Fowler could be primed for breakthrough 2011

Fowler could be primed for breakthrough 2011

DENVER -- Rockies center fielder Dexter Fowler pushed his way into the big leagues two seasons ago, at least a half-year sooner than anyone expected. Now that some difficult learning is behind him, it may be time to expect a breakout year in 2011.

Fowler's '10 season got off to a poor start that included a demotion to Triple-A Colorado Springs, a level he skipped when he unexpectedly made the team out of Spring Training in '09. But Fowler finished the year with numbers that suggest he's ready to be a consistent contributor.

Here are some examples:

Fowler hit at least .275 in each of the season's final three months.

In a season that saw the club struggle with runners in scoring position, he hit .333 with 31 RBIs. Only NL batting champion Carlos Gonzalez had a higher average (.350) among Rockies players. For his career, Fowler has hit .292 with runners in scoring position.

Gonzalez won his first career Rawlings Gold Glove Award this season, and Fowler is close to being hardware-worthy. Fowler led National League center fielders with a .996 fielding percentage, committing just one error in 242 chances over 120 games.

The season ended in a rough manner for the Rockies, who suffered 13 losses in their final 14 games, including the final nine. However, Fowler was a bright spot over this rough patch, hitting .333 with one double. He also hit two triples down the stretch, bringing his NL-leading total to 14, and two of his six home runs for the season.

It was a dramatic turnaround from the rough beginning to the season.

The switch-hitting Fowler struggled mightily from the left side, seeing his overall average drop to .316 through May 30 before the Rockies sent him to Colorado Springs. He would hit .340 in 27 games at Colorado Springs, with a .347 average and two home runs hitting left-handed.

Fowler hit .173 in 104 at-bats from the left through July 2, but improved to .306 thereafter in 181 at-bats from the left side. Oddly, when Fowler beefed up his swing from the left, the right side -- his natural side -- weakened. He hit .358 in 51 at-bats right-handed through July 2, but .173 in 104 at-bats thereafter.

The numbers, good and bad, suggest Fowler has ability that's still being honed.

"Just playing some games, getting some at-bats is the biggest thing," Fowler said.

Significantly, during the Rockies' final rough stretch, Fowler compiled five multi-hit games on the road, where the club struggled throughout the year.

"I think he took some major steps in the course of the last couple of weeks," Rockies manager Jim Tracy said. "The consistency [with] which I've seen him approach one at-bat to the next -- he's been very, very good."

If he can maintain production, Fowler could solidify the top of the Rockies' batting order.

Fowler had more plate appearances in the No. 2 spot (268) than the top spot (212), but he performed better at leadoff -- .286 with a .371 on-base percentage, as opposed to .251 and .333 batting second. The year started with Gonzalez leading off and Fowler hitting second, but Gonzalez's production screamed for him to be moved to the third spot. Finding consistency out of the top two spots will be one of the Rockies' top priorities in '11.

Considering the roll he was on, the end of the season came at a bad time for Fowler, but he believes he can maintain the feeling.

"I'm comfortable up there," Fowler said. "It's just a matter of repeating it, going out there and seeing pitches. You go into the offseason, and you want to build on the season before that. Always try to make strides and make that big jump. At the plate, the more at-bats you get, the better you feel."

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.