With his words, Rockies manager Jim Tracy has always been in Dexter Fowler’s corner. With his actions, not so much.
And who could blame him? He has a team to run, and ballgames to try to win. Fowler’s ceiling is sky-high. He could be Willie Wilson with power. And yet, for most of his four seasons in Colorado he has been a tease — hot and cold, fast and slow, one step forward and two steps back.
Despite graceful, long-legged speed that roamed the vast expanses of Coors Field like a deer, his stolen base success rate was lousy. No matter how much he practiced, he didn’t seem able to learn to bunt. His switch-hitting, learned relatively late in his development, seemed a perpetual experiment.
Finally, in the second half of last season, he seemed to put it together. After batting .238 before the All-Star break with no home runs, two stolen bases (caught six times) and an OPS of .688, he was demoted to Triple-A Colorado Springs, quite a rebuke for a 25-year-old veteran of three big league seasons.
When he returned to the big leagues, he looked like the player he was supposed to be, batting .288 with five homers, 10 steals (caught three times) and an OPS of .879. He had finally arrived, they said. Of course, they’d said that before.
Known for their patience, the Rocks finally grew impatient with a number of their homegrown position players after last season’s disappointing 73-89 finish, among them Ian Stewart, Seth Smith and Chris Iannetta, all of whom were traded during the offseason. But not Fowler. His second half of 2011, the club was convinced, was a preview of coming attractions.
But when he showed up at spring training, it was the same old story. He had regressed to Square One. His hands, which had come down in his batting stance after the 2011 midseason tutorial at Colorado Springs, were up high again. And, once again, he couldn’t hit. He batted .149 in the Cactus League. Tracy was forced to shelve the tentative 2012 lineup in which Fowler batted leadoff and served as the offensive catalyst.
The Rocks began the season with Fowler batting second, behind veteran Marco Scutaro. When that became a dead zone, Tracy dropped him to eighth.
His overall numbers weren’t terrible — he was batting .237 going into Monday’s Memorial Day doubleheader, with an OPS of .832 thanks to six home runs and 19 walks — but he had shown a bizarre knack for getting his hits when it mattered least. When the Rocks led or trailed by more than four runs, he was batting over .400. When the game was closer than that, he was batting below .200. He had driven in just one run that put his team ahead. By contrast, Todd Helton, batting just .230, had eight. Troy Tulowitzki had nine. Jason Giambi, a professional pinch-hitter, had three.
So Fowler was slowly losing playing time. Going into Memorial Day, he had started 33 of the Rocks’ 46 games. Tyler Colvin (eight) and Eric Young Jr. (five) had started the others in center field. As if to turn his struggles from the discouraging to the absurd, he had been limited to pinch-hitting duty for three days in Cincinnati last week after turning his ankle while jumping to celebrate a Carlos Gonzalez home run.
But with the Rockies swiftly sliding into oblivion in the National League West and Fowler having launched a pinch-hit homer in his final at-bat of the recent road trip — with the Rocks down only three, no less — Tracy took a shot in Monday’s opener and penciled him into his lineup to start a game in the leadoff spot for the first time this season.
Suddenly, as in time-lapse photography, the flower bloomed. He began the day with a home run and ended it, nearly nine hours later, with a walk-off, game-winning triple — twice as many go-ahead RBI in one day as he’d had the entire season. In between, he produced five other hits, including a bunt single that turned into three bases when his speed forced an errant throw. He also threw in a bases-loaded walk and a perfectly executed sacrifice bunt late in the nightcap.
In all, he was 7-for-9 with five runs scored and three driven in, raising his batting average from .237 to .276 and his OPS from .832 to .926. The Rocks swept the doubleheader. Suddenly, there was joy in Mudville. That’s how much difference Fowler can make.
“That looked like the Dexter Fowler that was running around out there the second half of last year, but maybe even a little bit more. That’s how good he was,” Tracy said.
“I’ve had some sit-downs with Dexter and I’ve been questioned from the media about the situation — you know, him, Eric Young Jr., Tyler Colvin. I’m a big believer in Dexter Fowler, as you guys well know. I’ve stepped to the forefront and said that I firmly believe that this kid’s going to figure it out and he’s going to do it. And when he performs at the level that he performed at today, we’re that much better a club offensively. There’s so many things that he can do. The bunt that he laid down, it creates havoc, he’s so fast. He runs from home to third on a bunt that gets past the first baseman. This is the player that we think he’s capable of being on a regular basis, and not spotty. He can do this on a day-in, day-out basis. He’s very capable of it.”
Sure he can. But will he? The Rocks preach patience in all things, whether it’s Fowler, the young pitching staff or their own front office, which is under increasing fire from unhappy fans. Of course, it was under increasing fire from unhappy fans throughout the early aughts, too. That’s when the organization, under general manager Dan O’Dowd, shifted from the model of acquiring established players that worked well early on (Andres Galarraga, Dante Bichette, Larry Walker) but not so well later (Mike Hampton, Denny Neagle), to a model of growing its own talent.
It took years for the rebuilt player development system to begin producing, and the early aughts were a wasteland. O’Dowd should have been fired at least a dozen times along the way, if you listened to his critics. But when Matt Holliday, Garrett Atkins, Jeff Francis and Ubaldo Jimenez led them to the 2007 World Series, the organization’s patience through the dead years was rewarded.
Today, once again, O’Dowd and the front office are under fire. Today, once again, they are counseling patience. We don’t know yet whether they will be proven right about the young crop of starting pitchers that is putting up cringe-worthy numbers at the moment. The Rocks’ team ERA of 5.18 is worst in the National League by nearly three-quarters of a run.
Of 23-year-old Alex White, who gave up six runs and 10 hits in five innings to raise his earned-run average to 6.28 in Monday’s nightcap, Tracy said this:
“He hung in there, just like he did in the game in Florida. He didn’t break. Until we can get to the point where we get lower numbers and much deeper into the game, that’s what we ask of these young kids: ‘Don’t break. Don’t let the game get out of hand and we’ll keep learning and we’ll keep growing together. But don’t let the game get out of hand.’ He’s done it twice. (Christian) Friedrich did it Friday night against Johnny Cueto in Cincinnati. And we’ve won those ballgames.”
If Fowler becomes the consistent, multifaceted offensive weapon he could be, he will serve as Exhibit A for the organization’s commitment to patience. What distinguished him from Stewart, Smith and Iannetta in the eyes of the organization was not just the ceiling, it was also the attitude. One of the most likable professional athletes on the planet, Fowler has never sulked or griped about his ups and downs. His desire was obvious during the celebration that followed his game-winning triple in the 19th and final inning of the long holiday doubleheader.
“Tears of joy . . . I was excited,” he said. “I had one walk-off hit before, but nothing like this, from what I’ve battled through this year, and what the team has battled through.”
At 19-29, the Rocks are still a long way from where they thought they’d be at this point. But the offense that scored 16 runs in two games Monday showed the sort of explosiveness the organization imagined when it reconstructed the roster over the winter.
“I think it’s very safe to say that offensively, we felt this way,” Tracy said. “We felt we had a good offensive club, and it’s beginning to play itself out that way.”
The key word being “beginning.” Fowler broke out Monday with the best day of his professional career. Now comes what has always been the hardest part for him — keeping it going.