Sometimes hitters are terse about their craft. They aren’t all Joey Votto, after all. But if you can pry a few thoughts from them, you’ll still find multitudes underneath seemingly simple statements. At least, that’s what happened after a conversation I had with Prince Fielder last week.
Before a game against the Athletics on April 22nd, I pointed out to the Rangers slugger that he makes more contact than most power hitters. "I’m making more contact on pitches that I want to swing at," Fielder said of maturing as a hitter. The average top-30 home run hitter since 2011 has swung and missed at nearly 11 percent of the pitches he’s seen. Fielder’s swinging strike rate over the same time frame is 8.7 percent.
But things have changed in this regard over his career. Over his first four seasons, he struck out 19 percent of the time and swung and missed more than 11 percent of the time. Over his last four seasons, he’s struck out 14.5 percent of the time, thanks to that reduced swinging strike rate.
Ask the slugger, and the answer why seems so simple: "Trying to be ready to hit," he offered with a shrug before asking: "Being more selective?" His reach rates haven’t improved much, though. In the first four years of his career, he swung at 27.4 percent of pitches outside the zone and 69.1 percent of pitches inside the zone. The last four years, he’s swung at 30.4 percent of pitches outside the zone and 67.7 percent of pitches inside the zone. Strange way to become more selective.
What Fielder has done is swung less as he’s aged — down from 47-48 percent to around 44-45 percent. There’s some evidence that swinging less is good for you, even without slicing it into swinging more at pitches inside the zone and less at pitches outside the zone. The Twins are trying this approach out currently.
But let’s look at this brute force stat — swing% — on an individual level. Since 2011, there have been 233 qualified batters. Take a look at how the top 50 and bottom 50 in swing percentage have done against each over that time frame.
Swinging less often is better for your walk rate, and therefore your overall production, but only given equal amounts of power; It is possible that hitters who swing less often, in order to draw more walks, are giving up the chance to hit extra base hits in the process. Or perhaps they just aren’t capable of driving the ball, as Fielder is.
Interestingly, during the time that Fielder has reduced his swing rate, he’s both 1) moved from a hitter’s park in Milwaukee to a pitcher’s park in Detroit (relatively), and 2) lost power. Asked about the relationship between those two things, Fielder admitted that Detroit’s larger park meant he had to change:
You definitely have to change your swing up a little bit. At least I did. Bigger park, you can’t be hitting fly balls to center all day, because you’ll probably won’t have as much success as you would somewhere else. Try to do different things, try to hit line drives. Had to change up just a little bit.
Once again, Fielder doesn’t say anything you’ve never heard before. But there’s a lot behind these statements.
For one, did Fielder change the angle on his balls in play when he went to Detroit? Detroit’s park plays neutral for lefties, but Milwaukee was much friendlier according to FanGraphs’ park factors. Take a look at his pull, center and opposite field percentages in Milwaukee, Detroit and Texas:
Well that seems fairly stark. It might be a little early to say he’s changed his approach in Texas, but it’s not that early. Consider the fact that the player himself made reference to making this change on purpose, and then consider that other batted ball information like this — ground-ball rate — becomes meaningful around 150 plate appearances. Fielder’s not too far away.
Speaking of ground-ball and fly-ball rates, that’s the other way a player can change their swing to accommodate their park. Let’s look at that other aspect of his swing in each uniform:
Some of this could be aging. You do hit more ground balls as you age. But the difference between Milwaukee and Detroit was fairly stark — he’d spent all those years in Milwaukee hitting almost exactly one ground ball for every fly ball and then it looks like he decided to hit more ground balls in a park that was less friendly to fly balls. The result was exactly what the slugger wanted: the two best line drive rates of his career came in Detroit.
Let’s see if we can spot the difference. On the left is a swing when the slugger was with Milwaukee in late 2011. On the right is a swing from Detroit last year.
Whether or not our untrained eyes can spot it in two random plate appearances set two years apart, and whether or not he’ll put the exact mechanical changes into words for us, it looks like Fielder has spent his time adjusting: adjusting to how pitchers want to throw him, and to the peculiarities of his home park. If that trend continues, expect him to pull more fly balls and begin to take more advantage of his home park in Texas.
"That’s the key — not missing the pitch you want to take an aggressive swing at," the slugger said. Another seemingly straightforward statement that hides the complexity that is being a high-contact slugger in professional baseball.