Dethroning a Prince: How to Handle Fielder in 2012
By Sean Mahon
February 21, 2012
Going to school in Milwaukee, I concluded that the inflated college bills included tuition, room and board and the right to witness the most violent, yet powerful swing in all of baseball. I watched Prince Fielder over the last three years and his absolute decimation of National League pitching… and I still remember the moon shot grand slam he hit off Rafael Perez in ’08 interleague play that set Perez’s career back about two years (seriously).
Motown residents now have the pleasure of observing the Prince on a regular basis. Conversely, it becomes Cleveland’s distress.
I’ve compiled a bunch of stats, a little reason, and bit of hope in order to break down the Fielder effect versus Cleveland for 2012.
Career norms: Over his career, the slugging artist forever known as Prince has notoriously destroyed right handed pitching, as you’d figure, though his numbers against lefties are still highly regarded. Fielder hit an ever respectable .282/.363/.459 against lefties in 2011, though he thrived against righties batting .306/.435/.612. Unfortunately, as has been documented, the Indians host a heavy right handed rotation. This makes the lefty bullpen mates like Tony Sipp, Nick Hagadone and Rafael Perez—if he can whiteout the past—that much more valuable come the make or break innings.
The weapons: So how do you pitch to Prince? Especially with Miguel Cabrera hitting in front of him? From what we recall, like most slugging lefties, he loves the ball up and in where he turns on pitches and makes his money (all $214 million of it). Fielder is your prototypical first base slugger that loves when you feed him fastballs; courtesy ESPN’s Inside Edge, in 2011, Fielder hit .325 against the heater. Oh, and Fielder does not miss his pitch; balls right over the heart he thrashes .415 and the corners (obviously) are his lone weak spots (dead red down the middle, Carlos Santana bats only .273). The best pitch to knock Fielder out? The old number two—the curveball. Like any good hitter, Fielder looks fastball first and adjusts, however, at times, he struggles adjusting to that as shown via his .219 average against the curveball last season. For comparison’s sake, 2010 MVP Joey Votto hit .322 against the curve.
Sipp, Perez and Hagadone all primarily throw sliders without true curves in their repertoires, but looking at another set of the numbers, we note that Fielder is hitting a poultry .205 against sliders from left handed pitchers. They’ll be the obvious trio to face Fielder come the conclusive innings. Joe Smith will also be waiting behind the curtain to face Fielder with his dominant numbers against left handed hitters in 2011 (.152 BAA).
The projections: Fielder is going to get his RBIs and homers. He’s going to slug, but we’re hoping it’s against the rest of the American League since the Tribe already has to deal with a pack of Tigers that mash against Cleveland pitching (Peralta, Miguel Cabrera, etc.) ESPN’s Dan Szymborski used his ZiPS system to project Fielder’s 2012 (and beyond)… 2012 projects out to a .275/.394/.504 line (33 HR, 97 RBI) and that just happens to be the finest offensive season projected by ZiPS.
Also worth mentioning is the whole idea of avoiding Fielder. Courtesy MLBDepthCharts.com’s projected Detroit Tigers hitting lineup (and Manager Jim Leyland’s allusions), it appears the 3-4-5 of the Tigers will go Cabrera-Fielder-Young. Using ESPN’s hitting zone, I was able to compare Fielder’s batting zone with Cabrera’s… The conclusion? Fielder is an even more selective hitter than Cabrera. Fielder chased fewer pitches than Miguel Cabrera, so the idea of getting Prince to chase pitches occurs sparingly. Moreover, on average, Fielder hits into 14 ground ball double plays per season while Cabrera typically rolls into about 20 per season. Tribe pitching will have to master an approach to get Delmon Young out if they hope to pitch around Fielder on occasion (who rolls into the pitcher’s best friend 20+ times over a season on average). It may sound easier said than done considering the free swinger hit .323/.344/.532 with three home runs and 13 RBI versus Cleveland—his highest HR and RBI total against any team in ’11.
While Fielder clearly has power and ability to hit to all fields, the right side will be where his hardest hit balls will be smashed.
