Prince Fielder’s encouraging beginning to 2015
Readers of this website, and people who for some unexplainable reason follow me on Twitter, are cognizant of the fact I was very critical of the acquisition of Prince Fielder in November of 2013. The rationale for my belief was of what I believed to have been sound reasoning in that corpulent players with Fielder’s skillset typically do not age very well, and the likelihood of Fielder providing enough surplus value to offset the remainder of his exorbitant contract signed in January of 2012, was questionable. While the Rangers badly needed a middle of the order bat, and the road was paved for former number one prospect Jurickson Profar to receive playing time at second base, the moved seemed somewhat myopic in that betting on an athletic second basemen in Ian Kinsler who is higher on the defensive spectrum, is a good base runner, has more of a defensive prowess, and is owed less money long term, seemed to be the more prudent long term move. The fact Dave Dombrowski and Detroit paid $30 million of Fielder’s remaining contract quelled some of my anxiety, but I was still dubious the trade would benefit the Rangers in that Fielder began to show some signs of decline in 2013, and still had one of the more pricey contracts in baseball.
As one is probably aware, year one of the Prince Fielder experience in Texas did not go too terribly well. Fielder was one of several Rangers who caught the baseball injury version of The Black Plague, and missed 120 games after playing in all but one game the previous five seasons. When on the field in ’14, Fielder was not very productive, yielding an 89 wRC+ and -0.3 fWAR in 42 games, while hitting only three home runs. What was most alarming was Fielder generating a career high 50.4% ground ball percentage, and career low 30.7% fly ball percentage. For a player so dependent on power to provide value, this was disconcerting because you see, ground balls really cannot travel over the fence. Despite Fielder’s power outage, there was still some semblance of optimism for Fielder to return to productivity heading into his age 31 season because the ball in play data I just provided was a relatively small sample, and Fielder’s neck injury could have explained the diminished power. One had reason to continue doubting Fielder as his surgery last May is a major surgery, especially for someone his size, but so far in 2015, Fielder has produced what I admit to be encouraging numbers. Let’s delve into what I promise to be not too much #GoryMath for the reader.
This past week, Fangraphs released some very exciting batted ball data obtained by Baseball Info Solutions dating back to 2002. The statistics are Pull%, Cent%, Oppo%, Soft%, Med%, and Hard%. The numbers are rather self-explanatory in that they inform you of the area of the field where a batter is hitting the baseball, and the quality of contact produced. Something which should be deemed noteworthy as described by Neil Weinberg is this piece here is that the statistics are not very predictive and did not correlate well with BABIP or line drive percentage. As Neil explains in his piece, we do not yet know of the stabilization point for the new batted ball data, and despite the excellent work done by BIS, the data might not be entirely accurate. However, as Neil opines, “these stats seem to be pretty useful and could certainly offer some insight into struggling players and players who are breaking out when it comes to extra base power.” So, as you have probably already guessed, we will now parse Fielder’s above batted ball tendencies dating back to 2011, his final year in Milwaukee, which is somewhat arbitrary, but hey, my article ya know. Reminder, ’14 and ’15 are of a much smaller sample of batted balls.
The numbers provide some insight into Fielder’s approach at the plate, and what should be deemed as encouraging. Fielder was one of the most shifted players in baseball last season in his 178 plate appearances. With teams using more shrewd infield shifts to suppress ground balls, and with Fielder’s increase in ground ball percentage, neck injury which sapped his power suffered while still with Detroit, and lack of speed, the results of a career low BABIP and .234 average on ground balls for a second consecutive season in a limited sample should not be too surprising.
What we see from Fielder so far in ’15 should be reason for optimism. Again, small sample, but Fielder has reduced his Soft% by close to eight percentage points, and has displayed the proclivity to take the ball the opposite way, similar to what he did when he was at his most productive in Milwaukee. The best way to combat the shift is to go the other way, and Fielder seems more inclined to now do so. There are not too many players who reach Fielder’s age, and with his skill set, who can remain productive trying to pull fly balls over the fence as fly ball distance diminishes as you get older. As Neil mentioned in his piece, the numbers do not exactly correlate well with BABIP, but with Fielder now attempting to go opposite field more often, and hitting the ball a little harder, the .385 BABIP produced by Fielder so far in ’15 makes some sense.
