I do not like green eggs and ham.
Substitute Prince Fielder for green eggs and ham and you arrive at my dogged stance on the current free agent and potential Rangers acquisition. I could see why people like the idea, but every time I found myself actually contemplating those greenbacks for ham, it just felt wrong.
Let’s get this out of the way first: Prince Fielder is a very good hitter, ranging from good to great over the past five years. Mitch Moreland, the team’s erstwhile first baseman, is the sort of player that decent teams can live with when he’s healthy, but not the sort of player an elite team would prefer to pencil into its lineup 120 times a year. Put these two things together and you get a hot stove dream.
However, upon further inspection, there are a lot of reasons he just does not fit. Most of these reasons revolve around his desired contract -- a contract that I had assumed some unfortunate team would be willing to pay him. We’ll come back to this later, but let’s for the moment assume that it will take eight years to sign Prince (though perhaps not all guaranteed). This is less than the 10 years originally floated by his agent, Scott Boras, and less than the older Albert Pujols signed for, but at an average annual value (AAV) of $20-25 million (for a grand total of $160-200 million) is a much greater commitment than I am comfortable with.
On the face of it, this may be surprising to people. Using the $5 million-per-win above replacement benchmark as a general guideline for this off-season’s free agency period, an contract with an AAV of $20-25 million would seem to be fair value given that Fielder has averaged almost 4.5 WAR over the past five years and just over 5.0 WAR over his past three years. Signing for eight years would pay him through his age-35 season, an age at which many players can still provide value (and also the age at which Albert Pujols will still be owed $190 million over seven years).
Fielder has been worth what he is seeking for his AAV the past five years, does that convince you?
No, I still do not like this, Sam I am. The problem is that I do not expect Prince Fielder to age well into his age 35 season. FanGraphs briefly discussed the topic here of how heavier players age, though I do not hold my stubborn stance based solely on this one (limited) data set. How an individual ages can vary greatly from the average; moreover, there are different types of ‘big’. However, I do not think we should dismiss this information out of hand either. The findings of that study would appear to me to apply less to an Albert Pujols type, but Prince Fielder likely falls right into middle of the group identified here. Simply put, Prince Fielder is round. He has a body type and size that often lead to early onset of complications such as knee, hip and back problems or metabolic issues like diabetes. These can also be seen in other sports like football (specifically offensive and defensive linemen) and in non-athletes.
This is not to say that Prince Fielder is guaranteed to be injured. He has been remarkably healthy so far, playing in over 150 games the past six years. However, he has not yet hit the age where these complications normally begin. Signing him from age 27-35? That is taking on significant risk.
Still, isn’t taking on that much risk long term worth it because of where the Rangers are on the win curve right now and how good of a player Prince is?
Sorry, Sam, but I still hesitant. I readily admit that Prince would likely be the best hitter on the team next year, but people seem to be glossing over the drawbacks to Prince as a player. Fielder has been a poor defender (as measured by UZR, DRS or TZL), and this is backed by what scouting reports we have available and most anybody who has watched him [insert your own misnomer joke here]. First base is probably the least important position defensively, but it gets worse. In addition to virtually never stealing a base, Fielder has had a negative BSR (FanGraphs baserunning statistic), averaging -5.5 runs per year. This problem is compounded by the fact that Fielder would likely hit in the middle of the lineup to maximize the value of his bat, but in turn reduce some of the effectiveness of the Rangers’ generally excellent baserunning abilities.
Again, all of this is occurring during his likely peak years in terms of speed and agility. For further evidence that all of Prince’s value is derived from his bat, see the graph which looks at his offensive production (wRC+) and value provided in runs (RAR) by year. Notice a correlation? There is a very real chance that he would have to be moved to DH half way through an eight-year contract.
But what about Prince Fielder moving into a park that was ostensibly a left hand power hitter’s Valhalla?
