Prince Fielder has one very important role in this Tigers offense: punish teams that pitch around Miguel Cabrera (and maybe pick up the slack if somebody manages to get Miguel Cabrera out with men on base). He’s a guy that’s likely to hit close to .300 with massive power – so he’s pretty darn good at that. That’s fantastic, because he doesn’t run the bases particularly well and he doesn’t field his position perfectly well.
Now, there is a second thing that Prince Fielder brings to an offense: a ton of walks. Do I need to mention that he’s leading the AL in walks? Not homers, RBI, etc… Walks. Partly it’s that he’s a patient hitter, partly it’s that he intimidates opposing pitchers and partly it’s that the guy is short. His strike zone isn’t that big. The result is an on-base percentage that currently sits at .408, currently good for 6th in the American League. He’s on base all the time, Prince should be scoring lots of Detroit runs and not just driving them in. He isn’t, though. Fielder is currently on pace to score only 81 runs – and only 49 if you don’t count the times he’ll drive in himself. He only scored 83 for the Tigers last year – and that’s just not good enough. The problem is obvious – he hasn’t had strong production behind him at the 5th spot in the batting order. Last year it was Delmon Young and his .707 OPS. As a Brewer, Prince had the same problem – a great #3 in front of him but often terrible #5′s behind him. I’d argue that it’s even more of a problem now than it was in Milwaukee because Comerica park seems to elevate his batting average a bit but hold those home runs down.
In 2011, #5 was one of the least productive spots in the Brewers batting order. In 2012, #5 was one of the least productive spots in the Tigers batting order. In 2013… well… even bringing up Victor Martinez’ struggles feels mean-sprited, but I’ll have to do it anyway. Despite “hitting balls hard”, VMart had a .579 OPS going into yesterday’s game. If you want a detailed analysis of Martinez’ issues and what to expect for the rest of the season, check out Michael Barr’s article on Fangraphs. The brief recap is that Martinez is suffering from a low BABIP and low HR/FB rate. As far as causes, it (again) doesn’t seem to be “how” he’s hitting the ball – he is hitting the ball hard. He IS falling behind in a lot of counts though, for what that’s worth. Regardless, his lack of production puts the Tigers in an awkward position going forward. Martinez sits in perhaps the most important “run producing” spot in any lineup in any league at the moment. Fielder should be scoring more runs than this. Despite leading the AL in runs scored, Miguel Cabrera should be scoring more runs than this. He’s on base very nearly half the time, come on. Just about anybody (except Alex Avila) should be able to provide more production than Martinez has in April and May, including a bunch of guys currently on the roster and a bunch of guys that the Tigers dumped over the last couple of years (Raburn, Inge, Boesch, even Delmon Young). Of course – so should Martinez. If you trust “hit trajectories” and “expected BABIP”, you’d figure Martinez will be fine. But if he can’t shake off that rust quick?
What should probably happen right now is that Martinez trade’s lineup spots with Jhonny Peralta (who has been swinging a good stick) and drop down to #7 in the order. I’d say lower, but he’s still out-hitting Avila. Jim Leyland does not like to do that sort of thing, unfortunately. When lineup positions never change, players are going to feel like one is “theirs” and any change is punishment. So we’re going to cross our fingers and hope for a bit longer and wait for Martinez to turn things around, while keeping him in the spot where his bad bad can do the most damage to the offense. In the longer term, though that might simply mean “around the trade deadline”, the Tigers are going to have to start thinking about whether they can afford to keep throwing Martinez out there every day. He’s already being paid, so he’s effectively “free”. That should matter on a team that is pushing it’s payroll limits. The Tigers have some decent (if green) young hitters down in AAA, but they really don’t have anyone who is a prototypical DH – a positionless masher – or a prototypical #5 hitter – all isolated power and no plate discipline. They certainly could find a DH on the open market that could give them production below average but above replacement level – which would be loads better than what they are getting now and better than what they got last year as well. But… when do you determine that enough is enough? When do you decide that a guy isn’t likely to break out of a slump? Cutting bait seems to be the popular plan with fans, but that may be only because once a player is gone you don’t see him anymore. You could simply assume that Raburn is out of baseball or stinking it up in AAA right now. He isn’t, his OPS for the Indians is .881.