Analyzing Prince Fielder's Slow Start: Can He Rebound?
Prince Fielder is getting paid a lot of money to help the Texas Rangers win baseball games, but the big fella has actually been worse than replacement level thus far. Yep, that’s right, the Rangers would be better off finding and playing a generic Quad-A slugger capable of providing at replacement value than playing (and paying) Fielder.
Arguably the most telling statistic is his .265 wOBA, which is well under 100 points below his career mark of .386. Why is this? Why has Fielder performed so poorly thus far in his Rangers’ tenure? Let’s take a look at some possible explanations, starting with the unlikely and moving to the probable.
Explanation One: He is old.
Fielder is in his age-30 season. Sure, aging curves are not the same for everyone, but age-30 seasons are typically on the back end of a players’ prime.
Explanation Two: The move to Texas caused extraneous variables that have affected his performance.
There is no way to measure this so we cannot rule it out, but as far as we know Fielder is happy and healthy, so this seems unlikely.
Explanation Three: He somewhat randomly got worse at baseball.
Ah, now we have the most popular explanation by Fielder haters. For these folks, Fielder has either been on a continuous decline ever since signing with Detroit, or has simply lost motivation after getting his pay day. I can't say whether Fielder has lost motivation, but I can say a lot about his disappointing performance thus far and whether he is simply an inferior ballplayer to the Fielder that once struck fear in the hearts and souls of pitchers in the NL Central.
One of the most telling statistics for changes in performance are K and BB rates. If the current Fielder is an inferior ball player to the old Fielder, he's probably striking out more and walking less than before, right? Wrong. Fielder’s 12% K rate is the lowest of his career, and well below his career 17.4 mark, while his BB rate of 13.7 is also above his career mark of 13.0. Hmm, Fielder is striking out less and walking more, yet has experienced poor results. Something else must be at play here. Sure, K rate and BB rate are not close to everything, but when coupled with the next explanation, they are a great indicator of batter skill, regression, and/or improvement.
Explanation Four: Batted Ball Data
Batted ball data answers the question, “Is he merely getting unlucky, or is there legitimate cause for concern here?” This is, after all, a small sample size, so maybe his poor stats are the merely the result of poor fortune.
Below is a chart of Fielder’s batted ball data from 2013, 2014, and his career. The differences are quite astonishing.
Starting with line-drive percentage, Fielder’s LD rate is down from both his 2013 mark and career average. He has only hit 16 line drives thus far this season, but even worse for the big man’s stats, only half have fallen in for hits. Is this due to the shift? It's quite possible, as six of his eight lineouts have been to right fielder, second baseman, or first baseman. Nevertheless, even if his line drives are going directly into the shift, it's still in Fielder’s best interest to hit line drives more frequently.
The real issues, however, are Fielder’s ground ball and fly ball rates. Fielder's best tool is his power, meaning that much of his value comes from hitting the ball out of the ballpark. But he's been unable to hit many balls out because he continues to pound the baseball into the ground at an unusually high rate.
Not only is one unable to hit a home run on a ground ball, but Fielder’s pull tendencies lead to most defenses deploying a shift, which is effective at preventing the slugger from recording many hits on ground balls. Of the 46 ground balls coming off of Fielder’s bat this year, only eight have gone for hits (.174 average).
Fielder’s fly ball results have been better, but his fly balls have been so infrequent that the sample is so small and we can't make any significant conclusions from it. Of his 15 fly balls, Fielder has made 12 outs, hit one single, and hit two home runs (home runs!).
In 2013, when Fielder hit fly balls on a regular basis, he posted a .244 average on them, with the overwhelming majority of those hits going for extra bases (power!). Assuming Fielder didn't leave his strength in Detroit, we can expect him to post similar numbers on fly balls this season if he ever starts hitting them on a regular basis.
Fielder’s best skill is his power, but the best way to let power play is by hitting the ball in the air. The slugger has had limited success with ground balls and line drives this year, but one thing defensive shifts do not prevent is the extra base hit.
Defensive shifting may take away Fielder’s ability to hit for a high average on ground balls and even line drives, but the shifts currently being deployed against him does nothing to mitigate his power. Despite this, Fielder has hardly hit any fly balls this year and instead finds himself walking back to the dugout in disgust as the shift gets the better of him time after time.
Moving forward, it's difficult to predict the rest of the season for Fielder. If he continues pounding ground balls right into the shift, his .202/.325/.313 slash line could hold up over the entire season. Contrarily, if Fielder can start hitting the ball in the air with some regularity, he could return to his former status as one of the premier power hitters in the league. Drop the back shoulder, step in the bucket, or elevate and celebrate. Do whatever you need to do to get the ball in the air, Prince, as your current profile as a ground-ball hitter is extremely ineffective and abandons your best tool.