Numerous people have told me that the Grand Canyon is something I have to see in person. It’s supposedly one of those things in life that doesn’t disappoint and you can’t quite appreciated it until you’re standing there ready to be swallowed up by it’s rocky majesty. Having never traveled west of Dallas, I’m just assuming these people are telling the truth. Maybe the Grand Canyon is better on an HDTV.
I remember having that feeling as a kid traveling to Comerica Park to watch Mark McGwire come to town two years after he broke the single-season home-run record. My family bought tickets to a game during that series specifically to see a Mark McGwire dinger in person. He hit one in the three-game set and slashed .333/.385/.677 in 13 PA against my favorite team. The Tigers won two out of three. It was pretty much exactly what you wanted as a young baseball fan.
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Under much different circumstances, I had a similar feeling when Prince Fielder made his Tigers debut at Comerica Park twelve years later. I have a very vivid memory of Fielder taking a huge cut in his first plate appearance that day. It was one of those swings you could hear from the upper deck and you knew if he had made contact that ball would have traveled a very long way. Power is impressive on television, but you can’t always appreciate just how quickly a ball leaves the playing field when you’re watching on your sofa.
Fielder had a great year in 2012, posting a 153 wRC+ and 4.8 WAR. The Tigers went to the World Series and he was a big reason why.The two years that followed weren’t nearly so sunny for Fielder. He dealt with upheaval in his life off the field, had a rather serious neck injury, and was worth just 2 WAR in 890 combined plate appearances in Detroit and Texas. After years of durability, it finally looked like the Fielder was heading toward the decline everyone believed his body type foretold.
Fielder’s big swing on Opening Day 2012 demonstrated why he was one of those things, like the Grand Canyon, that you really had to see in person. He had such a powerful swing and commanding physical presence that watching on TV didn’t really capture. He made run-of-the-mill slides into GIF-able moments.
You shouldn’t be able to swing as hard as he did without striking out a whole bunch, but Fielder had hung around an average punch-out rate while hitting for prodigious power for most of his career. We don’t have a measurement for bat speed or “swing effort,” but we can take ISO as a decent proxy. Fielder absolutely looked the part of a guy who should walk a lot, strikeout plenty, and hit quite a few home runs.
He’s always bucked the strikeout part of that mold a little bit, but in his 2015 comeback, he’s totally destroyed any preconceived notions about what kind of player he ought to be. Obviously, Prince still can’t play defense or the run the bases, but at the plate, he’s really had a one-of-a-kind start to 2015.
At the moment, he has a 5.7% walk rate, 12.3% strikeout rate, and a .216 ISO. That’s not really a line you see very often, and his .377 BABIP is helping him post a career best 172 wRC+ so far in 212 PA. Certainly, these numbers will regress toward the mean as the year wears on, but it’s worth stopping to consider just exactly what a line like this means. Let’s go back to 2014 and find players who posted a walk rate under 6% and a strikeout rate under 13%.
The cut points are arbitrary to be sure, but the highest ISO of the group is 71 points lower than Fielder’s this year. The best wRC+ belongs to Altuve, who’s 37% behind Fielder even with a high BABIP himself. You just don’t post this type of power with this strikeout and walk profile. Since 2004, 107 qualifying hitters have had a walk rate below 6% and a strikeout rate below 13%. Only five have cracked a .200 ISO and the only two since 2006 were both Adrian Beltre.
This is uncharted territory, and while the precise values probably won’t hold for an entire season, it is amazing to see it happen for 200 plate appearances. Guys who put the ball in play this often are up the middle guys with average power at best. And also apparently Price Fielder.
What makes this particularly interesting is that you don’t generally fluke your way into putting the ball in play. We’re all well aware of how fickle batted-ball luck can be and how unstable HR/FB% gets, but we don’t think of strikeout and walk rates being terribly random over one-quarter of a season. You can look at Fielders wRC+ and rightfully expect it to fall when the BABIP and HR/FB% even out, but walk rate and strikeout rate aren’t nearly as random.
Fielder’s made a very real effort to swing more often. He’s hacking at 49% of the pitches he’s seeing this year, up substantially from the 44-45% range he’s been at for almost his entire career. He’s more aggressive across the board and that gives us a really easy explanation for why he’s walking less. Fielder is taking fewer pitches and, by rule, you can’t walk if you’ve just swung at a pitch.
So the curious aspect of all of this is how someone like Fielder can become more aggressive, yet make more contact without sacrificing a bit of power. It would make sense if he was more aggressive, but hitting for less power, or if he was more aggressive and making less contact, but he’s swinging more, hitting for power, and making more contact than ever. By a lot. You can’t get a pitch by him in the strike zone and he’s crushing them when you throw him one.
You also have to remember that this isn’t as easy as saying that he’s finally healthy again, because this is something we’ve never seen from Fielder before. We’ve hardly seen it from anyone lately. And presumably, you also can’t say he’s just lucking into the power because our quality of contact stats say he’s hitting the ball as hard as ever. Any time you see such a weird set of results, you immediately want to talk about the randomness of the game, but these are a few stats that aren’t super luck-driven and the underlying data, as best we can tell, backs up what we’re seeing.
Prince Fielder is a whole new man. He’s having the best offensive results of his career while being more aggressive than ever. That’s not a terribly strange thing, but he’s also making significantly more contact, which doesn’t really fit the narrative. Is it safe to say that he is truly as good as his 2015 numbers? Almost surely not. But have we seen enough to believe he’s healthy and ready to be productive again? It’s likely we have.
In a way, Fielder is like the best player on your softball team. He swings at everything, always makes contact, and gets tons of extra-base hits. He also has no idea how to slide and you can barely play him at first base. This particular version of Fielder probably won’t hang around forever, but the Rangers will certainly ride it for as long as they can.