Where’s The Beef With Prince Fielder?
In 1948, Richard and Maurice McDonald opened a small restaurant in San Bernadino, California. Little did they know that their food-delivered-fast idea would become the impetus for an entire industry. There are now 36,000 locations in 100 different countries world-wide. The hamburger has become one of the staples of the American diet, and to many, McDonald’s is the king.
As a kid all the way up through high school, McDonald’s was a special treat for me. “Two-all-beef-patties-special-sauce-lettuce-cheese …” was a tag line I knew by heart, and the dollar menu fit within my meager young-adult budget. Today, though, I just can’t imagine eating there. The food is, well, not really actual food and the value just is not what it used to be. Whenever I spend money there, I feel cheated.
It is actually the way I feel when I think about the Texas Rangers and Prince Fielder’s contract: a gut bomb that gives me heartburn and leaves me wanting in the value department.
This season the Rangers are projected to spend over $157M on their payroll, which is the eighth highest in the league. Headlining the payroll is Fielder, the $24M designated hitter and 11th highest paid player in the entire league. Beginning this season, the Rangers will pay 75% ($18M) of his salary until 2020 (age 35 season) with Detroit chipping in the other $6M annually. (Josh Hamilton actually makes more per year at $28.4M, but thankfully Arte Moreno has picked up 93% of the tab for the next two seasons.)
So far, what do the Rangers have to show for their $42M investment? Not much, unfortunately. For 871 plate appearances (due to an injury-shortened 2014 in which Fielder had neck surgery) the Rangers have received 26 home runs ($1.6M per), 97 runs ($437K per), and 114 RBI ($368K per). Fielder has also managed a 1.3 WAR over that time period ($32.3M per). In 2014, the estimated cost of a win was approximately $6M, which means that, thus far, the Rangers have paid 82% more than league average for Fielder. That’s one expensive hamburger.
The past, peak years of Fielder’s perennial power are gone. Jeff Sullivan’s respected work on aging curves shows that Fielder’s weighted on-base average (wOBA) and weighted runs created plus (wRC+ where 100 is league average) —which is “a player’s total offensive value, measured by runs”—is in the steep decline phase of his career. Rangers fans (and Jon Daniels) are probably wondering, “Where’s the beef?”
Unfortunately, meat is no longer on the menu for Fielder or for Rangers fans. Of his 23 home runs last year, five qualified as the “Just Enough” types according to ESPN’s Home Run Tracker. His batted ball distance has decreased from 296 ft. in 2012 (the last time he had an ISO over .200) to 279 ft. last season, tied with behemoth Dustin Pedroia. When Fielder was traded to the Rangers, fans were still dreaming of a delicious plate of long balls and kiddy souvenirs being delivered out to right on a regular basis. Unfortunately, fans are now settling for less-enticing fare from the veggie-eating lefty.
There is no question that Prince Fielder is a different hitter today than he was earlier in his career. Dayn Perry analyzed his new approach, whereby Fielder is content to beat the shift and take what pitchers are giving him by going the opposite way.
2010-12 Heat Map
2013-15 Heat Map
Pitchers have obviously been attacking Fielder his whole career on the middle-to-outside half of the plate. In the past few years, however, they are staying down and away even more so, lest Fielder use his strength to lift balls out to left field. The results of this approach are fairly easy to see:
2010-12 Spray Chart
2013-15 Spray Chart
Fielder’s power to left and center field has all but disappeared, while the opposite field line drives have increased. While Arlington is presumed to be a hitter’s haven, the fact is that it plays barely above average out to left, despite being a top 5 ballpark for lefties (according to FanGraphs Park Factors) pulling it out towards the short right-field porch. What the club has now is a past-his-prime contact hitter who is content to slap the ball the other way and hit singles, lots of singles.
Indeed, of all of Fielder’s 187 hits last season (top 5 in the league), 136 of them (73%) were singles. While he was an on-base machine (.378 OBP), including 14 intentional walks (T-6th overall), it only translated into a 124 wRC+ (tied for 37th in the league with Mike Moustakas, who is made $2.6M in 2015 incidentally).
