What Is Prince Fielder's New Ceiling in the Texas Rangers Lineup?

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What Is Prince Fielder's New Ceiling in the Texas Rangers Lineup?
Richard W. Rodriguez/Associated Press

You might have heard that Prince Fielder changed teams this winter. Because of that, maybe you're thinking he'll be a different player.

The first part is definitely true. The second part should be true too.

In case you're just now joining us, Fielder is no longer a Detroit Tiger. He's a Texas Ranger, joining the club via a November blockbuster. And after posting the lowest full-season OPS of his career and then disappearing in the postseason, it suffices to say that this is Fielder's chance at a fresh start.

We're here to discuss what sort of, um, start this fresh start is going to get off to in 2014. And to make sure everyone's interests are satisfied, it won't all be sabermetric wizardry. There's some stuff in here for you fantasy folks, too.

 

Fielder's AVG/OBP/SLUG and HR Potential

After slashing .313/.412/.528 with 30 homers in 2012, Fielder only slashed .279/.362/.457 with 25 homers in 2013. As Yoda would say: Disappointing, it was.

Fielder should be better in 2014. So there's that...But let's hold our horses in thinking that his production is going back where it was in 2012.

There were good reasons that his production sagged in 2013, after all. Here's me pinpointing a couple with a little help from FanGraphs:

Prince Fielder's Iffy Approach
Year Swing % O-Swing % Z-Contact % SwStr% BB% K%
2012 44.3 28.8 89.3 8.3 12.3 12.2
2013 45.5 30.6 85.6 9.8 10.5 16.4

FanGraphs

Fielder swung at more pitches, swung at more pitches out of the zone, made less contact in the zone, made less contact overall, drew fewer walks and racked up more strikeouts in 2013. 

In other words: Bad luck wasn't to blame for Fielder's issues. A bad approach was.

That makes it tough to project what's in store for him in 2014. For while we can generally take it for granted that bad luck will turn into better luck, we can't take it for granted that a bad approach is going to turn into a good approach. 

Jeff Gross/Getty Images

Now, there is the lineup protection question to consider. As Richard Durrett of ESPNDallas.com reported, the Rangers decided that Fielder will bat third in their lineup rather than in his customary cleanup spot. He'll presumably be batting in front of Adrian Beltre, who is a very good hitter.

"Prince has protected so many players, it's his turn to be protected," said Rangers manager Ron Washington.

This is where we find ourselves discussing whether lineup protection is an actual thing. Washington clearly thinks it is, but the nerd community isn't sure.

Fielder, as it so happens, represents a good case study for why that is.

In 2012, Fielder batted in front of Delmon Young. He wasn't very good, hitting .267 with a .707 OPS. But in 2013, Fielder batted in front of Victor Martinez. He was much better, hitting .301 with a .785 OPS.

The conventional wisdom says that Fielder should have gotten more pitches to hit in 2013, as pitchers would have surely been less inclined to pitch around him. Per the conventional wisdom, he should have seen more fastballs and more pitches in the strike zone.

The trouble is that we can look at Fielder's final numbers and deduce that he didn't get more pitches to hit. Further, we can look at data from FanGraphs and see this:

Prince Fielder and Lineup Protection...?
Year FA% Zone%
2012 52.4 39.6
2013 53.4 38.8

FanGraphs

Fielder did see more fastballs in 2013 but not more pitches in the zone. That alone says that pitchers weren't giving him more good pitches to hit, and then there's the possibility that maybe the increased percentage of fastballs says the same thing.

If we look at his fastball runs above average compared to 2012, we see that Fielder wasn't so great against the hard stuff in 2013:

  • 2012 wFB: 22.4
  • 2013 wFB: 10.3

Knowing this, maybe the idea behind those extra fastballs wasn't to give Fielder more pitches to hit. Maybe it was the exact opposite, in which case it becomes more apparent than Martinez's presence, if not hurting Fielder, wasn't helping him either.

Now, because Beltre was a better hitter than Martinez in 2013 (.880 OPS to .785 OPS), we might see a legit example of lineup protection in 2014. But since "inconclusive" applies to Fielder's 2013 season and most other lineup protection studies, it's best if we don't pursue that wild goose chase and assume that his new lineup won't magically make him a better hitter. 

We don't have to get too pessimistic, however. The trade to the Rangers didn't just give Fielder a new lineup. It also gave him a new ballpark, and this is where there's an actual tangible benefit to focus on.

Fielder actually did hit for more power at Comerica Park in 2012 and 2013 than he did on the road (a .211 ISO compared to a .182 ISO). But considering that he had a .279 ISO as a member of the Brewers at Miller Park, he clearly missed playing home games in a launching pad.

