Prince Fielder‘s 16 home runs, 69 RBI and .820 OPS at the break would look pretty good for most other guys. For Prince Fielder, those numbers are a bit of a disappointment.
We didn’t like Fielder’s 30 home runs last year, lowest since his rookie year. But, we definitely DID like his career-best .313 batting average last year. The buzz was that, though Comerica Park might be putting a little bit of a damper on Fielder’s home run power, Fielder was becoming a “better hitter” as he matured. Some of those signs looked good, he hit a lot of line drives and recorded a career low strikeout rate of only 12.2%. What’s more 2012 marked Fielder’s second consecutive season with a higher walk rate than strikeout rate, something typically only the best hitters (like Miguel Cabrera) can do. Last year he did very well in Comerica Park (an OPS over 1.000) – the park that was supposed to eat him alive. Worth pointing out is the fact that Fielder actually hit 6 more home runs at Comerica Park than on the road. As a result of that, Fielder was good for 4.8 wins above replacement despite the reduction in power and just about earned his massive salary.
This season looks a little different so far. The things we liked, we aren’t seeing anymore. The things we didn’t haven’t gone anywhere. Fielder hasn’t become a bad hitter, but his walk rate is down while his strikeout rate has drifted up almost exactly to his career average. His line drive, ground ball and fly ball distribution is also almost exactly back to his career norm. The BABIP is a little below his career average, but closer to it than last year’s .321. His aggregate defensive numbers are noticeably worse than last year, but they are much more in keeping with what he did for the Brewers. As for those HR/FB ratios? Last year’s 17.9% was his lowest since his rookie year, but similar to a couple of his less impressive seasons in Milwaukee. This year it has dipped further, to 13.6%. His splits this year paint an uncomfortable picture – his power looks fine on the road, but at home his HR/FB rate is only 10.6%. Versus lefties, at home, he’s sporting an ISO of .057.
This is just three and a half months of one season, and if Fielder hasn’t been great he certainly hasn’t been Alex Avila either. What is concerning, ultimately, isn’t the production it’s the fact that what he is doing (or failing to do) this year looks so much like what the doomsayers had to say about him when Mike Ilitch wrote him that check. What it suggests is that last season might have been more a fluke than anything else, and not convincing evidence that the doomsayers were wrong. We may see a big second half surge from Prince, all it would take it a heat wave and some favorable winds. But, this Fielder might also be the “true” Fielder.