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Why I’ll Cheer For Prince

Clip art illustration of a Cartoon Tiger with a Missing Tooth

I know this is a raw topic and people have a lot of strong opinions on the matter. This isn’t a lecture and if it sounds like one it’s a failure of the pen and not of the heart. But a lot of people are fired up to boo Prince Fielder. I’m not one of them. This is probably all academic because Prince might miss the series with an injury and because I don’t actually “live close to Michigan,” but I wanted to tell you why I don’t harbor any resentment toward Prince.

Prince didn’t have a good season by his standards in 2013. Some of it was bad fortune early, some of it was distraction late. He was bad in the postseason. He made a really costly baserunning mistake. And a defensive one. He didn’t perform at a level you would expect of someone who makes what he makes. Compared to the player he was in 2012 and the player we think he should have been, he sucked, I won’t argue otherwise.

But I won’t boo him for that. He didn’t want to play poorly, I’m sure. You can argue that he checked out (we’ll get to that), but he wasn’t playing poorly on purpose. It’s not like he intentionally threw the season. It’s the same reason I never booed Inge, Raburn, etc. It’s why I wouldn’t boo Romine or Coke, even though they’re both in way, way over their heads. Baseball is hard.

I’ll never boo anyone based on performance, period. I think it’s wrong. It sends the wrong message, and I don’t care if you’re doing it to show management you want them on the bench. It says your love (or fanhood, whatever) is condition and I don’t think it should be. And I’ve never heard of a player getting better because their fans booed them. As if they don’t know they were failing.

Do I think Prince gave his best effort last year? I’m not sure. I won’t argue if you think he was checked out or a little distracted. That’s fine. But he was distracted for a very good reason. His marriage was ending. His family was being torn apart. His family is more important than baseball. His family might not be more important than baseball to you, but it’s more important to him. And it should be. Some people are good at putting that kind of thing out of their mind. Some people are good at channeling that trauma. Some people crumble. And that’s okay. I don’t think it’s fair to expect a person to perform at their best when they’re going through something like that. Some people can do it, but not everyone can. If my wife left me (love ya. honey!), I would be a pathetic shell of a person. You’d have to convince me to eat, much less produce anything worthwhile at my job.

I don’t think he played poorly because he wasn’t trying, I think he played poorly because he was depressed. I’m not qualified to diagnose a person I’ve never met, or really a person I’ve met, but I know a decent amount about mental health and Prince seemed to exhibit behaviors of someone going through depression. And depression would be a normal response to the end of a marriage. People who have gone through depression can tell you, the entire world is full of stuff you used to love but no longer do anymore. Things that used to provide enjoyment all of a sudden seem pointless and difficult. That’s how I perceived what was going on with Prince.

And that’s how I perceived his “it’s over bro” comments. To fans who just had their season end, it sounded like someone who didn’t care about them. To me, it actually sounded like a guy who wasn’t enjoying his life at all. He didn’t care because he had just had the worst month of his professional life at the end of the worst year (I’m assuming) of his personal life. He wanted to go home and see his kids. And that’s okay with me.

Pro athletes are asked to be superhuman physically. Most people want them to be superhuman in every other way, but they just aren’t. Prince never had the verbal grace of Curtis Granderson and he had just screwed up royally on the biggest stage. Forgive him for giving a few bad quotes.

Don’t get me wrong, I understand why people are unhappy with him. And I think it was a good baseball trade and probably a good trade for everyone involved. Kurt Mensching likened it to a breakup that both parties needed. That’s a good way to put it. I think it was probably good that Prince got traded, but I harbor zero ill will toward him.

Baseball is his job, not his life. My job isn’t my life, I don’t expect anything more of anyone else. Prince doesn’t seem like a bad guy. He didn’t do anything to me. He didn’t hurt anybody. He had a bad year. To borrow his words, it’s over bro. Miguel Cabrera got drunk and got into an altercation with his wife during a pivotal series in 2009. Probably cost the Tigers a trip to the playoffs. He’s beloved. He got into a car in 2011 with a blood alcohol level of .24. He put lives in danger. He’s beloved. I don’t mean to trivialize the work Cabrera has done to right his wrongs, but he’s an honest to God criminal. The Tigers and Tigers fans embraced Cabrera as a family member in trouble. That’s how I feel about Prince.

He was hurting, at least that’s how I saw it. I could be wrong. I see the other side. But Prince was fun to watch and I enjoyed cheering for him as a Tiger. It didn’t work out, but I wish him the best. I’ll always cheer for Prince. He’s one of us, as far as I’m concerned.  To me, it looks like he needs someone to have his back rather than tell him to take a hike. If I was in Detroit this weekend and he was too, I’d be on my feet showing my affection.

