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Playing deeper in CF improves Dexter Fowler’s defense for Chicago Cubs

Chicago Cubs' Dexter Fowler runs the bases after

Chicago Cubs' Dexter Fowler runs the bases after hitting a home run during the eighth inning of Game 1 of the National League Championship Series against the Los Angeles Dodgers Saturday, Oct. 15, 2016, in Chicago. Credit: AP / David J. Phillip

CHICAGO — Dexter Fowler’s epiphany came in spring training. After a season spent listening to gripes about his defense in centerfield, the time had come for a change, one that the Cubs were pondering as well.

Success in baseball often comes down to a matter of inches. In Fowler’s case, that space had to do with where he positioned himself on the field. Playing just a few more steps back, he and the Cubs determined, might make a world of difference.

Months later, the same metrics that pegged Fowler as a detriment in the outfield have determined that he is asset.

“It took some getting used to,” Fowler said before Sunday night’s Game 2 of the National League Championship Series against the Dodgers. “I felt like I was playing no-doubles all the time.”

Yet adapting to that change has helped Fowler become an integral piece of the best defensive team in baseball, and perhaps of all time. In an 8-4 victory in Game 1, the Cubs put on a clinic in turning batted balls into outs, their glovework propping up starter Jon Lester on a night in which he lacked his best stuff.

Fowler made a pair of diving catches in the gap, including one that robbed the Dodgers’ Carlos Ruiz of a sure extra-base hit.

“I don’t want to say I don’t expect those plays to be made,” Lester said. “But when Dex makes those two diving plays in the outfield, obviously those are huge, huge momentum changes for us.”

Had he been playing shallower, as he had for his entire career until this season, Fowler said both drives likely would have been out of reach. But the willingness to make change has defined the Cubs’ 103-win resurgence, a testament for an organization that has taken on a progressive mentality under Theo Epstein.

Playing shallow has long been seen as a virtue for the game’s best centerfielders. Cubs manager Joe Maddon had long been a proponent of taking away bloop singles while banking on athleticism to cover balls that soared toward the fence.

But in recent years, he has adapted his own philosophy, preferring that centerfielders play a shade back. Though bloop hits might become more frequent, ceding that ground increases the chances of taking away extra-base hits, which have more potential for damage.

“The only difference between him this year and last year is positioning prior to the ball being hit,” Maddon said. “And all of a sudden, this year he’s considered a better outfielder than he was last year.”

Fowler, who has long prided himself on his defense, bristled at that criticism. He laughed Sunday about being “crushed” for his glove. But that frustration turned into action in the spring, when Fowler re-signed with the Cubs during camp after the Orioles reportedly had made a more lucrative offer.

Shortly after coming back to the Cubs, Fowler said he walked into Maddon’s office at the team’s complex in Arizona and announced that he would play farther back for the first time in his career. By then Maddon said the club’s analytics department — the “nerds” and “geeks” as he called them — had already broached the idea.

The adjustment only enhanced Fowler’s value to the Cubs. At the plate, the 30-year-old switch hitter batted .276 with 13 homers and 48 RBIs.

“I tell him before every game,” Maddon said. “You go, we go.”

Fowler reached base at a .393 clip, the fire starter atop a potent lineup. As the first batter of the game, he hit .390 with a 1.203 OPS, further underscoring his ability to jump-start the lineup.

Said Maddon: “We would not be in this position without him.”

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