Few players were more eager to exit April than Prince Fielder. The five-time All-Star first baseman finished his first month as a Texas Ranger with a batting average barely above .200. Since the calendar flipped over, however, Fielder has started to get back on track.
Sometimes such a surge comes about simply from the typical ebbs and flows that occur over the course of a 162-game season. On other occasions, a player makes a specific adjustment that's responsible for the results. Interestingly, Fielder falls more into the latter category given a big change he's incorporated to his approach.
The lefty-swinging 30-year-old has deliberately been looking to hit the ball the opposite way—to left field—in order to get going, according to Jean-Jacques Taylor of ESPNDallas.com. It's working.
"It's about the approach," Fielder told Taylor. "When you take a good approach and have a good at-bat, you can live with the results."
So far, the results have been much better. For the month of May, Fielder owns a slash line of .356/.444/.489 in 13 games (through Thursday), which is a dramatic improvement over what was an awful April (.206/.331/.314).
For a great example of Fielder's recent strategy in action, see the opposite-field RBI double he smacked on an outside pitch from Houston Astros righty Scott Feldman on Wednesday. The knock was a part of Fielder's third straight two-hit game.
Even when he's not getting hits, Fielder is consciously putting the ball in play to left field, as he did with this sac fly against the Boston Red Sox and Jon Lester—one of baseball's best left-handers, no less—last Saturday:
If you listen closely to the announcer at the beginning of that clip, he actually mentions Fielder's go-the-other-way efforts. That's because Fielder had flied out to left in his first at-bat of the game, too.
Going back one day further, here's more evidence of Fielder trying his new tack against Red Sox right-hander Clay Buchholz, this time with a harder-hit line drive that turned into an RBI single over the shortstop:
"A hit is a hit," Fielder said via Taylor. "Until I feel more comfortable, it's a way to get some hits. It’s better than hitting a line drive out because they have seven people on the right side of the field."
Therein lies the impetus behind Fielder's adjustment. Because he tends to pull the ball when he's hitting for power, Fielder often faces defensive shifts in which the opposition plays an extra infielder on the right side of the infield and positions the second baseman in shallow right field. That alignment takes away more than a few would-be base hits, even when Fielder contacts the ball with authority.
With such shifts becoming more and more prevalent in baseball as teams are identifying and taking advantage of every possible way to get outs, batters who can't adjust could face extended struggles.
Fielder, though, is showing he's not only aware of this but also that he can make the necessary alterations to his swing and approach to combat what defenses are doing to him. That entails letting pitches travel deeper into the zone and getting his hands inside the ball, as well as going after offerings on the outer half of the plate, which are easier to poke to the left side.
This single off Scott Kazmir of the Oakland Athletics—another tough lefty—from the end of April is a perfect example of Fielder bringing his hands in to better shoot the ball the other way:
Sure, the contact wasn't all that hard, but as Fielder himself said, a hit is a hit. And sooner or later, if he keeps doing this, defenses won't be able to shift as much or as frequently for fear of having him beat them. And considering Fielder has walked more times than he's whiffed (25 to 22) through his first 175 plate appearances, he's proving that he's seeing the ball well and willing to be patient when that's required of him.
All of this is well and good, but in order for Fielder to truly salvage his slow start to the season, he has to start slugging again. After all, this is a man who entered 2014 with 285 career homers in nine years—or an average of 32 per year.
While it's unlikely Fielder will reach that mark when he's on pace for only 12, it's not as if he has suddenly become a singles hitter. As the weather warms, particularly in Texas, Fielder should have ample opportunity to bash baseballs higher and farther than he's been doing so far.
Despite beliefs to the contrary, actual video footage does exist of Fielder doing just that this season:
There was some reason to be slightly concerned back in April, when Fielder was hitting the ball on the ground at an elevated rate (52.9 percent) compared to in the air (28.7 percent), but he's managed to close that gap some (46.2 percent versus 33.3 percent) in May.
Plus, he's increased his line-drive rate from 18.4 percent to 20.5. A 13-game stretch may be a small sample, but it's still a good sign that Fielder's power is on its way. Perhaps it will show up over the remainder of this month or by the time June is over.
Regardless, Fielder's happy to have put April behind him.
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