Prince Fielder flopped, and so did the Tigers.
Up 2-1, with first and third and none out in the top of the sixth, Jhonny Peralta hit a ground ball to Red Sox second baseman Dustin Pedroia. Fielder, the runner at third, started home, watching Pedroia all the way. When Pedroia got in front of the ball, Fielder stopped about 45 feet down the line, thinking he could have been thrown out. Pedroia pumped toward home, and Fielder froze. Pedroia then tagged the runner from first, Victor Martinez, then threw to catcher Jarrod Saltalamacchia, who chased Fielder back to third. Fielder attempted something that slightly resembled a head-first slide, but ended up looking like an oak tree falling to earth – if said oak tree fell three feet short of the third base bag.
The play was representative of Detroit’s sloppy play in Game 6 of the ALCS that eventually led to a 5-2 loss to Boston. For the third straight year, the Tigers fell short of a World Series title that should have been within their grasp. And over the last two years, the performance of Prince Fielder has particularly been a concern.
Prior to the 2012 season, the Tigers signed Fielder to a 9-year, $214 million contract. Last year, Fielder earned his money during the regular season. He hit .313/.412/.528 with 30 home runs and 108 RBIs. In addition, he walked more than he struck out (85/84). Many gave him credit for helping Miguel Cabrera to a Triple-Crown/MVP season. The postseason, however, was a different story.
He had a sub-.600 OPS in the ALDS and ALCS, while managing only 1 home run and 3 RBIs. In the World Series, he got on base only twice – a single and an HBP – in 15 plate appearances. The Tigers were swept by the Giants.
This season, he saw a decline in several offensive categories. His slugging percentage of .457 was a career worst, and his OBP of .362 was his worst since 2006. His 25 home runs were also his lowest total for a full season, and he struck out 117 times against 75 walks. For most players, those are pretty nice numbers. For Prince, it’s a step in the wrong direction.
This year, especially in the playoffs, Fielder looked a little off at the plate. His bat was a notch slower – he got under pitches he used to rip over the right field wall, whether he was a Brewer or a Tiger. In the playoffs, he failed to come up with timely hits, let alone home runs, prompting a swell of boos from Detroit fans at Comerica Park as the postseason wore on.
With 7 years left on his enormous contract, the Tigers and their fans have a right to wonder if Fielder has already started to decline.
He’s only 29. He’ll be 30 next May. But throughout his career, his weight has always been a concern – he’s listed at 5’11”, 275 lbs. That’s a lot of tonnage for a guy under 6 feet tall. He’s done a good job managing his weight so far, however. Despite his size, he watches what he eats, and has been extremely durable. He holds the longest active streak of consecutive games with 505.
But something looked different about Fielder this year, especially in the playoffs. He was a step slower, a split second too late, a hair off on his timing. As he belly-flopped into third base (or the general vicinity thereof), trying desperately to make up for a mental error, he brought to mind another girthy left-handed power hitter who battled his own motor skills toward the end of his career, Mo Vaughn.
At Fielder’s age, however, this could simply be a blip on the radar screen. It could be a line on the back of his baseball card that a fan looks at and says, “Hmmm, that was a weird season.” If it’s not an aberration, the Tigers are in for a long 7 years, as they wonder why they spent over $200 million on a player who’s not bad, but merely good.