The Struggling Prince
The Rangers return home tonight to start a pivotal home-stand with the Oakland A’s and the now hated Houston Astros. They return from a season long 10-game West Coast road trip that saw the club finish 5-5 despite having one of the Majors best road records. What’s remarkable about that 5-5 record is that they were shutout four times in the 10 games and they only lost a half game in the standings to the Astros and the Twins.
Wait, they were shutout four times on the road trip? Yup. They’ve now been shutout 11 times this season and scored three runs or fewer in six of their last 10 games. Maybe a trip home is what the team needs? The entire offense needs a shot in the arm and maybe the hometown crowd will give it to them.
What about the Artist-Formerly-Known-As-Prince-Fielder?
For much of the first half of the season, Prince Fielder was the spark plug that powered the Rangers offense. He led the league in hitting, he was showing power to all fields, and he was making a conscious effort to beat the shift – and he was succeeding at it too. Fielder saw his average drop some seven or so points on the trip to a season low .309.
It wasn’t just the road trip however. Since the All-Star break, Prince Fielder hasn’t been the same Prince. He isn’t driving the ball, he isn’t hitting for power and he certainly isn’t beating the shift. He’s hitting just .254 in the second half, dropping his average some 30 points from .339 to .309, his slugging has dropped 60 points and his OPS has dropped 80 points.
Looking at those stats alone says a lot, but it doesn’t tell us why he’s struggling. What has caused his slump? Why has it been so prolonged? What is happening differently now, than it was in the first half?
Something Fielder was doing well in the first half of the season was using all fields and barreling up just about everything that was thrown to him. Take a look at Fielders heat map from the start of the season to the All Star break. (chart courtesy of MLB Farm)
That is an impressive heat map, I don’t care who you are. What made Fielder so successful in the first half was his use of the entire field, which is pretty obvious by the chart above. In order for that to work though, you have to be able to make solid contact so you aren’t rolling over on weak ground balls or hitting those “he just missed that one, boy” fly balls. Take a look at Fielder’s spray chart from the first half: (chart courtesy of MLB Farm)
Fielder had 14 extra base hits to center or the opposite field to go along with his fair share of singles – something he’s actually been criticized for by many Rangers fans. Like I mentioned above, the only way this works is by barreling up the baseball, having hard exit velocity, and of course, a little bit of luck with baBIP. Fielder had all of those. In the first half he had a 36.3% hard contact rate with a 51% medium contact rate and just a 12.7% soft rate.
What the charts and his contact rates tell us is precisely what we suspected. He was barreling the ball up, had great timing and was doing what he wanted at the plate. Sure he was hitting ground balls into the shift, but as evident with all the singles, extra base hits and even the lineouts, he was making really good contact. In fact, for much of the first half of the season, Fielders exit velocity was hovering between 90 and about 95 mph. While that isn’t elite level, it certainly isn’t anything to sleep on. Hitting the ball hard to all outfield positions and not pulling the ball into the shift is evident in the chart below. (chart courtesy of MLB Farm)
Teams were shifting on Fielder by placing a second basemen in shallow right field and the shortstop (or third basemen) on the right side of second base. This was because Fielder has always been known as a pull hitter, meaning hitting the ball to the right side – on the ground quite often. Three of the top four most popular destinations for Fielders batted balls are to the left side or up the middle. That is evidence of a shift beater.
I think we’ve collected enough data to show that Prince was having a pretty damn good first half and we’ve collected enough data to compare his second half and determine why he’s slumping. At the very least, we will have a good idea as to why he’s slumping.
