Why Prince Fielder's Performance Nosedives in the Postseason

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Why Prince Fielder's Performance Nosedives in the Postseason

By any reasonable set of standards, Prince Fielder is a fantastic hitter. The Detroit Tigers first baseman owns a .286/.389/.527 career batting line and is one of only 17 players in MLB history with at least 285 home runs through his age-29 season.

But he's also one of those guys who just can't cut it in October. Fielder has played in six series and 28 games in the postseason, and in those, he owns a mere .183/.277/.365 batting line. That's a .643 OPS that's close to 300 points below Fielder's .916 regular-season OPS.

The inevitable question in these situations can be asked with only one word: Why? Or, if you prefer, whyyyyyyyyyy?

Well, this being baseball, there are naturally plenty of answers for Fielder's postseason struggles. Let's discuss them, shall we?

 

More Strikeouts + Bad Luck = A Bad Time

When you think of sluggers, you think of guys who cause baseballs all sorts of pain on contact, but for whom the actual act of making contact is tricky. For examples, see "Dunn, Adam" or "Davis, Chris."

But Fielder? He's different.

Fielder has been better than the average player at avoiding strikeouts during his career. Per FanGraphs, his career strikeout rate is only 17.5 percent, and he's managed to live below that mark over the last three years while strikeout rates have risen elsewhere in Major League Baseball. 

However, things change for Fielder in the postseason. Behold:

Prince Fielder Strikeouts
Split Reg. Season K% Postseason K%
2008 19.3 29.4
2011 15.3 19.6
2012 12.2 19.6
Career 17.5 21.0

FanGraphs

Every year Fielder has played in October, he's seen his strikeout rate take a sudden hike. And overall, his postseason strikeout rate is notably higher than his regular-season strikeout rate.

The simplest explanation for this is that the pitching is better in the postseason. Good teams tend to have good pitchers, after all, so October doesn't present Fielder as many opportunities to light up the stat sheet against lesser adversaries. 

We'll get into the more complicated explanations soon enough. For now, let's just agree that strikeouts are bad, m'kay? They bar players from putting the ball in play, thus hurting their chances of doing something good.

This leads us to another explanation for Fielder's October struggles. For all his strikeouts, he certainly has put the ball in play a fair amount in the playoffs. And when he has, his luck has downright sucked.

Courtesy of FanGraphs, here's some key data about Fielder's batted balls and BABIP in the postseason as compared to the regular season:

Prince Fielder Batted Ball Types and BABIP
Split LD% GB% FB% IFFB% HR/FB BABIP
Career Regular Season 20.1 40.8 39.1 10.1 19.2 .303
Career Postseason 19.5 40.3 40.3 12.9 16.1 .187

FanGraphs

Fielder's line-drive, ground-ball and fly-ball rates in the playoffs aren't mirror images of his regular-season numbers, but they're really close. And while more infield pop-ups and fewer home runs per fly ball isn't the best trend, it's not one that should come paired with such a massive decrease in BABIP.

Want to see what this sort of bad luck looks like? Very well then.

This happened to Fielder in the 2011 NLCS:

Courtesy of MLB Advanced Media via MLB.com.

This happened to him in last year's ALDS:

Courtesy of MLB Advanced Media via MLB.com.

And this happened in last year's World Series:

Courtesy of MLB Advanced Media via MLB.com.

If we add four hits to Fielder's postseason resume, he's a .221 career hitter in the playoffs. That's still not good, but it's not as awful as .183 either.

The baseball gods haven't done Fielder any favors in his October career, and that should sound good to the Tigers. If Fielder has had bad luck his previous three trips to the postseason, he's surely due for some good luck.

However, more good luck won't turn Fielder into a postseason hero all by itself. He still has that strikeout issue to worry about, and there are other things a bit more tangible than luck working against him.

Such as...

