Tuesday, September 25, 2012

The transformation of Prince Fielder

Whether or not the Detroit Tigers make it to the playoffs when the season ends a week from now, Prince Fielder has not been a disappointment for his new team. The homer total is down from the prodigious days when he hit 50 and 46 homers for the Brewers. And it is not because of his home park. In fact, Fielder has hit eight more homers at home in Comerica than he has on the road this season. But all in all, Fielder has had a fine all around season for the Tigers. And one of the most interesting things about his season is that it completes a two-year transformation. Fielder is a different hitter than he used to be.

How so? Fielder used to be a power hitter. He crushed the 50 homers and the 46 homers. But he also struck out a lot. For most of Fielder's career, you could count on him striking out around nineteen percent of the time. No, that is not in the Dunn and Uggla category, but it was good for about an average of 135 whiffs a season. Fielder started a trend last season and continued it this season. He is now a contact hitter.

In Fielder's first three full seasons, he swung and missed: 10.9 percent, 10.9 percent and eleven percent. That is pretty consistent. Then, in his next two seasons, that swing and miss percentage went to 9.8 percent in both seasons. Again, that was consistent. But last year, his swing and miss rate went down to 8.0 percent and this year, it is at 8.3 percent. That, folks, is a contact hitter.

And it shows in his contact rate. For most of his career, you could count on Prince Fielder making contact about 76 percent of the time. The last two seasons, that contact rate has been above 80 percent. That contact is across the board too. The last two seasons, his contact percentage is the highest of his career on both pitches in the strike zone and those not in the strike zone.

The weird thing about this is that his plate discipline really has not changed any. Fangraphs.com's data shows him to be swinging at more pitches outside the strike zone than at any time in his career. But PitchF/X data gives him nearly the same rate for what he has done his entire career. So, for all intents and purposes, Fielder has become more of a contact hitter without being any more patient at the plate than usual. And just for the record, Fielder has never been a reckless swinger of pitches out of the strike zone. He's always had a respectable discipline.

The question is: Is this a good thing? Well, that is hard to gauge. His line drive percentage this year is the highest of his career. But his fly ball percentage is the lowest of his career. Less fly balls mean less homers. Less homers mean that his slugging percentage is about sixteen points below his career average. But then again, his OPS is exactly at his career average. His wOBA and wRC+ are also slightly above his career average. If you like the long ball, then you might not like the new Prince Fielder. But otherwise, on a whole, he is just as good a player and perhaps can be more consistent this way. His career has shown lots of ups and downs.

Prince Fielder has a lot of interesting numbers this season. First, he has less strikeouts than walks. He has 80 strikeouts and 81 walks. At his current pace, this should be his first full season ever with less than 100 strikeouts. Secondly, Fielder's hit total is going to be in the top three for his career. He has had 177 hits once and 170 hits another season. This season, he has 170 so far with a week to play. But what is more interesting is that Fielder has never hit more than 96 singles in a season. He has hit 110 of them this season.

The final conclusion here is that Fielder has been far from a disappointment in his first season with the Tigers. According to the fielding data, he is playing a better first base than Miguel Cabrera ever did. His wOBA is right in line with his career numbers and he has hit 28 homers and driven in over a hundred runs. His play has been worth 4.7 fWAR or around $21 million in value. The Tigers have overpaid him, yes. But Fielder has not been a disappointment in any sense of the word. But, what is surprising is that despite swinging harder than any man alive, Fielder is now a contact hitter. Who knew?

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