Confidence in Fowler high despite slow spring
Tracy says center fielder close to regaining his swing
SCOTTSDALE, Ariz. -- Rockies center fielder Dexter Fowler went 0-for-3 in Tuesday's 7-3 loss to the D-backs. The day dropped Fowler, the Rockies' projected leadoff hitter, to .106 in Cactus League play.But manager Jim Tracy doesn't see the word "projected" in front of leadoff hitter. Amongst Rockies fans, there is a crescendo of worry. Is this a repeat of the last two years, when the switch-hitting Fowler struggled so badly in the beginning that he was sent to Triple-A Colorado Springs? The Rockies are holding onto the strong second halves Fowler has managed after returning to the Majors. Tracy isn't letting go of that. "I believe in this kid," Tracy said. "I love this kid. "You know something? Dexter Fowler could hit zero in Spring Training. He's playing center field in Houston on Friday April 6."
After making that statement, Tracy wanted to show Fowler it was more than an empty statement to reporters to deflect criticism. Fowler, 26, was in the middle of a lengthy hitting session when Tracy, still in uniform, joined him at the batting cage. Just about all the players had cleared out of the complex when Tracy put an arm around Fowler's shoulders, told him to write down a couple of key points to help him escape his slump, then relax, take in a movie.Fowler finished a day of unsuccessful at-bats with his smile and his confidence intact. "It's awesome to have the team behind you," Fowler said. "That goes a long way. "You want to hit well all the time, but it's more of a process right now than anything. Just clear your mind. Don't worry about those little things, like your leg kick. 'You're doing this. You're doing that.'" It's not that the mechanics aren't important. Fowler was hitting .238 with 66 strikeouts against 31 walks last season when he was placed on the disabled list with an abdominal strain, then sent to the Minors. After he returned, he incorporated a leg kick at the start of his swing. The rest of the way, he hit .288 with 10 of his 15 triples. The timing of the leg kick has been off all spring. At times, his foot returned to the ground too late and it robbed him of power. Tracy said Tuesday he thought the kick wasn't accomplishing the goal of gathering his weight on his back leg. Rockies hitting coach Carney Lansford said Fowler's thought process could be a problem. Fowler worked out in Las Vegas with teammates Jason Giambi and Troy Tulowitzki, among others, and showed up stronger. "He lifted a lot this offseason, got a lot stronger, so he's trying to hit the ball farther, which is a huge mistake for him," Lansford said. "I don't mind him lifting. I just don't want him changing mechanics from what he did the second half of last season." Tracy said he was not going to let the Spring Training struggles erase the impression Fowler gave at the end of last season. "He's one good swing away from being the hottest hitter in camp," Tracy said. "That's how these situations play themselves out. I've seen this more than once. "The wonderful second half he had last year, the way he found himself offensively, the fact that when we were playing game 157 and 158 he was out there still grinding, I want to make sure Dexter Fowler realizes that I saw all of it." The Rockies need Fowler, not only for the speed and the dynamic offense he can provide when hot but for his defense in center. "There's no substitute for the type of defense that he plays in the ballpark that we play in," Tracy said. "You can't play in Coors Field wondering if this ball is going to get caught or that ball is going to get caught. That's why he came out in 2009 [without playing Triple-A ball] and made the club. If you're going to play 81 games in Coors Field you'd better have somebody in center field who can run the ball down because there's a lot of real estate to cover." The last two games, Fowler has been hitless but he and the Rockies believe the swing has become more fundamentally sound. The progress is best seen in batting practice. "My batting practice is better," Fowler said. "I had been getting tied up on balls inside and getting under balls. Now I've squared some balls up." When he season opens, the Rockies believe he'll transfer that swing into games. "I'm going to be ready," Fowler said.
Thomas Harding is a reporter for MLB.com. Read his blog, Hardball in the Rockies, and follow him on Twitter @harding_at_mlb. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.