When we look back on the 2016 Chicago Cubs, Dexter Fowler is not the first name most fans will remember.
He might be the most important, though.
That season was storybook, of course. Kris Bryant had an MVP season. Anthony Rizzo was considered one of the best first basemen in the NL. Jake Arrieta won the NL Cy Young award the season prior and followed that season up with another quality campaign. Jon Lester was the big free agent signing that signaled the Cubs were going to try and climb the ranks in 2015. Ben Zobrist had just won the World Series with the Royals.
The list goes on. Either way, Fowler — who announced his retirement from baseball Tuesday — likely isn’t the one fans immediately think of when they hear “2016 Chicago Cubs.”
But again, he might be the most important piece to the Cubs’ success that season.
How it started
Fowler was an underrated transaction the day after the 2015 Cubs Convention as the piece coming to the Cubs for Luis Valbuena and Dan Straily. He was the addition after the Cubs landed Lester via free agency the year prior and Miguel Montero via trade with the Diamondbacks.
At the time of the trade, I don’t think many Cubs fans thought his impact the next two seasons would matter as much as it eventually did.
Fowler became an instant fan favorite in 2015, and it started in an early April game against his former team in Colorado.
Fowler hit a go-ahead homer at Coors Field that still hasn’t landed in an eventual Cubs victory. Fowler wasn’t always known for clutch moments, but this one signaled to Cubs fans that maybe that team could be something. You didn’t know what exactly that something was, but the team was fun, and Fowler’s personality and production from atop the lineup was crucial to the Cubs blowing past 2015 projections.
How it went
Over his two seasons in Chicago, Fowler played the best baseball of his career. His .261/.367/.427 slashline as the Cubs center fielder doesn’t seem mighty impressive but the on-base percentage is the prime example for the famous phrase Joe Maddon deemed for him in 2016.
“You go, we go.”
Fowler was known for setting the tone to start ballgames for the Cubs offense. In 2015, he finished with a career-high 102 runs scored and was on pace to break that record had he been able to play more than 125 games in 2016. With sluggers like Bryant, Rizzo, Zobrist, Kyle Schwarber and more behind him, Fowler excelled at working long pitch counts against opposing starting pitchers, which worked to force them out of games earlier than normal. He was a major pest as the Cubs’ leadoff hitter.
In 2016, Fowler had career highs in wRC+ (129), fWAR (4.1), and walk rate (14.3 percent). He was named an All-Star for the first and only time in his career. It was a dream season for him individually that the group needed.
When the Cubs were one game away from clinching the 2016 World Series, Fowler was playing video games in the clubhouse with his teammates hours before first pitch.
“An hour or so before the first pitch — in what would be the biggest game of all our lives — my teammates and I were back in the clubhouse … all huddled together …
Playing Mario Kart,” Fowler said in his Players Tribune piece.
Not long after, he became the first major league batter to lead off a World Series Game 7 with a homer, and he remains the only one to do so.
He was the key piece in one of the most underrated trades in Cubs history, and he set the tone in the biggest game in franchise history.
Again, storybook. You can’t make this stuff up.
There’s a reason baseball can be so romantic, and that moment was it. Of course, it might not be looked at as something so special if the Cubs lose Game 7, but they didn’t.
They won, and Fowler was an integral part in the Cubs’ success that season.
How it’s going
Since his departure after that magical 2016 season, the Cubs have struggled mightily to find a consistent leadoff hitter. As they continue to try and build this team back up, filling that hole is crucial.
In a way, because of the franchise’s struggles to replace his presence in the lineup, you can argue his role being the most important to the team’s success in 2016.
Fowler’s relationship with the fans was special. The fans in the center-field bleachers became known as “Fowler’s Howlers” during his years in Chicago. He will forever have a special place in the hearts of Cubs fans.