 

Less Patience + Iffy Plate Discipline = A Harder Time

Striking out less often than the typical power hitter isn't the only thing Fielder does well. He also has the kind of walk habit you want a slugger to have.

But like with the whole strikeout thing, Fielder's walk habit takes a turn for the worse in October. Here are some more numbers:

Prince Fielder Walks
Split Reg. Season BB% Postseason BB%
2008 12.1 11.8
2011 15.5 13.0
2012 12.3 5.4
Career 12.9 9.2

FanGraphs

Granted, Fielder's walk habit didn't take too bad of a dive in the postseason until last year, when he cut his walk percentage in half and then some. That said, there has been a drop in each of the three years he's played October baseball, and an overall drop to boot.

Coming up with solid explanations for this habit isn't easy due to how tricky it is to find data for the postseason. For example, FanGraphs doesn't track plate discipline data for the playoffs, which is usually the first place one turns to in times like these.

However, there are some things that can be pieced together.

A decline in Fielder's patience come October appears to be a problem. Per Baseball-Reference.com, Fielder saw an average of 3.83 pitches per plate appearance between 2008 and 2012. Using postseason data from Brooks Baseball, he has seen 429 pitches in his playoff career, which has spanned 119 plate appearances. That comes out to 3.61 pitches per plate appearance, a notable drop.

As for Fielder's plate discipline, his regular season and postseason swing profiles at Brooks Baseball provide some insight. I unfortunately can't re-post the images here, but if you go and look, you'll see that Fielder's habit of chasing pitches up is clearly more pronounced in October, as are his habits of chasing pitches both low and away and outside.

Ezra Shaw/Getty Images

That Fielder is seemingly more willing to expand the zone in the postseason is indeed something that wouldn't help his chances of getting on base via walks.

And yes, this helps explain his strikeout habit, as there are some big numbers and interesting colors on pitches down and up and outside if one goes and looks at whiff/swing plots for Fielder in the regular season and in the postseason.

Since there's no plate discipline data over at FanGraphs to put more precise numbers on things, I'll warn that there's a limit to how much we can read into all this. But it certainly doesn't look good. Patience and discipline are two of Fielder's strengths, yet these strengths seem to wane in October.

But wait, there's more.

 

In All Three Postseasons, An Abundance of Lefty Sliders

Like, well, pretty much all left-handed hitters, Fielder doesn't like hitting left-handed pitching. He's better than most lefties with a career .803 OPS against southpaws, but that's not quite as impressive as his .971 OPS against righty pitchers.

And if there's one thing about facing lefty pitchers that Fielder loathes the most, it might be the sliders.

According to Brooks Baseball, Fielder has seen 1,150 sliders from left-handed pitchers in regular-season games from 2008 to 2013. Against those, he's batted only .253 with 107 strikeouts. He doesn't have any more than 60 strikeouts against any other lefty pitch.

Knowing this, the numbers in this table shouldn't surprise you:

Prince Fielder Lefty Sliders Seen
Split 2008-2013 Reg. Season 2008/2011 Post 2012 Post
Lefty Slider %* 22.7 28.8 30.1
Lefty Slider Swing% 52.0 61.9 67.7
AVG. vs Lefty Slider .253 .143 .111

Brooks Baseball

*To clarify, this means the percentage of all pitches seen from lefties that were sliders.

In regular-season games over the last six years, Fielder has seen his share of sliders from left-handed pitchers. But in the two postseasons he played in 2008 and 2011, the number of lefty sliders went way up, and he was unable to both lay off them or hit them. And in last year's postseason, it was even worse.

Against the lefty sliders he saw in the 2008 and 2011 playoffs, Fielder had one hit to three strikeouts. In 2012, it was one hit to two strikeouts. That makes lefty sliders responsible for 20 percent of his career postseason punchouts and only about 11 percent of his postseason hits.

