Cecil Fielder: Blueprint for the Modern Slugger


I love this card. Photographed by Sports Illustrated’s Walter Iooss Jr.

The modern, proto-typical slugger bashes homer and walks at a good pace, but also racks up strikeouts at a serious clip. Three True Outcome sluggers. Guys like Adam Dunn, Jim Thome, and patron saint Jack Cust, who are looking primarily for balls in the zone to drive, strikeouts be damned. They have a good grasp of the strike zone, always on the lookout for a pitch within the parameters of the plate. They have been in high demand for a while now, probably since the Oakland Athletics’ “Moneyball” stratagem of capitalizing on the low-market value of OBP in the early ‘00’s.

Ufortunately, a lot of modern power hitters immediately come under scrutiny because they just might have been doping to get the power edge. Jeff Bagwell falls into this category, as did the colossal Ryan Howard when he first entered the big leagues. Before that, ‘roids and other assorted PED’s ran rampart, inflating power numbers in a way that hadn’t been seen in the big leagues in a long, long time. In fact, from 1900 to 1980 there were only nine separate players who donged 50+ times. NINE. From 1995-2002 there were ten playes that exceeded 50. But in between those two eras there was one man who bucked the trend and became the harbinger for the Three True Outcome hitter. A man whose prodigious power was apparent in the minor leagues, but whose major league inconsistencies earned him a trip to Japan. A man who returned to the US an afterthought, but who captured the adoration of a baseball nation.

My favorite Fielder card: 1987 Topps.

That man? Cecil Grant Fielder.

Fielder, drafted by the Royals in the 4th round of the 1982 draft. Large and not quite deft with the glove, the Royals traded him to the Blue Jays in February ’83 for Leon Roberts. As a prospect in the Blue Jays’ system he hit exactly 100 home runs, collected 1,003 total bases, and sported an OBP of .371. Yet in two full seasons with Toronto in 1987 and ’88, Fielder got a total of only 349 at-bats. In ’87, he went a whole season without starting against a righthander. Also not helping his case was a young first baseman behind him in the system named Fred McGriff.

After failing to impress Toronto he was basically banished to Japan, where, “Mr. Baseball” aptly identified, former Major League has-beens and never-weres congregated. But a funny thing happened playing first base for the Hanshin Tigers: Fielder reached his potential.

An eBay miracle: a Big League Star card featuring Hanshin Tiger Cecil.

Fielder hit 38 homers and knocked in 81 runs in 106 games, and suddenly his name was being floated around the Majors as a power-hitting first base cornerstone. The Detroit Tigers decided to invest $3 million dollars for two years of Fielder, and in his first season he made quite good on their gamble.

Fielder smashed 51 home runs in 1990, the first man to crack 50 since George Foster in 1977. He even hit his 50th and 51st homers in Yankee Stadium on the last day of the season. He became the Tigers’ first RBI champion since 1955 and their second home- run champion since 1946. Heck, only three Tigers had 100 RBI in a season in the ’80s, and Fielder had 100 two weeks before Labor Day.

His Three True Outcomes were in full display in Detroit, as he struck out a no-longer-jaw-dropping 182 times, but had 90 walks. In fact, in seven season in Motown (including strike-shortened ’94 and his trade to New York in ’96) he averaged 74 walks a year, and had an OPS below .800 only once. His ISO in Detroit only dropped below .200 once, and that was when he was at .197 in 1993 (also the year of his single-season BB% rate of 13.4).

It’s sometimes forgotten how much of a monster this guy was in his heyday. He cleared the roof at Tiger Stadium. He finished second in the AL MVP twice. He should have won World Series MVP in 1996 for the Yankees (Well, I may be biased…). Fielder was a slugger the league hadn’t seen in decades, and five years after his US reemergence his accolades were rendered nearly ordinary by the surge of pumped-up mashers during the Steroid Era.

It’s interesting how his style of play would fit in so well nowadays, and how his career arc resembles a lot of patient sluggers of today (Chris Carter springs to mind). No matter how well players did in the last twenty years we should never forget how Detroit’s Cecil Fielder was the harbinger of the sluggers to come.

And he stole two bases in 1996. Amazing.