How can a 28-year-old, four-time All-Star slugger who signed a nine-year, $214 million deal a year ago and has a .287 career batting average to go along with 260 HRs and 764 RBI be considered underrated?
That is what Prince Fielder is in my eyes.
When Fielder signed with Detroit last year, some fans viewed it as the prodigious child slugger finally returning home. This is because a lot of fans remember him as the young son always following around his slugger dad, Cecil Fielder. Cecil is remembered fondly in Detroit for hitting 51 home runs (in 1990), his ever-present megawatt smile and for his young son, Prince (who was always in the clubhouse with the players).
Owner Mike Ilitch was close with Cecil and watched Prince grow up to become a standout baseball player. In 2002, when Prince was eligible for the draft, Ilitch told Mitch Albom of the Detroit Free Press that he wanted the Tigers to draft him with the eighth overall pick.
But the Milwaukee Brewers beat the Tigers to it by grabbing him with the seventh pick.
When Victor Martinez blew out his knee last January, Ilitch—knowing that the Tigers needed a big bat—decided to opened up his checkbook and bring Fielder back to Detroit.
Skeptics immediately jumped on the deal, saying that Fielder belonged at DH and that it was a huge mistake to give him a long-term deal. They said the Tigers would come to regret this. His critics wrongly looked at Fielder's body and assumed all he could do is slug home runs. They also said that he shouldn't be the starting first baseman when Miguel Cabrera was already entrenched there.
This argument is just plain wrong.
Fielder takes considerable pride is his defensive work, and has slowly improved to the point where he's no longer considered a liability. By taking ground balls and always working on his footing and positioning down the first base line, he's shut a lot of critics up.
He also is remarkably durable, as he's played in an amazing 1,121 games out of a possible 1,134 since the start of the 2006 season.
Best of all, when Fielder's contract expires he'll still only be 36 years old. Usually players on long-term contracts don't produce towards the end of their deals. But Fielder, because of his talent and work ethic, has the ability to continue to be productive as he ages.
This past year hitting behind Cabrera, Fielder debunked another myth by showing that he is an all-around hitter instead of a pure home run hitter. He had the lowest strikeout total of his career at 84 and also had the highest batting average at .313 by choking up on the bat and using more of the field than he did in the past. He finished the season with 30 HRs and 108 RBIs.
But, of course, Fielder was overshadowed by Cabrera's Triple Crown.
Is Fielder the most underrated "star" in the AL?
This is nothing new to Fielder as he is used to playing in the shadows. I believe he enjoys watching his teammates get more of the press and accolades so he can quietly do his job. He has helped his teammates the past two seasons win the MVP with Ryan Braun taking it in 2011 and Cabrera following up in 2012.
One could argue that Fielder was the main reason each slugger won the award because for all of the numbers that Braun and Cabrera put up, they had Fielder batting behind them in the lineup. Ask any pitcher and he will say it's a lot easier to handle one big bat in the lineup. Once Fielder is behind Cabrera (or, before him, Ryan Braun), it forces pitchers to stay honest and not intentionally walk Cabrera.
Fielder is also a family man off the field who loves having his sons around the clubhouse. This allows him to be loose and relaxed.
It also gives fans an insight into how he approaches the game. Instead of nervously trying to live up to a huge contract, Fielder is comfortable with who he is and realizes that he's lucky to play a game that he loves. He'll never get jealous of the attention his teammates receive and just wants to help his team win.
If there is one knock on Fielder, it may be that he has yet to carry a team into the playoffs. It's a legitimate point, but I believe he'll adjust to the different kind of pressure in October. Once Fielder learns that baseball is baseball regardless of the time of year and that he needs to relax, he'll help carry the Tigers back to the Fall Classic.
With Martinez coming back in 2013 to provide Fielder with the best protection he has ever had in his career, it may finally be enough to win an MVP award—or at least get the attention he finally deserves.
*Please note, I do not work for or have any affiliation with Scott Boras nor have I been paid by Boras to write this.