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Prince Fielder’s Streaky Season

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Prince Fielder isn’t having a great season compared to the bar he’s set for himself. I covered the issues a couple of months ago and chalked it up to a whole host of things. Primarily he wasn’t making as much contact as the previous two seasons and he wasn’t hitting for the same kind of power he had during the seasons prior to that. In other words, as he matured into a more well-rounded hitter he started to rely more on contact and his contact numbers were down. Mix that with some BABIP luck and you’re stuck with a graph that looks like this (From the original post):

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Since I wrote the post he had a a rough couple weeks and then snapped out of it. His wRC+ is only up to 126 for the season, but he’s hit a lot better since early August and is putting up the kind of numbers you would expect from him over his last 39 games. Let’s take a look at his season in four parts:

Date Games PA AVG OBP SLG
4/1 – 5/10 33 154 0.298 0.422 0.573
5/11 – 6/21 39 171 0.263 0.339 0.395
6/22 – 8/6 39 169 0.219 0.302 0.351
8/7 – 9/16 39 170 0.344 0.400 0.539

The cutoffs are arbitrary to some extent, but every cutoff is arbitrary if you really think about it.  Fielder started hot, slumped, slumped hard, and then caught fire. These are four roughly equal collections.

In the first act, Fielder was excellent as he hit for high average, walked plenty, and hit for power. That’s the Prince Fielder who signed a $200 million contract! Act two is a drop in batting average and a drop in power. Act three is a loss of average but no drop in power. To demonstrate, he are his ISOs from the four acts (ISO = SLG – AVG):

Date ISO
4/1 – 5/10 0.275
5/11 – 6/21 0.132
6/22 – 8/6 0.132
8/7 – 9/16 0.195

You can see quite clearly that when Fielder got a hit in the third act, the odds it was for extra bases was pretty consistent with act two, he just got many fewer hits period. But then his season started to turn around and while he hasn’t recovered his power from April, he’s hitting for more power, and a way higher average since August 7th.

It’s actually kind of remarkable if you separate it out by hard, breaking, and offspeed pitches. Let’s look at batting average and slugging percentage for each.

HARD

Date BA SLG
4/1 – 5/10 0.297 0.676
5/11 – 6/21 0.225 0.348
6/22 – 8/6 0.200 0.278
8/7 – 9/16 0.364 0.560

BREAKING

Date BA SLG
4/1 – 5/10 0.353 0.500
5/11 – 6/21 0.343 0.600
6/22 – 8/6 0.293 0.659
8/7 – 9/16 0.349 0.698

OFFSPEED

Date BA SLG
4/1 – 5/10 0.188 0.250
5/11 – 6/21 0.296 0.296
6/22 – 8/6 0.200 0.200
8/7 – 9/16 0.192 0.308

If the pattern doesn’t jump out to you, allow me to demonstrate. He was still hitting breaking balls well and he was pretty consistent against offspeed pitches. Look at the fastballs, my god, look a the fastballs. His batting average and slugging percentage against fastballs plummeted between act one and two and the average dropped off a little more into act three. Now he’s back in business, but man, that thing cratered.

Fielder couldn’t get around on a fastball to save his life for about 80 games and now he’s doing it again. I’m not going to make any connections between issues he’s having in his personal life and his performance. There could have been an injury or a mechanical adjustment that needed to be worked out. But the evidence is pretty clear and pretty stark.

Prince Fielder couldn’t hit fastballs. He didn’t slump the same way against the other pitches and obviously batters see more fastballs than anything else so it’s going to drive a lot of their performance. There’s certainly a game theory/sequencing thing about what pitches are used when that we can’t really untangle right now, but it certainly appears as if Fielder just went through a period of time – for whatever reason – in which he couldn’t catch up with a fastball. That stretch has been over now for 39 games and 170 PA. He’s crushing the baseball since August 7th and the Tigers are reaping the rewards.

There’s no reason to thing this problem will reoccur, so there’s no reason to thing Fielder won’t continue to mash heading into October. Whatever was going on from May 11th to August 6th is behind him and the guy who cleans up after Miguel Cabrera appears to be back.

Prince Fielder’s Missing Value

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Prince Fielder isn’t having a bad season, he just isn’t having a great one. He’s been worth just 1.0 wins above replacement (what’s WAR?) in 101 games despite being worth close to 5 WAR in each of the last two seasons. The defensive and baserunning metrics always put Fielder clearly below average, costing his team 1-2 wins per season on average, but they are not currently out of line with his career numbers. Fielder’s missing value is entirely on the offensive side of things.

Again, this is not to say Fielder has been bad, but rather that he hasn’t been a great hitter like he normally is. These kind of seasons have happened before for Fielder. Let’s take a look at his single season wRC+ (what’s wRC+?) over his career. This is simply an offensive rate stat that measures how he compares to league average, which is set to 100.

