Monday, July 29, 2013

Concern Over the Elephant in the Room

Despite a narrow first place lead in the AL Central as July comes to a close, the Tigers have seen a lot go wrong this year. Justin Verlander has been inconsistent. Alex Avila has looked lost. Andy Dirks has been disappointing after a strong 2012. The specter of suspension hangs over Jhonny Peralta. Injuries have taken various amounts of playing time from Anibal Sanchez, Austin Jackson, Torii Hunter, Omar Infante, Octavio Dotel, and Miguel Cabrera. Jim Leyland has a bunting fetish. Also, Jose Valverde exists.

But perhaps the most troubling issue facing this team is one that I haven’t seen addressed much on Tigers sites. This problem might be the biggest, too, in the long run. And by big, I don’t mean the minimum of 275 pounds he’s lugging around, either. (Lynn Henning smiles.) I’m talking about the quietly dreadful season Prince Fielder is having so far.

I should probably blame myself. In my preseason predictions, I picked Fielder as my choice to be the 2013 AL MVP. My thought process was that having a year of seeing AL pitching under his belt, plus now having Victor Martinez hitting behind him instead of Delmon Young, Prince would have a monster year. Also, I didn’t want to go with the obvious choice and pick Cabrera to repeat. Fielder started well, hitting .301/.417/.591/1.009 with 7 home runs in his first 25 games. And that was with V-Mart struggling. I was feeling good about my choice.

Today? Not so much. May and June were not kind to Prince. And now that Martinez is finally hitting like the V-Mart of old, Prince is flailing out there and struggling even more this month. In July, he has hit an awful .221/.295/.347/.643 with only 4 homers, while playing against some teams that aren’t very good. For the season, he’s at .261/.353/.440/.794 with 17 long balls. That may not look horrible, but it’s definitely not what the team was expecting from him.

Last season, he stuck out only 84 times, a personal best for Prince. This year? He’s already K’d 80 times. Fielder grounded into 19 double plays in 2012. In 2013, he’s already up to 17. The man just doesn’t look the same out there. He’s swinging at garbage. For his immense power, he’s weakly grounding out and popping up more than we expect from the monstrous cleanup hitter. Sure, everyone not named Miguel Cabrera struggles, but this has been going on for months now.

According to Fangraphs, Cabrera (not surprisingly) leads the Tigers in WAR at 6.4. Fielder is 9th. ON THE TEAM. Prince’s WAR is 0.8, trailing role players like Matt Tuiasosopo (1.2), Andy Dirks (1.0), and…Don Kelly (1.0). Yes, THAT Don Kelly. This is not a thing that should be.

Among AL first basemen, Fielder ranks 12nd in WAR and 22nd in all of MLB at first. Well, he sucks at defense, you may say. WAR isn’t perfect and yes, Prince is an abortion of a defender. I’ll give you that.

So let’s focus on offense. The man can still draw a walk with the best of them. His OBP is 6th among AL first basemen with at least 150 plate appearances. But he’s not making a small fortune to walk. He's not supposed to be Adam Dunn. And even getting on base has been more of a chore. His OBP is .353. Last year, it was .412. The three years prior to that? .415, .401, and .412 again.

The term “slugging” was invented for guys like Fielder. Yet in slugging percentage, Prince ranks 13th in the AL behind clowns like Adam Lind, Brandon Moss, and Chris Carter. This should be troubling to you. I know it is to me.

Now if you ask Rod Allen or someone else from the Department of Propaganda at FSD, I’m sure they’d point to Fielder’s 75 RBI, 3rd among AL first basemen, as proof that he’s still producing. But I’d argue that with Torii Hunter and Miguel Cabrera constantly on base in front of him, anyone in that position would have a decently high RBI count. His current average with RISP is .271, for the record, 12 points below his career mark. More glaringly, it is 67 points lower than 2012’s .338 number he put up. Yikes.

Is it too early in the season to panic? Probably. With a good August through October, Fielder can make the past couple months seem like a bad dream. For his career, the guy has put up an OPS of .922 in August and .981 in September/October. It’s definitely not too late to turn it around.

But man, he’s sucked lately. And for a team that’s World Series or bust, and being a guy making $23 million this year (and $24 million for each of the next SEVEN), Fielder’s struggles are only going to get more glaring the longer they go on.

I don’t believe this team can win the World Series without a productive Prince Fielder. Whatever his issues are, they need to get sorted out ASAP. Otherwise, the Tigers’ chances are not very Prince-like. They are slim. Zing.

(Henning smiles again.)

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