MILWAUKEE — With just 40 games left in the 2012 season, we’re about at the time where fingers are pointed, scapegoats are made, and blame is passed as fans question what could have been.
What if the bullpen hadn’t struggled so much? What if the Brewers had uncovered Mike Fiers earlier? What if injuries hadn’t ravaged the clubhouse in May?
Then there’s an even bigger, more controversial, question: Would Prince Fielder have made a difference if he had remained in Milwaukee instead of leaving for Detroit at the end of last season?
It’s a question that’s remained dormant for the majority of 2012, as it has become increasingly clear that no one player could replace the offensive skills Fielder brought to the table. At least that’s the answer anyone in the Brewers’ organization will give when asked about it.
But the question persists. Would Fielder have made much of a difference in this year’s disappointing season?
Statistically, the answer — while tough to fully prove — is no. Not to an extent that would’ve drastically changed the Brewers’ fate this season.
As a Tiger this season, Fielder has a wins above replacement rate (2.4) that would make him the Brewers’ third-most valuable player, behind Ryan Braun and the guy who replaced him in the cleanup spot, third baseman Aramis Ramirez. According to that value measurement and the statistics he’s put up in a fundamentally better lineup, Fielder would be valued somewhere between Ramirez and right fielder Norichika Aoki, who is currently the team’s third-most valuable player (2.1).
Some of that has to do with Fielder’s subpar defensive numbers — his defensive WAR rate would make him the third-worst value on defense on the Brewers’ roster, behind only second baseman Rickie Weeks. But again, Fielder wasn’t in the lineup for his defense. So how has Milwaukee done in replacing him on the offensive end?
Well, by judging team statistics in relation to the rest of the National League, it’s fairly simple to surmise that the Brewers haven’t skipped so much as a beat in replacing Fielder’s general offensive production. Milwaukee still leads the NL in home runs and is actually on a better home runs-per-game pace than it was last season — 1.14 in 2011 compared to 1.214 this year. In terms of runs per game, the Brewers are fifth-best in the National League this year — the same spot they were in last season — and are again on a better pace with 4.45 runs per game last season compared to 4.625 runs per game this season.
It seems — just as the Brewers had preached since Fielder signed in Detroit — that replacing his production with a multitude of players was the most effective answer to losing one of baseball’s elite offensive talents. Breakout seasons from Aoki, catcher Jonathan Lucroy, and center fielder Carlos Gomez have indeed helped bolster the team numbers that seemed destined to take a hit in Fielder’s absence. And Ramirez, who had a more difficult task than many in the Brewers’ lineup, has been fantastic since struggling to start the season — hitting an amazing .355 with six home runs and 25 RBI since July 1 while leading the NL in extra-base hits.
As much as the statistics may prove that Fielder’s offensive production hasn’t been missed nearly as much as you might think, there’s one factor that simply can’t be overlooked in his absence. On several occasions this season, Brewers manager Ron Roenicke and a handful of players have lamented the loss of Fielder’s personality in the clubhouse — an intense, win-first persona that a guy like Ramirez can’t easily replace.
“Prince is a big personality,” Roenicke said last week. “Prince has that edge about him, which we miss that edge. He doesn’t put up with losing. He doesn’t put up with not playing hard. And that personality, along with how he played and when the game’s on the line … the combination of it, we miss Prince, certainly. But trying to figure out how to replace him, I think Aramis has done a great job with what we needed for this team to go offensively and have a No. 4 hitter.”
Lucroy agrees. Despite Fielder’s other-worldly offensive skills, the Brewers have missed him most in the clubhouse.
“He led by example and not really by talking,” Lucroy said, “and a guy like that that goes out and plays hard every day, no matter day game, night game, whatever. … That’s a lot to live up to for anyone.”
So is it fair to say that the Brewers haven’t missed Prince Fielder? Of course not. But are they out of contention because Fielder is no longer a fixture at the No. 4 spot in the lineup? Not even close.