Enter Kotchman. Reenter Choo.
In theory, balls that do not go over the wall in the spacious Comerica Park will be limited by plus defense with Choo and Kotchman on the right side. The other asset on Cleveland’s side is the science of WAR. Many have noted the loss of Victor Martinez’s +3 wins partly offsets Fielder’s projected +5 wins.
Bottom line is the head-to-head matchups between Cleveland and Detroit will absolutely dictate the season. It’s too simple: the Indians can quickly offset that two game “wins” advantage by beating Detroit and taking the season’s series.
Versus Cleveland: In his six career games against Cleveland, Fielder is thumping a Kellogg’s hearty .545/.625/1.091 which includes an exorbitant 1.716 OPS. Thankfully the sample size is minimal and the Indians’ roster turnover has been gradual. Over that period, he faced current Indians’ Raffy Perez, Joe Smith, and Dave Huff while the major handful of those AB’s came against a plethora of former Tribe greats (for your archive pleasure: Carl Pavano, Greg Aquino, Matt Herges, Jensen Lewis, Jeremy Sowers, Luis Vizcaino, Paul Byrd, Rafael Betancourt, and Jake Westbrook).
However, let’s compare Fielder’s numbers versus the AL to better gauge his firepower for 2012:
Over 96 games against the AL through interleague play, Fielder has compiled a .269/.353/.560 line against AL pitching (26 HR, 61 RBI). For 2012, Bill James suggests a .285/.404/.552 line in his first season in the junior circuit.
The margins: The major difference between the Tribe and the Tigers right now is the Indians’ defense. Fielder-Raburn-Peralta-Cabrera may be one of the worst infield quartets in recent years with handicapped range and feeble defensive instincts. We can mock the poor Tigers defense all we want, but the fact of the matter is the Indians’ defense must make the improvements, too. Cabrera must eliminate the seemingly simple errors, Kipnis must prove he’s not just a converted outfielder playing second base, and hopefully Hannahan helps Chisenhall refine his skills at the corner, or else the spot will be his. The defensive replacements for the later innings will actually be a fine one, though: Kotchman-(potentially) Donald-Cabrera-Hannahan. While it’s evident the Tigers will have a far superior power lineup, the Indians boast more speed (Austin Jackson is the Tigers’ lone speed threat while the Tribe figures to have four to five players with double digit speed) and a better all around defense. It echoes how poor the Tigers are defensively considering the Tribe did not even rank in the top 10 defensive squads in baseball. Furthermore, Detroit lost perhaps its most clutch hitter in Victor Martinez. While Prince clearly brings more prolific power to Motown, the question can still be asked: in a tight spot, who would you rather face… Victor Martinez or Prince Fielder?
"In Conclusion": Fielder is one of the top three sluggers in all of baseball, but he can be tamed. When the cameras are running and the scene is set, you’d have to think the Indians would pitch around Miguel Cabrera—who virtually has no holes in his offensive game—to face Fielder. Coming in 2012 to a stadium near you, be sure to look for these tactics to take out the Prince. For ’12, this all seems like a major predicament for the Indians to handle Detroit. However, something tells me by 2020 (Fielder’s last year under contract, and age 36 season), it will be a different story. We can only hope Indians’ pitching and defense learns how to handle Fielder before then. . .
Joe smith was amazing against lefties last year though. GB pitcher with movement and a deceptive delivery, maybe it'll continue
@Steve-Hah, ok. Let's meet in the middle: It was 2009, my error, but it was less than a month later that Perez was banished back to AAA. And I would say that HR was symbolic of Perez's '09-'10--giving up XBH and consistently pitching with men on base... Beyond Borowski-esque WHIPs. Yikes.
Hope we don't see a repeat result of that with Prince!
Historically, Smith doesn't pitch well against LH-hitters and I don't believe his dominance in '11 will extend into '12, particularly against someone like Fielder. Nevertheless, as noted, the Indians do have 3 LHPs to face Fielder in late inning, high leverage situations.
The main problem will be the fact that our expected rotation will be staffed with only RHPs.