Wednesday, August 10, 2016

Goodbye, Prince

One of the first theories about projecting young baseball players that I can remember was Bill James's description of "Old Player Skills." This referred to players who displayed skills such as relying on power and high walk rates with less speed and a lower batting average. As this FanGraphs article mentions, Nate Silver performed a study that showed that guys with "old player skills" early in their career -- which he defined as being age 25, having a top-quartile walk rate, a bottom quartile speed score, a top half isolated power, and a bottom half batting average -- tended to peak and decline earlier than the average player.

That FanGraphs article, written in February of 2011, tried to identify players who might fall victim to that "old player skills" curse. The three players that article identified? Brian McCann, Ike Davis, and Prince Fielder. 

Here we are, five years later. McCann has played in 90 games this year with a slash line of .231/.329/.410 -- which is basically how he has performed for his entire Yankees career. Davis -- who was just 23 at the time of the article -- was released today at the age of 29 by the Yankees. And, then, we have Prince.

Prince burst onto the scene in 2006 when he hit 28 HR, drove in 81, and hit .271/.347/.483. Starting in 2006 and ending in 2013, Fielder played nearly every game -- sitting out a game in 2010 thanks to the flu after having an IV administered by the Astros team doctor. Even then, after getting the IV done, he tried to get into the lineup. He missed one game between 2008 and 2013 out of a total of 912.

He was a force of nature for the Brewers. In slightly over 6 seasons, he hit 230 home runs in just 4210 plate appearances. When he left the Brewers for free agency, he was second in team history to Robin Yount in HRs (both have since been passed by Ryan Braun). He holds the top 2 spots and is tied for 9th in home runs in a single season in Brewers history. He is the only Brewer to ever hit 50 HR in a season (2007) and added 46 in 2009 and 38 in 2011.

He also holds the team single-season record for RBI, having driven in 141 runs in 2009. For good measure, he also holds down spots 9 and 10 on that list. Showing evidence of his "Old Player Skills," he is the only player in Brewers history to have been walked more than 100 times in a single season -- and he did that three times as well from 2009 to 2011. Indeed, in that category, the only players in Brewers history with more walks are Paul Molitor (755 BB in 8438 plate appearances) and Robin Yount (966 BB in 12,249). Fielder walked 566 times in just 4210 plate appearances.

Yes, I have two different bat swatches from Fielder from 2010.

While Fielder was with the Brewers, the team was a contender. From 2007 to 2011, the Brewers finished under .500 twice (both under the mistake called Ken Macha in 2009 and 2010, thereby wasting Fielder and Braun). Bookending the Macha-stake were two seasons in which the Brewers went to the playoffs -- 2008 (in which the Brewers lost to Philadelphia in the NLDS 3-1) and 2011 (in which the Brewers lost to the GD Cardinals 4-2). 

The club had a winning record in 2012 and 2014, but the window on contending with that core of players -- the group of Braun, Fielder, Gomez, Lucroy, Gallardo, and Weeks -- really closed when the first of the bunch left for greener pastures in Detroit. Fielder signed a massive 9-year, $214 million contract with his dad's former team. Fielder's agent, Scott Boras, made clear to the Brewers that Prince was looking for a contract in excess of $200 million, and Mark Attanasio and Doug Melvin wisely, though sadly, had to pass.

Fielder played every game in his two seasons in Detroit, but his numbers started fading in 2013 already at the age of 29. After that season, the Tigers flipped him to the Rangers along with a satchel containing $30 million (or at least that's how I picture it) in exchange for Ian Kinsler. At the time, Jonah Keri thought it was a good deal for both teams. Oddly, he fretted about Kinsler being a second baseman and pointed to Nate Silver's study about ugly, rapid declines for second basemen with nary a mention of Fielder's old guy skills. Indeed, he actually shrugged off FIelder's increasing strikeouts and decreasing walks and home runs. For what it's worth, Kinsler is still playing at a high level for the Tigers at the age of 34. I guess that proves that smart guys like Jonah aren't always right.

I'm thinking I have a lot of Fielder fabric swatches because, well, his shirts were so large.


The Brewers have yet to replace Fielder at first base completely. Chris Carter hasn't been terrible, and Corey Hart did pretty well in 2012 there, but from 2013 through 2015 the position has been an utter disaster -- I mean, Yuniesky Betancourt actually played more games there than anyone else in 2013 (1 more than Juan Francisco); 2014 featured the artistic strikeout stylings of Mark Reynolds couple with Lyle "O for 4" Overbay. 2015 saw Adam Lind take the spot, but the minute that the team did not contend immediately last year was the minute that Lind would be out the door (and he was).

All of those players -- okay, other than the 2013 tandem of Betancisco -- were/are decent players to be fair. But none of them are stars. Prince was a star.

The Rangers had to hustle to make up for his loss in the order. Despite his Indian Summer last year -- hitting .305/.378/.463 with 23 homers -- it's tough to count on someone to be a key bat in your lineup for many years after they have undergone spinal fusion surgery.

Watching Prince's retirement announcement today was very difficult. He was fully in tears immediately, spoke haltingly, and had a neck brace on after his second surgery.

As he said in his speech today, he's been around major league ballparks since he was a little kid thanks to his dad being Cecil Fielder. Yes, there is an appropriate symmetry that the two would both finish their careers with 319 HR, though Prince was definitely the better hitter overall thanks to his higher batting average and walk rate (daddy never walked more than 90 times and even led the AL in strikeouts with 182 in 1990 -- the same year he hit 51 homers).
Of course, a post about Prince would not be complete with one of the best-ever Milwaukee Brewers baseball cards: his 2010 Topps flagship card.

That came after a walk-off homer for Prince against the San Francisco Giants in September of 2009:

Prince was a great player for too short of a time. Though we could always see the swift decline coming, it doesn't make the fall to the end any softer.


  1. Great article, Tony. It's very sad to see someone who loved baseball so much forced to leave.

  2. That press conference was very emotional. It just seemed like at any given moment Prince was going to break out into tears. I hope he can find solace in spending more time with his family after baseball.

  3. Great post! You have to respect a guy that played everyday and got the most out of his talent. Sad to see Prince have to walk away like this, but he can definitely be proud of all his accomplishments.

  4. Great Post too. I remember about the Prince signing just about fell out of my seat and the Prince trade (for Kinsler?!?). Hope he's able to figure out post-baseball (maybe the MLB Network and play golf with Millar, nah...).

  5. Considered doing a tribute to Prince on my blog... but I think I'll just leave a link to this awesome post. Great job.

  6. Incredible Tribute piece! Prince often scorched the Pirates, but I thought he was one of the most fun players to watch despite only having a few tools. For being such a big man, he actually looked mobile on the basepaths like a locomotive chugging down the tracks. The one thing I remember most about Prince was that he always genuinely seemed happy to be playing baseball. He was always smiling and joking around in the clubhouse (likely because of 20-0 blowouts against the Pirates).