It's not often that you get a guy who's a massive free-agent bust and a massive trade bust. Guys tend to belong to one club or the other, not both.
Which brings us to Prince Fielder. Early in 2014, he's put himself on a path to become one of the rare exceptions.
You should be familiar with the general Fielder timeline. He signed a nine-year, $214 million contract with the Detroit Tigers in January of 2012 and had one very good year in 2012 followed by a so-so 2013. The Tigers then abandoned ship, dealing Fielder to the Texas Rangers for Ian Kinsler last November.
The deal wasn't without upside for Texas. Fielder was getting a fresh start, and one at a much more offense-friendly home park to boot. With the Tigers also agreeing to eat $30 million of the $168 million remaining on Fielder's deal, the odds of him giving good return on investment increased even more.
But so far? Hoo boy.
Fielder went 0-for-4 in a third straight game at Fenway Park against the defending champion Boston Red Sox on Monday night, dropping his overall slash line to .143/.200/.179. He also had a defensive gaffe on a bunt by Jackie Bradley Jr. that contributed to a three-run Boston eighth.
All right, it's time I acknowledged in big, bold letters that it's SUPER-DUPER EARLY. This is the time of small sample sizes and of players still transitioning from spring training mode to regular-season mode.
For what it's worth, Fielder's not worried, telling T.R. Sullivan of MLB.com after Monday's game: "I'm right on track. I'm right where I should be. You just have to go up there and do your best and see what you can do."
Still, I feel the same way Adam J. Morris of SB Nation's Lone Star Ball blog feels:
I can acknowledge it is early and there's a lot of baseball to go, while simultaneously being concerned with how Prince Fielder looks.— Adam J. Morris (@lonestarball) April 8, 2014
You shouldn't need me to tell you that Fielder's numbers are going to get better. At the least, I feel comfortable guessing that he's not going to have a .160 batting average on balls in play all season.
However, there is one thing going on with Fielder's hitting in the early goings this season that's not a good sign at all.
You might be able to guess at what it is if you consider how Fielder made outs in his three at-bats against Boston right-hander John Lackey on Monday night (the links will take you to Brooks Baseball):
- First at-bat: four-seam fastball grounded to second.
- Second at-bat: four-seam fastball grounded to second.
- Third at-bat: four-seam fastball flied to center.
Yup, that's three outs on fastballs, which unfortunately fits with a trend that's not new.
Justin Haven of ESPN Stats & Info first noticed last August that Fielder was suddenly struggling to hit the hard stuff:
"Regardless of righty or lefty, Fielder is getting beat by fastballs this season. He’s slugging only .404 (115th in the majors) against those pitches. Just two seasons ago, Fielder feasted on heaters, slugging .607 against them, 16th among all players."
Truth be told, this is a trend that didn't begin in 2013. The warning signs were there in 2012, as we can see by considering this data from Brooks Baseball:
FYI: "ISO" is Isolated Power, which is essentially slugging percentage minus singles for a more accurate measure of power.
Illustrated here is a man who went from being one of MLB's best fastball hitters to being less of an elite fastball hitter in 2012 to a decidedly average fastball hitter in 2013.
Most concerning of all is the decline in power, as it certainly becomes a lot harder for a slugger like Fielder to hit for power if he's forced into doing his damage on off-speed pitches. That stuff is harder to get in the air, and there's the added difficulty of pitchers not supplying as much power as they do with fastballs.
This may be academic where Fielder's concerned, though, as these numbers from FanGraphs show that pitchers haven't been doing him the courtesy of additional off-speed stuff early on in 2014:
- 2011 FB%: 49.1
- 2012 FB%: 52.4
- 2013 FB%: 53.4
- 2014 FB%: 60.5
The scouting report on Fielder may be getting around. As his performance against the hard stuff has declined, the amount of hard stuff he's been seeing has increased. Where pitchers were very shy about challenging Fielder as recently as 2011, now they're shrugging their shoulders and going right after him.
It's not just the data that says it's a good idea. To the naked eye, his bat speed just doesn't seem as explosive as it once was.
Just in case you need a reminder...
It's been a while since we last saw Fielder swing it like that. And given his age (29) and the general degree to which he hasn't looked like his old self at the plate recently, I figure it's fair to wonder if we'll ever see another like it.
Now, I'll grant that David Ortiz looked like he had lost all of his explosive bat speed when he struggled his way through 2009. I'll also agree with anyone who says he still hasn't regained it.
That hasn't stopped Big Papi from being one of MLB's elite hitters, though. He's been able to adjust. Perhaps Fielder can do the same.
The Rangers had better hope he can, because goodness knows he won't be much good to them if he's not hitting.
Fielder's baserunning is still as atrocious as it's ever been, and there's no point betting on him turning into a Gold Glove first baseman. Not while he's sitting on minus-93 career defensive runs saved, anyway.
The best course for the Rangers at this point is to play Mitch Moreland at first base and Fielder at designated hitter, which would allow him to focus strictly on hitting. If nothing else, it would be addition by subtraction, as Moreland's defense certainly isn't worse than Fielder's.
If neither good, old-fashioned hard work nor a permanent move to DH can fix what's ailing Fielder's bat, the Rangers are going to have quite the dilemma on their hands. They'll owe quite a bit of money to a DH-type player with a questionable bat, and it's hard to imagine them finding a team willing to make an upside play like the one the Rangers chose to make.
That there's plenty of time left in the season means there's plenty of room for optimism. But right now, Fielder is the same limited player he's always been, and his bat looks like it's still on the decline rather than on the upswing.
As far as reasons for pessimism go, these are good ones.
Note: Stats courtesy of Baseball-Reference.com unless otherwise noted.
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