Prince Fielder Is Back and Better Than Ever
It's almost never a player's fault that he's overpaid.
Fans tend to get angry at a player when they feel a player is not living up to his contract, especially if it's a contract as ridiculous as the one Texas Rangers first baseman Prince Fielder signed: a nine-year, $240 million deal when he was a member of the Detroit Tigers. Fielder will be paid $24 million a season, every season, through the year 2020, when he will turn 36 (although $6 million of each season's salary is being paid by Detroit, with $18 million paid by Texas).
Regardless, it's a deal that looked especially bad last year in his first season with the Rangers. Injuries forced him out of all but 42 games in which he hit .247/.360/.360 with three home runs in 178 plate appearances. His isolated power (ISO) was a meager .113, his weighted runs created (wRC+) was 89, and his Fangraphs Wins Above Replacement (fWAR) was -0.3.
You know, it's funny how debilitating neck injuries can foul a person up.
Feeling healthy again, Fielder is back as one of the most dominant hitters in baseball. In Monday's 10-8 win over the Cleveland Indians, Fielder went 3-for-5 with a home run, his ninth of the season and fourth in four games. He is hitting an American League best .365. His on-base percentage of .417 is second-best, his .575 slugging percentage is fourth-best, as is his .992 OPS.
Coming into Monday, his weighted on base average (wOBA) of .418 was also fourth-best in the AL, as was his weighted runs created (wRC+) of 165. Simply put, Prince has been one of the best offensive players in baseball this year, and his good health certainly has a lot to do with his looseness.
No one can get him out, not even lefties, against whom Fielder has posted an OPS of .956, just a shade lower than his .967 OPS against righties. He's hit four homers against lefties and five against right-handers. It doesn't matter who the manager brings in: Fielder is just going to get his hits.
One of the interesting notes about Fielder is a dramatic decrease in his walk rate, just 6.0% this year, way down from his career average of 12.8%. However, his strikeout rate is also down, 12.1%, from his career average of 17.2%. Why? After putting up such meager power numbers last year, pitchers had not been as reluctant to stay in the strike zone against him.
Fielder has been aided by a .383 batting average on balls in play (BABIP), a number which, if it comes down, could drag his batting average down to levels that are closer to his career .287 level. His line drive and fly ball rate are both up a few percent over last year, while his ground ball rate is down. That's all good, but his numbers this year aren't all that far off from his career averages. The biggest difference is how hard the ball is coming off his bat.
Among all Major League players with at least 50 at-bats, Fielder has an average batted ball velocity of 93.25 miles per hour, according to Baseball Savant, good for 14th. Now, while we don't have batted ball velocity for last season, we do know that in 2014, 20.6% of all balls hit by Fielder were considered "softly hit." This year, that number is down 12.3%, while his "hard hit" ball rate of 38.3% is light years better than last year's 26.2%.
The ball is coming off his bat a lot better this season, likely the result of a healthy neck and the ability to use his whole body to swing, not just his arms.
The main concern about Fielder is whether he'll be able to adjust when pitchers stop throwing him so many balls over the plate and start to pitch him more breaking stuff out of the strike zone. Will he be disciplined enough to let that walk rate increase while looking for fastballs to hit in hitters' counts? Or will he expand his strike zone?
Fielder's luck will also probably help him see that batting average drop as the summer goes on. But it's so high now, he would have to go 0-for-his-next-39 in order to see his average drop to .300.
What's clear is that Prince is once again swinging like the Fielder of old. And no matter how much money he's making this year, that's good news for a Rangers team that is starting to make some noise in the American League West.