Dexter Fowler, Not Bryce Harper, Is the National League MVP So Far

It's early, but Chicago's outstanding center fielder has been the best player in the National League.

There are a lot of big-name stars who are off to hot starts here in the 2016 season.

Manny Machado has been killing it for the Orioles, Toronto's Josh Donaldson has picked up right where he left off last year, Colby Rasmus and Jose Altuve are essentially the only Astros hitters doing anything good, and Gregory Polanco, Mike Trout and Adrian Beltre are all in the top-10 of MLB fWAR so far this year.

Of course, the most talked about player in baseball right now is the incomparable Bryce Harper, who has blasted a league-high nine home runs so far this year and done so with a flair for the dramatic.

So much of the talk has been whether Harper has become the best player in baseball, and at the moment, it's hard to argue he isn't. 

But he may not even be the April MVP of the National League. That honor, at least for now, must go to the Chicago Cubs' Dexter Fowler.

Don't believe me? Look at the numbers, heading into Tuesday's action.

Dexter Fowler Cubs 3 13 .385 .506 .692 .504 211 2.0
Manny Machado Orioles 6 11 .360 .415 .707 .471 219 1.6
Josh Donaldson Blue Jays 7 19 .298 .379 .655 .436 193 1.3
Colby Rasmus Astros 7 18 .274 .418 .661 .449 205 1.3
Gregory Polanco Pirates 1 11 .324 .430 .507 .406 152 1.3
Jose Altuve Astros 5 11 .321 .409 .617 .437 196 1.3
Bryce Harper Nationals 9 23 .323 .405 .855 .502 209 1.2
Mike Trout Angels 4 9 .300 .405 .529 .395 170 1.2
Starling Marte Pirates 2 11 .329 .375 .512 .385 138 1.1
Adrian Beltre Rangers 3 12 .303 .349 .500 .357 129 1.1

Fowler wasn't even supposed to be a Cub at all this year. He was allowed to leave via free agency and, right up until the 11th hour, it looked as if he was going to sign with the Baltimore Orioles. Then, he suddenly appeared at Cubs camp and announced he was signing with his old team.

And the surprises haven't stopped since.

Fowler's .385 batting average is second in baseball, behind only Washington's Daniel Murphy. Harper is hitting a very good .323.

Fowler's .506 on-base percentage is the best in baseball. Harper's is .405.

Fowler's weighted on-base average (wOBA) of .504 is two-thousandths of a point better than Harper's .502, and his weighted runs created (wRC+) of 211 is second-best in baseball, behind Machado's 219 and slightly better than Harper's 209.

Of course, Harper is a power hitter and hits in the middle of the lineup, so he has Fowler beat in homers (9 to 3) and in RBIs (23 to 13). But Fowler has scored the second-most runs in baseball this year (17), behind Donaldson and tied with Altuve, Nolan Arenado and Chris Davis. He also leads the NL in doubles, with nine.

Feast your eyes on the magic of Fowler.

But it hasn't been just an offensively good season. Fowler has also been terrific in the field. He has three defensive runs saved (DRS) compared to Harper's one. And his Fangraphs Def rating (a total measure of defensive ability) of 3.6 is ninth-best among all MLB position players. Harper's -0.6 is slightly below league average.

That is much of the reason why Fowler's fWAR of 2.0 is four-tenths of a point better than the next-closest player, Machado, and eight-tenths of a point more than Harper's 1.2.

Of course, WAR measures are not the end-all, be-all, and it's hard to compare lead-off hitters to power hitters. Both have very different skill sets and are asked to do very different things.

What is perhaps more important to note is just how much better Fowler has been this year than he was even last season.

Dexter Fowler BB% K% wOBA wRC+
2015 12.2 22.3 .333 110
2016 17.3 19.8 .504 211

As you can see, his walk rate is way up, and his strikeout rate is down, and that has allowed him to be more productive and get on base with greater frequency at the top of the lineup. But this level of productivity is unlikely to continue. 

While Fowler has always had a high batting average on balls in play (.344 career BABIP), his .478 BABIP this year is unsustainable. So you should expect to see his numbers come down a bit. But if he continues to draw walks, avoid the strikeouts, and make solid contact, there's no reason to believe Fowler won't remain in the conversation for NL MVP all season long.

And, right now, he's in the lead.