Well, a launching pad is where Fielder is going now. Globe Life Park in Arlington's (that's its new name, by the way, per Jeff Mosier of the Dallas Morning News) reputation speaks for itself, and FanGraphs' park factors can show how Fielder's new home compares to his old home when it comes to catering to lefty sluggers.

If we look at park factors by handedness, here's how Detroit and Texas differed in 2012 and 2013:

Comerica Park vs. Globe Life Park in Arlington
Year Detroit HR as L Texas HR as L
2012 100 110
2013 100 110

FanGraphs

A figure of 100 represents perfect neutrality. So if you're Fielder and you're looking at these numbers, you're happy knowing that you're moving to a ballpark that's been much more friendly to lefty sluggers since you've been in the American League.

The move to Arlington isn't going to make Fielder a 40-homer guy again. That's asking too much. But it should help rescue his HR/FB rate from the downward decline that saw it go from 17.9 in 2012 to 13.5 in 2013. Even if we're only talking a few percentage points, that's still a few extra home runs. 

The bottom line is that it's a solid bet that the move to Arlington will help Fielder get back to being a 30-homer guy. And even if his approach doesn't improve from where it was in 2013, those few extra balls over the fence would boost his slash line.

Fielder slashed .279/.362/.457. A realistic improvement on that is something like .285/.370/.500. That's not vintage Fielder, but that's pretty darn good.

Now then, since we're doing a fantasy spin thing here, let's talk RBI and runs scored.

 

Fielder's RBI and Runs Scored Potential

Fielder drove in over 100 runs both years he was in Detroit, in part thanks to the fact that Miguel Cabrera was always on base. But Miggy, batting in front of Fielder, is the one who hogged the bulk of the RBI, driving in 139 in 2012 and 137 in 2013.

Well, now it's Fielder's turn to see what he can do as a No. 3 hitter. And in Texas, he'll be batting behind a pair of table-setters who should make his job very easy.

The No. 3 spot in Texas' lineup should put Fielder behind Shin-Soo Choo and Elvis Andrus. Choo, of course, racked up a .423 OBP in 2013 and owns a .413 career OBP in the No. 1 spot. Andrus only had a .328 OBP last year but did have a .369 OBP in the second half and was a .340-.350 OBP guy from 2010-2012.

The track records of Choo and Andrus look encouraging enough, and their ZiPS and Steamer projections for 2014 are encouraging too:

Shin-Soo Choo and Elvis Andrus OBP Projections for 2014
Player ZiPS Steamer
Choo .385 .390
Andrus .337 .341

FanGraphs

The agreement: Choo's OBP should be in the high .300s, and Andrus' should be in the .340 range.

Rick Yeatts/Getty Images

That would put Fielder behind two well-above-average table-setters by 2013 standards. Per Baseball-Reference.com, the average OBP for No. 1 hitters was .329 and the average OBP for No. 2 hitters was .322.

Factor in how a solid contact hitter like Andrus (13.4 career K%) should prove useful in moving Choo along and how both of them have speed to burn on the basepaths, and, yeah, the situation looks even better.

This is not to suggest that Fielder is about to make like Miggy and drive in close to 140 runs in 2014. His table-setters are great, but Fielder's not Cabrera's equal as a hitter. Nobody is, at last check.

If, however, Choo and Andrus do their thing and Fielder comes close to that .285/.370/.500 slash line we discussed, he could easily go from the 100-110 RBI range to the 110-120 RBI range. 

Improvement is also in the cards for Fielder in the runs scored category. He hasn't topped 95 runs in any of the last three seasons, and it's no wonder why when you consider what kind of pop was behind him:

Prince Fielder's Power Support
Year BOP ISO
2011 No. 5 .120
2012 No. 5 .135
2013 No. 5 .130

Baseball-Reference.com

Fielder has had very little power behind him in each of the last three seasons. Considering that he's not going to circle the bases with his speed, that's kind of an issue.

But things will be different in 2014. The notion of Beltre protecting Fielder may be bogus, but he does have the kind of power that will be helpful in getting Fielder around the bases. Beltre's career ISO is .196, and both ZiPS and Steamer see him finishing in the neighborhood of .200 once again in 2014.

What this could mean for Fielder is a rarity for him: a 100-run season.

It's a good bet that the move from Detroit to Arlington will help Fielder's power. And while joining Texas' lineup isn't guaranteed to make him a better hitter, his fantasy value should benefit from having on-base and speed in front of him and power behind him.

We've gone the long way around the barn to do it, but here we are at a conclusion that says Fielder is in for a real crowd-pleaser of a season in 2014.

 

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

 

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

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