And it makes sense why Fielder would come up against more of them in the postseason, right? With every pitch and every out meaning the world at any given moment, lefty pitchers facing Fielder would be more willing to go to their best offerings in order to get him out. And since it's worked, shoot, why stop?

Granted, this is more of a complementary explanation for Fielder's October issues. Some regression in his approach at the plate and bad luck account for the bulk of his postseason struggles. The lefty sliders just haven't helped.

But now you might be wondering why I sectioned off the 2012 postseason rather than include it with the 2008 and 2011 postseasons. Allow me to shed some light on that with the next bolded section.

 

In 2012, Too Many Southpaws on the Mound

As poor as Fielder's overall postseason numbers are, he was actually getting by OK before 2012. He only hit .192 in his first 15 playoff games, but he did so with an .817 OPS. 

Things really went south last year. In addition to hitting only .173 in 13 games, Fielder only managed a .463 OPS. Even if his bad luck had become good luck, he still would have had a pretty rough go of things.

But understand this: It wasn't easy for Fielder. Seemingly every time he went to the plate, there was a left-hander on the mound.

This is not an exaggeration. Here's a look at the percentage of pitches from lefty pitchers that Fielder saw in the 2012 playoffs compared to 2008-2013 regular-season games and 2008/2011 postseason games:

Prince Fielder Lefty Pitches Seen
Split 2008-2013 Reg. Season 2008/2011 Post 2012 Post
Lefty Pitch % 32.7 30.9 53.4

Brooks Baseball

In the 2008 and 2011 playoffs, things were basically normal for Fielder.

But last year? Yeah, not normal at all.

Doug Pensinger/Getty Images

It's not that Fielder was constantly facing LOOGYs. That big number is more a matter of the Oakland A's, New York Yankees and San Francisco Giants each throwing two lefty starters at the Tigers. The full list: Tommy Milone, Brett Anderson, CC Sabathia, Andy Pettitte, Barry Zito and Madison Bumgarner.

As for the lefty relievers Fielder had to face, that list includes Jerry Blevins, Clay Rapada, Boone Logan, Jose Mijares and Jeremy Affeldt.

Now, I should note that Fielder deserves credit for the work he did against the southpaws he saw. Eight of his nine postseason hits last year came against lefties, as did only five of his 11 strikeouts.

The catch, however, is that all eight of those hits were singles. That fits with Fielder's career narrative, as his career Isolated Power against lefties is about 80 points lower than his career Isolated Power against righties (see FanGraphs). Throwing lefties at him is the best way to neutralize his power. 

And while it's admittedly hard (if not impossible) to back up the following suggestion with data, I wonder if having to face lefties so much more often than usual got Fielder all out of whack. It could be that his timing got thrown off. Or maybe it was a vision thing. Maybe it was both.

Whatever the case, I presume that having to go through a gauntlet of southpaws in October is something Fielder would prefer not to do again.

 

Final Thoughts

Ezra Shaw/Getty Images

To repeat what was said way back when, Prince Fielder is one of those guys. In some circles, those guys tend to be known simply as "bums." Because how else can you refer to guys who can't get it done in October, darn it?

Instead, here's how I look at Fielder: He's proof positive that the postseason is a different animal.

There is more pressure to perform. That Fielder's approach has been less measured in October suggests that he's felt that pressure.

But also, the pitching is different. The fact that Fielder has had to deal with so many of those dastardly left-handed sliders is Exhibit A.

And then there's luck. The luck of the draw didn't do Fielder any favors by throwing so many lefties at him last year, and then there's all the bad luck he's had on batted balls.

The bright side, such as it is, is that all the postseason presents is a series of small sample sizes. What is true in a small sample size can indeed be misleading, and the truth can change as the overall sample size gets larger.

In other words: Don't rule out Fielder having a big October this year just because of what he's done in the past.

 

Note: Stats courtesy of Baseball-Reference.com unless otherwise noted. 

 

If you want to talk baseball, hit me up on Twitter.

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