Prince Fielder has been a perennial 30 home run hitter since his first full season in 2006, averaging 34 per season during that span. Consequently, we just expect the numbers to be there at the end of the year. Perhaps that is why you do not hear more people talking about his drop in power so far this season. The other day I was driving when I heard his name mentioned as a buy low candidate on ESPN Radio. I thought to myself that he did not seem to fit that mold, but that was before I took a look at the numbers. So let us investigate this.
Currently with 10 home runs, Fielder is on pace for 27 home runs this season, a number that would easily be a career low. Maybe people believe the numbers will be there at the end, or maybe the spotlight is not as bright because Detroit is playing poorly, but for some reason not many people have noticed. There is always an adjustment moving from league to league, but Fielder’s .316 average suggests that, on the surface, he is making the adjustment well. However, when you go inside those numbers you see a hitter that has some definite differences from the one we are used to seeing.
We will start with his average, since that might be the most surprising thing of all. Fielder is a career .284 hitter and has never once finished a season over .300 (though he did hit .299 twice). A big explanation for the sudden jump in average is .332 BABIP that is 28 points higher than his career average. When you look inside that number, you see that his line drive and ground ball percentages are both above the career marks, which helps BABIP. Along that note, those two numbers have increased ever year since 2009. It is possible that we are seeing an evolution of Fielder as a hitter. But of course the power was there last year when he smashed 38 home runs, so where is it this year?
Two numbers that are noticeably down this year are numbers that are of great interest to Fielder owners: home run per fly ball ratio and fly ball percentage. During his career, he has hit fly balls 40.1% of the time but this season that number is only 32.5%. Similarly, his career HR/FB ratio is 20.1% while this year that number is 15.9%. Fielder is giving himself fewer chances to hit home runs and is driving fewer of those fly balls out of the ball park. Could this have something to do with the switch from Milwaukee to Detroit? Per the home run maps that you can generate here — the one I created charts Fielder’s home runs at Miller Park in 2011 onto the field dimensions of Comerica — 12 of his home runs were hit to what I would consider center field. Take a look at where this site projects those balls would have landed at Comerica — not many would have gone out.
Take that chart for what its worth, but it’s possible that Fielder’s switch to Comerica Park is having a very real effect on his home run totals. Not enough data is available to do a similar plot for this year’s home runs, but one would have to think that he has already lost a few home runs in the power alleys at Comerica. I think the verdict here is that Fielder may just be different this year. Maybe in his new, more spacious home park, more hits are going to fall for him and the batting average can stay up around .300. As far as Fielder being a buy low candidate, I do not think you are going to get many people who want to sell him low. He still ranks 6th on ESPN’s Player Rater for first basemen, which means he is a valuable commodity to owners. But if you can get someone to give him to you at a reduced price pull the trigger. I am willing to be that his batted ball stats will regress much closer to the mean, which means you might get that 30 home run, 100 RBI guy with a higher average — a win all around.
Paul Goldschmidt saw his ownership rise 44.4% over the past week and he is now taken in 82.7% of leagues. I am telling you if you need help at first base and he is still out there in your league, grab him and grab him yesterday. This is a guy who showed 30 home run power in the minor leagues with an average that is not going to kill you (he is hitting .292 this year, 7th among qualified first basemen). Another big reason to own Goldschmidt is his home park Chase Field, which is yielding 1.755 home runs per game, second only to The Great American Ballpark. He is young, playing in a great park, and seeing the majority of his at bats in the 5 or 6 hole, which means plenty of RBI chances. Grab him while you still can or see if you can get him cheap from an owner who might not see him as a household name.
Rekindling the Prospect Shine
Justin Smoak was a disappointment last year, hitting .234/.323/.396 with only 15 home runs. He had a nagging thumb injury and he also dealt with the death of his father, leaving some people, including Keith Law, to think that he may break out this year with a fresh start. It did not happen right away, but Smoak may be coming around of late. Over his last 15 games he is hitting .255 with 4 of his 10 home runs on the season. It is not great, but it is progress. A career .283 hitter in the minors, I am not sure where the average went, but it may never be there. However, if he can turn himself into a 25 home run guy and keep the average around .250, he would be a valuable fantasy asset for those in AL-only leagues or deeper leagues. He is still available in more than half of ESPN leagues, so think about giving him a roster spot if you need help at first.