Fielder did post one the best strikeout rates of his career (12.7%), and it’s clear that he’s being more aggressive at the plate:
|2015||34.4 %||71.3 %||49.4 %||66.9 %||91.7 %||81.5 %|
|Career||29.2 %||68.6 %||46.1 %||61.1 %||87.7 %||78.0 %|
Fielder did not only swing more in general, but swung at more balls outside the zone (O-Swing%) 5% more than his career average. He made nearly 6% more contact on those particular balls as well. As pitchers pound Fielder down and away, he’s putting the bat on the ball, beating the shift, and getting on base. The results are reflected in his career best batting average on balls in play (BABIP) of .323, as more grounders and line drives (as opposed to fly balls) are prone to fall for hits.
These findings, in and of themselves, are not all bad news. In fact, it points to a hitter who is refining his approach as he ages. Instead of being a pure dead-red power hitter, the type of player who tends to age poorly, Fielder is taking what pitchers are giving him, hammering mistakes, and getting on base. However, an $18M per season designated hitter is not paid to hit singles and walk.
In 2015, there were six players who played less than 20 games on defense, who were “pure” designated hitters. Their offensive results are below:
While Fielder was middle of the pack in terms of walk rate (9.2% mark was the lowest since 2006), he posted the best strikeout rate, the highest BABIP, batting average, and on-base percentage. However, the power is noticeably absent and the run production (given the lack of extra-base hits) was lacking. In terms of salary paid by their current team, the production is even more alarming:
|Age||Salary 2015||$/WAR 2015||% League Avg. $/WAR||Salary 2016|
While David Ortiz, Kendrys Morales, and Evan Gattis provided their clubs with relative discounts when comparing their production to their salaries, Alex Rodriguez, Prince Fielder, and Billy Butler were not so team friendly. In fact, the Rangers paid more than two-and-a-half times the league average for the wins that Fielder provided last season.
Even more concerning is that Fielder also showed concerning splits in 2015. He hit decidedly worse against left-handed pitching (92 wRC+) as opposed to his stellar marks against righties (142 wRC+). He produced less in Arlington (113 wRC+), where his power should play up, than on the road (135 wRC+). Finally, when the games mattered most during the second half of the year going into the playoffs, Fielder saw a 68% decline in his wRC+.
Given that Fielder no longer plays defense, and that he’s no longer a sure-fire 25 home run hitter, what are the Rangers left with? Fielder will most likely still get on base and he’s certainly got enough contact skill to move runners over and drive runs in. However, Steamer projections provide a mere modest bump in WAR this season to 1.9. That doesn’t bode well for the Rangers’ front office.
It is possible that Fielder’s spinal fusion surgery from 2014 is still causing latent pain in the neck and arm, although there have been no reports that it has been a problem. Another interesting development is Fielder’s bout with extreme sleep apnea. Any time someone wakes up 39 times in an hour, there could be a cause for concern. As the following study of fatigue and its effect on baseball players concluded, there is a direct link between sleep and a particular development in Fielder’s hitting approach:
Data analysis tracked the frequency with which MLB batters swung at pitches outside of the strike zone during the 2012 season. Data were sorted by month for all 30 teams and compared between the first and last month of the season. Data for each team also were compared to a statistical model, based on data from the 2006 to 2011 seasons, which predicts a linear decline in strike-zone judgment per month.
I’m no doctor and would not pretend to conclude with any confidence that the reason Fielder went outside the zone so much last season is due to the fact that he was not sleeping well. However, there is a correlation (if not necessarily causation). When all is said and done, there is probably no one reason for Fielder’s declining performance other than age.
During the last half of 2015 McDonald’s had quite a resurgence, some might even call it a comeback. Likewise, Fielder also resurfaced in 2015 with his own Comeback Player of the Year award. While no longer the “Big Mac” masher he once was, Fielder seems to be more like a quarter-pounder with cheese—and he is more of a veggie dog guy these days anyways.
I don’t begrudge Fielder the money. He cashed in at the right time, and JD and company mistakenly took the bait after the 2013 season. From what I hear, Fielder is genuinely one of the good guys in baseball. He’s a mentor to the younger players, an affable clubhouse presence, and there’s always this:
However, for $18M a year moving forward, he just feels like an over-priced Happy Meal when what we need is a 16-ounce sirloin.