Prince Fielder smiles a lot. He turns first base into his office, complete with an open-door policy. He chats up base runners, he joshes with umpires. His big face is often lit up with joviality.
Fielder clearly loves his job—so much so that he never takes a day off. Not once has Prince played hooky as a Tiger—and not for quite some time before that as a member of the Milwaukee Brewers.
Since becoming a regular in 2006, Fielder has missed just 13 games—and none since sitting out one in 2010.
The consecutive games-played streak is being honored by Tigers manager Jim Leyland, and as with any such streak, it’s criticized as being perhaps a bit on the selfish side. Baseball is a long grind, and unless you’re the second coming of Cal Ripken Jr., conventional wisdom says you need a day off now and again. Heck, they even said it about Cal himself.
So, Fielder gets his props for playing every day, for smiling, for having fun. His moon face is a fixture at first base—for better and for worse, as the vows say.
The question as to whether Fielder should be given a day off here and there is moot now. These are the playoffs; this isn’t the time for days off. Same goes for Miguel Cabrera.
Cabrera smiles a lot, too. He plays the corner opposite Fielder in the infield, and Miggy has as much fun as Prince does, maybe more. Both Fielder and Cabrera are like big kids who haven’t quite grown up, and you get the feeling sometimes that they’d play baseball for nothing.
Cabrera is hurting and hurting bad. That has been well documented. The reigning MVP and Triple Crown winner of a year ago is playing with half a body—the top half. Everything from his stomach on down is a mess.
His home run in Game 5 of the ALDS notwithstanding, Cabrera isn’t anywhere near the hitter he can be—robbed of his fearsomeness by the groin, abdominal and hip muscles that are plaguing him.
Fielder hits behind Cabrera, as he has since becoming a Tiger before the 2012 season. In baseball parlance, they call it protection—placing someone behind your big slugger so teams aren’t as eager to pitch around the slugger.
It’s a sound strategy, and with someone of Fielder’s capabilities, it is indeed a deterrent to constantly pitch around Cabrera.
But these are the playoffs, and Prince Fielder’s history says that when the calendar turns to the 10th month, he turns to goo.
Entering the 2013 postseason, Fielder’s playoff numbers were feeble for a man of his regular season stature.
Fielder was 19-for-104 for his career in the playoffs through last season—9-for-52 as a Tiger, with one home run and three RBI.
That’s not what Mike Ilitch had in mind when he rescued Fielder from the ignominy of being an unwanted free agent just weeks before spring training in 2012.
It hasn’t gotten any better in this postseason.
Cabrera is swinging with basically just his wrists, and Fielder is, by all accounts, healthy as a horse.
Yet, Fielder isn’t really providing any of that so-called protection as he didn’t last year. He has been, frankly, a total bust in the playoffs for his entire career.
That has to change—and fast.
The Tigers need Prince Fielder now more than ever, and they are in the unenviable position of relying on a guy whose postseason resume wouldn’t make it past a recruiter’s first screening.
Cabrera showed, with that clutch homer in Game 5 of the ALDS against Oakland, that the hands still have it—that the wrists can still yank an inside pitch about 375 feet.
But mostly, Cabrera is a singles hitter—half a player who is on the field on sheer guts and nothing else. It shouldn’t surprise anyone if, when the baseball games for the Tigers are done for the year, we find out that Cabrera needs some sort of surgery.
Baseball history is filled with feats of grandeur from players who seem to turn it up a notch when October arrives. When the games mean the most, the performances grow exponentially.
Reggie Jackson and his three homers in Game 6 of the 1977 World Series. Sandy Koufax, limited to just a fastball, beating the Minnesota Twins on two days’ rest in Game 7 of the 1965 World Series. Jack Morris, going 10 ferocious innings to win Game 7 of the 1991 World Series. Who can forget Mickey Lolich, working on short rest and tossing a complete game victory in Game 7 of the 1968 World Series—beating Bob Gibson, no less, who was another who craved the pressure.
And so on.
Fielder has been the antithesis of this.
He’s a slugger who shrinks when the spotlight is on. In the playoffs, the emperor has no clothes.
I have been impressed with Fielder’s knowledge of the strike zone. I don’t believe him to be a flailing windmill. I don’t think he gets enough credit for working a count—in the regular season.
In the playoffs, he turns into a different hitter.
The strike zone becomes generous—at Prince’s behest. He hacks away, almost in a panic. He is twice the easy out he is in games played between April and September.
Prince Fielder has been invisible in the playoffs, yet he’s been impossible to miss. His postseason failure is the elephant in the room.
This isn’t the bleating of someone who believes that a keyboard turns him into an expert. The numbers are raw, and they aren’t pretty. You can look them up yourself, if you’re so inclined.
The Tigers need Prince Fielder more than ever with Miguel Cabrera hurt if they’re to wiggle past the Boston Red Sox and make a return appearance in the World Series.
Fielder has yet to show, in over 100 postseason at-bats, that he can be someone on which to rely in October. A cynic might say that he just doesn’t have it in him.
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