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You can see he has had down seasons in his career. In his first full season he was only at 110. In 2008 it was 125 and in 2010 it was just 136. None of those are bad numbers, but they aren’t like the 4 seasons of better than 50% better than league average that he put up in 2007, 2009, 2011, and 2012. This year he’s all the way down at 122. He’s just 22% better than the league average hitter this season when we expected to see him around 40% better. What’s going on?

Well he’s walking less and striking out more than last season, but he’s still significantly above average in both departments. He’s also been successful when he’s had a higher K%. I’m not saying these aren’t factors, but I don’t think they are the main factors. I think it’s more about the at bats in which he makes contact.

You’ll notice his overall production dips in conjunction with lower batting average and OBP, obviously, but you’ll notice the 2011 and 2012 average spike wasn’t met with an OBP spike. He traded walks for hits. This year he’s essentially walking at the same rate but isn’t getting the hits. It’s as if he changed his approach in the last few years to be more of a contact hitter, and this year the contact isn’t paying off:

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You can see the contact spike very clearly in the following graph:

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2011 and 2012 look like the anomalies. He saw a huge spike in his contact rate, which helped elevate the batting average. He wasn’t hitting for as much power, but plate appearance that used to be walks were now hits, which helped his offensive value because they occasionally went for extra bases as well. Let’s take a look at BB, 1B, 2B, and HR (PA numbers are all very close):

Season 1B 2B BB HR
2006 90 35 59 28
2007 78 35 90 50
2008 96 30 84 34
2009 93 35 110 46
2010 94 25 114 32
2011 95 36 107 38
2012 118 33 85 30
2013 66 21 52 17

He’s always had a very consistent number of singles until 2012 when that number spiked. In 2010, he walked a lot but it cost him his extra base power. 2011 was essentially the best of everything. Lots of singles, career higher 2B, 107 BB, and 38 HR. He parlayed that into a nice contract, actually. In 2012, he hit fewer homers and doubles and walked less, but had a ton more singles to make up for it. Instead of a high walking slugger, he was a solid walking well balanced hitter.

You can see in 2013 that the HR, BB, and 2B pace is down only slightly from last season. The difference between Fielder in 2012 (when he was great) and Fielder in 2013 (when he is just pretty good) is that what used to be singles are now outs. Some of that is a tick up in K% and a decrease in contact% but some of it is about batted balls.

If we look at his BABIP (what’s BABIP?) we can see that the years in which he “struggles” are the years in which he has a low batting average on balls in play.

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Notice first that 2007 doesn’t seem to fit the patter because he was great but has a low BABIP – but remember that he hit 50 HR that season, which aren’t in play. If we bounce 2007 up and say he had a low BABIP for a positive reason, we can see that the down years of his career are the ones with the lower BABIP.

Low BABIP can be about a hitter’s skill, approach, or quality of contact, but it can also be about luck and the quality of the other defense. Let’s see if their is a Fielder explanation in his batted ball data:

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What we can see is that Fielder has been trending toward more line drives lately at the expense of fly balls, which makes perfect sense with our theory that he’s trading big power for more contact and singles. But you’ll also notice that his line drive percentage this year is actually better than his very good 2011 season. He’s also hitting a lot more fly balls this year that he did in the last two seasons, but he has previously been successful hitting that many fly balls. Fielder’s approach is definitely different that in used to be in this respect, but it doesn’t appear to be detrimentally different.

He’s hitting more balls in the air, but they aren’t leaving the park like they should. He is HR/FB%:

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You’ll notice that it has fluctuated in his career, as we would expect given the fluky nature of HR/FB%, but his number in 2013 is noticeably lower than the typical fluctuation. In his best years he’s hitting 22% or better, but in his down years we expect it around 18%. Let’s imagine a scenario in which Fielder’s HR/FB% was 18% this season. That would be 23 HR instead of 17. Five additional homeruns is a meaningful difference.

His current 2013 wOBA (what’s wOBA?) is .352, which is good but not amazing. If we trade 5 outs for HR, what happens? It goes up to .377. That’s not in line with his great seasons, but it’s much better. That calculates out to a wRAA (what’s wRAA?) of 22.5, which is good for about 2.4 WAR offensively. He’s currently offering an offensive WAR of around 1.3. These 5 HR account for an entire win above replacement in value and something like 1.6 WAR extrapolated out over an entire season. He’s a 3.9 WAR offensive player if he hits exactly like this the rest of the season if he bring his HR/FB% in line with his previous lows. That’s much better. His defense and running will still cost him 1-2 wins before he positional and replacement level adjustment.

So we have to ask ourselves if the HR/FB rate is Fielder’s fault or just bad luck? And also, if he’s generally been unlucky on balls in play turning into outs. If it’s just bad luck, we don’t have to worry and we can easily expect him to regress to the mean and play better the rest of the way.