As Weinberg mentioned, the numbers may not be entirely accurate, but these hit location charts obtained from the fantastic website Baseball Savant seem to corroborate the increase in Fielder hitting the baseball the opposite way. First, a hit locations chart from 2013, Fielder’s final season in Detroit.
There are some balls hit to left field, but one can tell Fielder preferred to pull the baseball, and why Fielder was shifted so often in ’14. Next, we will look at Fielder’s hit location chart from ’14.
Again, small sample of batted balls, but one begins to notice Fielder begin to attempt to take the ball the opposite way, similar to how he did in Milwaukee. Prince seemed fully aware teams were shifting him, and he was beginning to attempt to beat it. Next, we will look at Fielder’s batted balls so far in ’15.
Another small sample of batted balls, but we see much more red on the left side of the field than in the previous two years. There are still reds on the pull side, but plenty of hot areas on the left side of the field, especially deep, which lead me to believe Prince is indeed attempting to go oppo more often, and has had success there so far, hitting .444 and slugging .630. One thing scouts look for in young players for future power is the player’s ability to hit for power to the opposite field. Fielder is obviously no longer a younger player, but if he is hitting for power to the opposite field, you should feel more comfortable having optimism that he will hit for power into the future. Baseball Savant also has the average exit velocity of batted balls listed on their website, and Fielder currently ranks 14th in baseball in batted ball exit velocity at 91.76 MPH minimum 50 plate appearances. Jeff Sullivan wrote recently that this data might not be entirely accurate, but the fact Fielder ranks so highly in exit velocity should reduce concerns about his surgically repaired neck and that he is swinging the bat quite well. Next, we will look at Fielder’s plate discipline numbers, which should also be heartening.
Former Baseball Prospectus and current FiveThirtyEight author Rob Author wrote a compelling piece last year detailing how a player’s breakout or decline can be predicted by the frequency at which a hitter is pitched balls close to the middle of the strike zone. Basically, the more often a hitter sees pitches near the median of the zone, the more likely something might not be quite right because pitchers are no longer afraid to challenge him. Fielder was on the list of hitters who had the highest increase in pitches located near the middle of the zone in ’13, which makes sense because Fielder apparently began to experience neck issues his final year in Detroit. While this chart does not exactly measure inches to and from the middle of the zone, you can see Fielder did see an increase in Zone% in ’14 before having to be shut down with the neck issue. Now that Fielder is healthy, we see the decrease of close to four percentage points in Fielder’s zone percentage so far in ’15. Pitchers seem more hesitant to challenge Fielder because the scouting reports might suggest he has returned to full health, and will punish you if you make a mistake. Fielder has also reduced his swinging strike percentage, and is making more contact in the zone. While I realize the lack of home runs might be exasperating for some, understand in today’s era of high strikeouts, a player who is making a lot of contact is extremely valuable, and when a player is increasing zone contact, his chances of a quick decline descend. The increase in swinging at pitches outside the zone might be somewhat discouraging, but overall, I think Ranger fans should be thrilled with the overall results in ’15, despite the reduction in walks.
As someone who despised the Fielder trade at the beginning, and was fearful things would go horribly wrong, I am at least more optimistic that his contract might work out better than I originally believed, especially since Prince has been DHing more recently and seems more understanding that he provides more value when his glove is taken from him. Yes, this is a small sample, and we do not know quite what to do with the batted ball data quite yet, but plate discipline numbers do stabilize quickly. And with Detroit beginning to pay a quarter of Fielder’s annual salary next season, envisioning Fielder signing a five year $90 million dollar contract this offseason if he were a free agent is not difficult. Furthermore, if the Rangers feel Fielder’s value will never be higher, and decide to trade him in the near future, finding a trade partner does not seem as impossible as it did one year ago. For now, one should stop worrying about the lack of home runs as the career low 6.9% HR/FB is unlikely to continue, and the five percentage point drop in ground ball percentage so far is promising. If Fielder continues to produce at his current level, a 145 wRC+ is very palatable, and currently ranks second among qualified designated hitters, and his .410 OBP ranks first.