Centerfielder gets big payoff by playing small ball

A centerfielder's call-up to Tampa is keyed by taking his focus off power.
Since his call-up to the Tampa Yankees from the Charleston RiverDogs, Dustin Fowler has hit .318 with nine RBIs in 18 games. TOM PRIDDY   |   Four Seam Images via AP Images
Since his call-up to the Tampa Yankees from the Charleston RiverDogs, Dustin Fowler has hit .318 with nine RBIs in 18 games.TOM PRIDDY | Four Seam Images via AP Images
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TAMPA

Yankees outfield prospect Dustin Fowler's reputation preceded his call-up to advanced-A ball in Tampa.

"I hadn't seen him before, I'd just heard that he was a player with a lot of potential," manager Dave Bialas said. "A major-league prospect, for sure."

It didn't take long for Bialas to see what he had been hearing about first hand.

The 20-year-old's first start with Tampa came just three days after his call-up from Single-A Charleston in Game 1 of a double-header with Dunedin. In that opener, he went 3-for-3 with three RBIs, a double and a run scored. He kept things going in the nightcap, collecting two more hits and scoring twice.

"Getting everything kick-started and getting off to a good pace always helps out," Fowler said.

Fowler's professional career, however, did not get off to that same hot start.

After being drafted by New York in the 18th round of the 2013 entry draft, Fowler hit .241 in 30 games for the Gulf Coast League Yankees in rookie ball. He spent all of 2014 with the Yankees' single-A affiliate in Charleston, where he hit only .257.

When the 2015 season began, Fowler still found himself stuck with the River Dogs in Charleston, but changing his approach at the plate helped him turn things around. Instead of focusing on getting the big hits, Fowler changed his mind-set to simply look for solid contact.

"Pretty much not worrying about the long ball so much. I think I got caught up trying to hit too many home runs and extra-base hits," Fowler said. "So this year (I've) just tried to get barrel control, pick a good pitch and do what I can with it."

That change worked well. In the first 58 games of the season with Charleston, Fowler hit .307 and drove in 31 runs, just 10 shy of his total from the season before.

It was that hot start that led to his call-up to Tampa, where the success has continued to flow.

"He has tools," Bialas said. "He's young, but his approach at the plate for a young player is very good. He hits the ball all over, he has strength, so I think he's going to hit, and he can run."

In 18 games with the Yankees, Fowler is hitting .328 with nine RBIs. It's with that small-ball approach that Fowler thinks he can maintain his run of success.

"I think I can with my bunting game, starting to get a little more patient at the plate," Fowler said. "I think it's something I can keep up."

While his hitting has developed, Fowler's base running has improved along with it. After just six combined stolen bases in his first two seasons, Fowler swiped 18 bags in the first part of the year in Charleston and already has eight with Tampa. That speed also helps his defense in centerfield, as there's a lot of ground to cover in that particular part of Yankee Stadium.

"He's a plus runner, he's learning how to steal bases and he's coming along very well," Bialas said. "Centerfield, he's played a really good centerfield here, so he has the speed to play centerfield in the big leagues."

The call-up did give Fowler the added bonus of getting to play with New York centerfielder Jacoby Ellsbury, who was in town rehabbing a knee injury. Fowler spent time with Ellsbury looking to learn from the two-time World Series champion.

"I just picked his brain about what all he does and all his routines," Fowler said. "Just learning what he does with (batting practice) and … certain fundamentals you can do that would help with my game."

Bialas believes it won't be long before Ellsbury and Fowler are sharing the same field.

"No doubt. He's one of the top young players I've seen here," Bialas said. "I just know that when he comes to the ballpark, he's ready to work and he's ready to play."

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