If we take a look at this Hard Hit Average leaderboard, Prince Fielder still ranks extremely well (H/T Mark Simon and ESPN Stats and Info):

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If you can’t read it, he’s 14th in baseball with a hard hit average better than guys like Chris Davis, David Wright, and Paul Goldschmidt. It seems like he’s making hard contact at a high rate, but he’s simply not getting those balls to drop. The same thing happened to Victor Martinez earlier this season and everything corrected itself for him. If we believe that hard hit balls are predictive of good performance, and I do, then it looks like Fielder is just getting unlucky and everything should be fine. His hard hit average is down this year, but it’s still way above the MLB average of .170. When you hit the ball hard this often, the results are usually very good.

Hard Hit Average
2010 0.244
2011 0.290
2012 0.269
2013 0.234

He’s getting fewer hits on balls in play, but he’s not hitting the ball weakly, he’s hitting it in the wrong place. Combine that with a fluky low HR/FB% and you can wash away Fielder’s offensive problems. The results matter for the team, but there doesn’t appear to be anything wrong with the process. And process is more predictive than results going forward and going forward is what we care about. Even if he’s lost a touch of power behind his swing, it’s still going to produce results better than this going forward.

Prince Fielder is having a down season in the second season of a huge contract, but it doesn’t look like this is the sign of an early decline. It’s mostly just some bad luck, and luck often turns.

The Book on Prince Fielder

What Other People Think:

No one would question Prince Fielder as an offensive force. He hits for power, has excellent plate discipline, and has improved his ability to limit strikeouts over the last couple seasons. He’s a top flight slugger. He tends to get downgraded for his below average defense and often comical running of the bases, but at the plate, there is little disagreement about his ability.

To the general populace, Fielder is a top five first basemen and usually only trails the great Joey Votto and Albert Pujols. He’s an all-star level player who is better defense short of the MVP conversation.

But he is working on it. Someone I know who was down in Lakeland last spring reported that Fielder spent extra time with Tom Brookens working on his glovework and the same person told me that Fielder was not only hard at work, but was extremely receptive to Brookens’ teaching. Fielder might never be a good defensive player, but I like that he’s trying to improve his defense to go along with a bat that everyone respects.

What the Numbers Say:

Prince is more or less a model of consistency. He’s never played fewer than 157 games since his first full season and is a virtual lock for .270 or better with 30 or more homeruns. Fielder has never walked less than league average and is often near the top of the leaderboard in that category.

By looking at his stat page, it is clear that Fielder is a power hitting force with great plate discipline and an improving hit tool. The baserunning and defensive numbers are discouraging, but they are not so terrible that one would demand he become a DH.

What My Eyes Tell Me:

Over Fielder’s first six seasons I watched him from afar and generally knew no more about him than I did any other non-Tigers player. I saw him during interleague play and on highlight reels in addition to the occasional random game during a Tigers off day, but I never got the chance to watch him day in and day out.

Let me tell you, it was eye opening. I knew he could hit for power, but I never realized how talented he was as a pure hitter. While he does swing and miss on occasion, he is not a power hitting whiffer like Adam Dunn or Mark Reynolds. Fielder has exceptional hand eye coordination and is actually a very good contact hitter despite a body type that says otherwise.

About that body type. Everyone seems to think he’s going to break down and age poorly because of his size, but in seven years, he’s never missed more than five games in a season. He moves pretty well for someone of that size and absolutely never dogs it on the field. He’s giving max effort 162 games a year and doesn’t get hurt. I’m not going to worry about his size until he gives me a reason to.

Fielder’s glove is a bit of a liability, but I know that he is working on it. He’s never going to be a star on defense and we should all accept it. On the bases, he’s a bit of a wild card. He’s always hustling, which I appreciate, but he can sometimes run into outs and get hosed due to his limited horsepower.

That said, the offensive performance is fantastic and I value his leadership and personality in the clubhouse. Fielder is definitely a well-adjusted, relaxed guy who doesn’t take plays and games off. He isn’t the perfect player, but we can’t all be Mike Trout. I really like what Fielder brings to the table and was surprised to see how much of a complete hitter he was when he joined the Tigers last season.

The Dotted Line:

Let’s see. Year two of a nine year, $214 million deal. As long as no one runs out of checks, Fielder’s contract isn’t much of a story. He’ll be with the club for years to come.

Fantasyland:

Fielder is a player who is worth more to the fantasy owner than he is to the real one because Fielder’s iffy defense won’t hurt you in a standard league. He provides great value at every category except steals which should make him a top two or three round guy. Grab him if you can.

The Lead:

Prince Fielder is an excellent hitter who mixes power, contact, and plate discipline in a very effective manner. Despite his poor defense and questionable baserunning, he’s a perennial all-star type player who appears to have a positive effect on the clubhouse and the city. He’s as durable a player as there is in the game today, and if he keeps that up, he’ll be a centerpiece of every Tigers team for the next decade.

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