies' CF Dexter Fowler is that for a guy his height and with runners legs and the grace of a loping antelope, he really isn't all that great at stealing bases. Watching him, you see his graceful strides and the 15 feet separating his footfalls en route from 1B to 3B, you'd think that he'd have no trouble getting 1B to 2B before the pitcher even realized that he was on 1B.

In 2011, the Rockies were surprisingly 12th in MLB in stolen bases. I was expecting somewhere closer to 30th, so 12th came as a shock. The team's leading base stealer was Eric Young, Jr at 27, then Carlos Gonzalez, who stole the lofty total of 20 bags over his injury-shortened season. Fowler was 3rd with a grand total of 12 bases. Clearly, the Rockies need a real speed burner on the top of their lineup if they want to make it anywhere in 2012.

So there are realistically 2 options in my mind: Start EYJ in the leadoff, or start Fowler in the leadoff.

In EY's case, we're dealing with a guy who has a subpar bat, but he stole 27 bases in 77 games and was only caught 4 times (and that's not including his 17:1 SB:CS ratio in AAA Colorado Springs). While Young's .247 batting average was decidedly below what we'd like to see, his .342 OBP WAS above average. This move would pretty much pull Fowler out of the lineup though, probably putting EYJ in LF and Carlos Gonzalez in CF. Depending on how guys are hitting, we might even see this as an option in the event that Fowler spends any significant time on the bench or DL.

More realistically, Fowler will be batting leadoff, with a better OBP, SLG, and maybe fewer SBs, but a practical guarantee that he'll be on 3B after a single. No, Fowler won't wreak the same sort of pitcher-distracting havoc that EYJ would, but that's not necessarily going to guarantee anything. The 2008 Rockies were 2nd in the majors in SB (141) thanks in large part to Willy Taveras, and scored 747 runs. The 2011 Rockies stole 118 bases and scored 735 runs. Yeah, those 12 offensive runs could've been the difference in like 4-5 games. Probably not enough to take the Rockies from turrible to the playoffs, but definitely an improvement on situational run scoring situations.

I'd argue that the quality of the leadoff hitter is going to be more important than their havoc wreaking abilities. While I have no doubt that EYJ will waste more than his fair share of throws over to 1B, it's not like pitchers are going to let Dexter Fowler just lead off to that red part of the leadoff arrow that TBS used to put on the screen during the playoffs. Good running won't necessarily steal 2B, but we're going to see a lot of plays where Fowler is scoring from 1B on deep singles and almost undoubtedly on doubles. If you buy into BsR (Runs from baserunning as tabulated by Fangraphs), Fowler was the Rockies best baserunner in 2011, regardless of his SB total.

Oftentimes, we'll forget the good things a player does because their shinier numbers like homers, RBI, SB, things of that nature aren't as high and awesome. Seth Smith is a good example here. Regardless of his off-field attitude or work ethic or whatever, Seth Smith had 56 XBH, but was kind of brushed under the rug because he never developed that HR power (15 in 2011). Fowler isn't a good leadoff hitter because of low SB totals. The key for this team is to have well rounded hitters who can take full advantage of spacious Coors Field as far as finding places for your baseball to land.

While the Rockies' offense is going to be heavy around Carlos Gonzalez and Troy Tulowitzki, you're going to get a lot of that excess spread among guys like Michael Cuddyer, Marco Scutaro, and Ramon Hernandez. Also, the step up from the 3B joke that 2011 was to Casey Blake - yes, step UP - will add a lot of production. Everyone just needs to focus on being good batters and not on one specific counting stat.