About that, Sam. People seem to be forgetting that Milwaukee also hosts one of the more LHB-friendly stadia in the game. Park factors set 100 as average; RBiA and Miller Park grade out similarly for left hand bats, both in terms of home runs (119 vs 118, respectively) and overall hitting as measured by wOBA (103 vs 100, respectively). Prince Fielder has already been hitting in a LHB-friendly spot; there is unlikely to be much improvement based just on this.
Ok, you intransigent, red-capped, curmudgeon, what about the fact that there are very rarely elite hitters like Prince on the free agency market?
I do not like how he ran, I would not like it this long term plan. It is true that hitters of Prince Fielder’s caliber do not often hit free agency; however, there are hitters who can give you 80 percent of Prince Fielder’s production for much, much less. While the Rangers have struggled to consistently get production out of first base since the Mark Teixeira trade, it’s important to realize how large the pool of defensively-limited, above-average-hitting players is. This is not as difficult a position to fill as No. 1 starting pitcher or third base; this is a position that good hitters migrate to as they age and their defense falls off.
Even overlooking that a healthy Mitch Moreland is probably a below-average to average player next year, there were 16 first basemen last year who put up wRCs+ over 115. Considering the strength of the rest of the lineup, I am not at all convinced it makes sense to take on that much long term risk when there are likely to be many players available in free agency and through trade who can be good enough.
You do not like them, so you say. Try them! Try them and you may!
Sam! If you will let me be, I will try them. Hmmm…
There are a few arguments that do make me waver. The first revolves around work done by Bill James quite some time ago that showed that power often develops later than other skills. You may have noticed that I previously called Prince a very good hitter, and not elite or some other superlative. This is because while he has had some excellent hitting seasons, he’s also mixed in some merely very good seasons over the past five years. Usually, this can be attributed to random luck or noise that is seen in a highly variable BABIP.
However, as seen below, Fielder’s BABIP has not varied that much by season, ranging from .283-.315, and what variance we see does not particularly align well with the variance in his offensive output (wRC+). Interestingly, Fielder’s ISO, a measurement of power, correlates very well with his total offensive output. Moreover, the third image shows that the variance in power looks to correlate fairly well with Fielder’s HR/FB rate.
I find this fascinating. Baseball analysis now allows us to measure many, many different types of contributions to a team’s success. including types of contact, walk rate, measurements of power, defense, and baserunning. Despite all of this, most of Fielder’s value over the past five years can be attributed to how far he hit his fly balls.
This is where I think age does come into play. While I don’t think Fielder should be treated as most 27-year-old free agents in terms of projecting how kind aging will be over a long-term contract, I do think that he has a chance to further develop his power. This could manifest itself as an increase in power, or perhaps just as an ability to consistently maintain his previous peaks. Given how much of his value is derived from his power, this could create the sort of excess value early in the contract to help offset the risk of future injury-plagued years.
A more recent development in the Fielder sweepstakes is that the previously small market seems to have narrowed even further. Miami seems to be out and wasn't a great fit to begin with; Seattle now has Justin Smoak and Jesus Montero for their 1B/DH combo; even Toronto seems a bit hesitant despite being one of the favorites early in the process. Common wisdom right now suggests that this will come down to Prince Fielder deciding between taking less money to play for a contender in the Texas Rangers, or taking more money from a team like the Washington Nationals and put off contending for a few years. News has seemed to slow to see how the Yu Darvish signing would affect the market, but it would not surprise me to see our old friend Mystery Team pop up again before this is all done.
There is one more thing I should add about Prince Fielder for those vigilant few who have made it this far. While the long term ramifications scare me, even I have to admit ... the 2012 Texas Rangers lineup would be absolutely stunning if they added Prince Fielder, even with likely regression from players like Mike Napoli. That is a lineup (to go with a rotation) that will make the Rangers must see viewing and give it the chance to be a once in a decade type of offense with above average hitters for position at every spot in the lineup except possibly CF. The depth would also be fantastic. So, I guess what I’m trying to say is ...
I do so like
green eggs and ham!