Since the All Star break, as we mentioned above, Fielder has struggled mightily. Let’s compare his first half graphs with his second half graphs to have a visual representation of his struggles. Let’s start with Fielders heat map: (chart courtesy of MLB Farm)
Three things stick out to me in this map – 1. Where is the power? The gaps are nearly empty, and the map itself, in relevance to his first half, is rather barren. 2. Look at the little blob at the catchers position. He’s making weak contact and hitting weak pop ups behind the plate and while it isn’t that many, it’s more than he did in first half which was zero. 3. The infield is much hotter compared to the outfield on this heat map – another indication of weak contact. That tells me that he is still trying to go the other way, but his timing his off – his contact isn’t solid. He’s rolling over on pitches. And by looking at the outfield heat, he appears to be hitting balls right at people. That is a product of baBIP and might be an additional indicator to weak contact. (chart courtesy of MLB Farm)
More evidence of the weak contact is how many ground balls he’s hit that haven’t gotten past the infield grass. Looking at the spray chart above from Fielders second half and comparing it with his spray chart from his first half, there are some glaring omissions. Again, where is the power? He has nearly as many flyouts to the opposite field as he did the entire first half. Lineouts are an indication of solid contact – I don’t see many of those either. Granted the at bats are less in the second half so far than they were in the first half, but the trends are what is alarming. The groundouts are worrisome as well. To back up these points, take a look at his batted ball breakdown: (chart courtesy of MLB Farm)
The groundballs that I said were worrisome above? Yea, see the number of batted balls to first base? He already has more in the second half than he did the entire first half and based on the second half spray chart, they’re all ground balls – no pop ups. He’s also struggling to get the ball to the opposite field – with authority. He’s taking the ball the other way, but not with authority. What he’s taking the other way are either singles, or routine fly outs.
Take a look at the comparison chart below that compares Fielders flyball, groundball, and line drive rates from the first half to the second half: (chart courtesy of me and a fresh renewal of Microsoft Word)
As you can see, Fielders line drives are down, ground balls are up and his fly balls have increased slightly. All indicators of weak contact and low exit velocity. In fact, Fielders exit velocity is so low right now, that his Soft% (percentage of balls hit softly) has nearly doubled from the first half to the second half from 12.7% to 22.9% while his hard% has gone down from 36.3% to 24.8%. Furthermore, his exit velocity the last three weeks is far below the league average. (chart provided by Baseball Savant)
Fielder has had six of the last nine weeks with exit velocity well below league average. So what could be causing all of this weak contact and low exit velocity? Is it Fielders timing? Does he have a hitch in his swing? Have pitchers adjusted and figured him out?
One thing that could be attributed to his second half struggles are that pitchers have thrown in fact him slightly different in the second half. The chart below shows that pitchers were staying away from Fielder for the most part but they were getting quite a bit of the strike zone, especially middle, middle away and down.
Here in the second half, pitchers have made adjustments. With the exception of the down the middle, you can see that pitchers have stayed out of the zone more often than they were during the first half. This could be an attribute the lack of hard contact in the second half. Pitchers appear to be trending towards up and away, something a lot of hitters tend to struggle with.
Pitchers aren’t just locating better against Fielder, they are changing their pitch selection. Take a look at how pitchers attacked Prince in the first half:
As you can see, about a third of what he was seeing were fastballs, very few changeups, and a nice mix of breaking pitchers (curveballs, sliders). If we take a look at his second half pitch chart, what are we going to see?
Based on these wonderful chart provided by BrooksBaseball, we see that pitchers are throwing a significantly less amount of fastballs, and with the exception of September, a significant rise in offspeed pitches. As Buzz would say, they’re pulling the string on Fielder. Being out front of pitches will cause a significant drop in exit velocity and more often than that cause weak ground balls or popups.
In conclusion, it would appear that Prince’s struggles are based on weak contact, pitchers pitchers adjusting to his first half, and the fact that his timing appears to be all out of whack. All of those combined would explain the below average exit velocity and the fact that he’s hit just .254 in the second half with a .275 baBIP.
The only way Prince Fielder can correct these issues, and it sounds cliche, but, he has to fight through this slump. He needs to get his timing back and he needs to adjust to the adjustments pitchers have made to him. He is the straw that stirs this offensive drink. If he can’t figure out his struggles, this offense may by doomed to continue the funk that it’s in. Until then, we need to hope that the pitching continues to carry the load. If the pitching hits a slump, you can say goodbye to any October hopes you have.