Will Prince Fielder Bounce Back In 2014?

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In 2013, Prince Fielder had the worst offensive year of his career since his rookie campaign in 2006. For a bat-only player like Fielder, an offensive drop-off is cause for alarm bells to begin ringing. For a 29-year old big-bodied player who is not expected to age well and is at the end of the typical prime years of a career, the alarm bells escalate to a tornado siren. 
Fielder’s 2013 season did serve one purpose, however. Without a down year like last year, Texas cannot trade Ian Kinsler for Prince Fielder plus $30 million. As Jon Daniels said in his teleconference after the trade, “If he was coming off the best year of his career then [he wouldn’t] be available”.

On the other hand, if Fielder’s 2013 season is indicative of the beginning of the end of his career as a productive hitter, the move made by Texas to acquire him may end up looking extremely foolish in hindsight. How you view what Prince Fielder will be in 2014 is the only measure needed to determine if this was a good trade for Texas or not. If you see Fielder re-producing a 2013 season, it’s this:

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GIF from blessyouboys.com
If you see Fielder rebounding to the levels he produced at from 2007-2012, when no one in baseball hit more than his 230 home runs, the Kinsler-Fielder trade is this for Texas: 
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GIF from blessyouboys.com
So what happened to Fielder in 2013 that made it such a poor year for him? After four straight years with an on-base percentage over .400, and a wRC+ of 135 or higher (with three of the four years at a wRC+ north of 150), Fielder tallied a .279/.362/.457 slash in 2013, with a wRC+ of 125. That was still above-average compared to all MLB first baseman, who combined to hit .261/.337/.436 with a wRC+ of 110. But compared to Fielder’s career line of .286/.389/.527 and a wRC+ of 140, 2013 was lagging behind.

The first area of concern is the drop in Fielder’s ability to get on base. He has been an on-base machine since 2009, and all of a sudden in 2013 he went from elite to something much more pedestrian.

What jumps out when looking at Fielder’s depressed on-base percentage is a significant decrease in his walk percentage, which went from 16% in 2010-11, to 12% in 2012, to 10.5% in 2013. That could be a red flag that Fielder’s plate discipline has diminished. While Fielder’s swing percentage did increase in 2013, as well has how often he swung at pitches outside of the strike zone, they weren’t significant enough increases to be of great concern.

Instead, the real culprit is that Fielder saw just five intentional walks in 2013, which ties a career low for him. The last intentional walk issued to Fielder in 2013 came on June 17th; he went 405 plate appearances without one to end the year.

From 2007-2012, Fielder was granted at least 17 intentional walks every year. The missing intentional walks in 2013 mask that Fielder’s walk rate excluding the intentional free passes didn’t change from 2012 to 2013:

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Additionally, the two charts below show that Fielder’s swing patterns didn’t change significantly in 2013 from the rest of his career. The first chart shows 2013, and the second chart is his full career. 
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2013
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Full career
It is clear that Fielder is prone to chase out of the zone for high and low pitches, but shows good discernment of the edges of the strike zone. But this is how he has always been, and wasn’t new to 2013.

Based on what we have seen here, it doesn’t appear the drop in the frequency with which he reached base was Prince Fielder’s fault. Instead, what we can attribute his sub-.400 OBP to is that he spent almost the entire year hitting behind Miguel Cabrera. This made it much less likely for Fielder to be put on base intentionally, while Cabrera tallied 19 intentional freebies.

Jon Daniels has said, and Ron Washington reiterated, that Fielder will hit third in the batting order for Texas. That will put Adrian Beltre behind the big first baseman, offering him the kind of lineup protection that he has never had in his career. While studies have shown this won’t give Fielder better pitches to hit, it does make it more likely that he will be pitched around, or that he’ll see four wide ones. This should bring Fielder’s walk rate back up to his career average, and his on-base percentage up closer to or over the .400 plateau. In 2013, Texas first baseman posted an on-base percentage of .304. Fielder should make a dramatic difference in that regard.

The next area of concern is the decrease in power from Fielder. He only put 25 balls over the fence in 2013, his lowest total ever. The reputation of the Rangers’ ballpark may suggest that the change of scenery alone will add to his home run total, but according to park factors, StatCorner, and my own little study, the days of the Rangers’ ballpark as a launching pad are behind us. There is reason to hope, however, for Fielder’s days as a 30-40 home run hitter to return.

According to Fangraphs, just 13.5% of Fielder’s fly balls hit in 2013 ended up as home runs. That is significantly below his career average of 19.2%. This is a ratio, like BABIP, that may point to how lucky or unlucky a player was. For example, in 2012, Fielder’s HR/FB ratio was 18%, even though his average fly ball was only two feet longer than what he hit in 2013 (296 feet vs. 294 feet).

A decrease in HR/FB ratio is also not something that is caused by the decreasing age of a player. The below chart has the MLB averages of HR/FB ratios by age over the last three years. There is no discernible pattern, and some of the highest HR/FB ratios in a given season come on the other side of the age 30 hill:

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Considering Prince Fielder has consistently posted HR/FB ratios near or above 20%, his 13.5% mark in 2013 makes him a clear candidate for a bounce back closer to his career average, which would mean a significant uptick to his home run and slugging percentage totals from 2013.

Fielder was pitched to in 2013 fairly similarly compared to how he was pitched to the rest of his career. For starters, he is most often pitched to low-and-away, which is to be expected:

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2013
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Full career
There also wasn’t a dramatic change in the type of pitches Fielder saw in 2013. If anything, he saw more fastballs and fewer curveballs and sliders:
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For his career, Fielder has been most successful against hard pitches, easily outpacing the other two pitch categories used by Brooks Baseball: 
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While throwing more fastballs to Fielder appeared to be successful in 2013, the bulk of his career would suggest teams will not continue to have success by feeding him a steady diet of the hard stuff.

Finally, Fielder’s age and body type are perhaps the scariest of his characteristics when it comes to prognosticating his future performance. Not many players have Fielder’s body type, and there are fewer who have had sustained elite performance through their 30s. On the other hand, not many players are as durable as Prince Fielder either, who has missed just one game in the last five years. It seems a fair assertion that a player that can stay on the field is also a player who will stay productive late in his career. At the crossroads of bad body and healthy lies Prince Fielder, and it’s a bit of a wild card to see which one prevails.

These numbers don’t consider the importance of the mental aspect of the game. There may have been more affecting Fielder’s uncharacteristic performance last season than just a bit of bad luck and lack of lineup protection. Torii Hunter suggested that Fielder’s divorce from his wife in early 2013 was impacting his play, for example. It’s impossible to accurately speculate on Fielder’s specific situation, but is worth noting that outside factors impacting a player’s approach could absolutely be the cause of poor performance.

Last week, Prince Fielder showed up to his press conference to be introduced as a Texas Ranger with his wife and two kids. He is in a new city, with a new haircut, a new number on his uniform, and a newly designed Rangers jersey. Everything is in place for Fielder to get the fresh start he needs in Texas to get back to his perennial All-Star ways. Based on the numbers, the attitude Fielder displayed during his press conference, and the belief the Rangers’ front office placed in him by trading for him, I think he will. 

Peter Ellwood is a Senior Staff Writer for Shutdown Inning. You can email him at Peter.Ellwood@shutdowninning.com or reach him on Twitter @FutureGM
Peter Ellwood

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