Prince Fielder, formerly of the Milwaukee Brewers, looks on against the St. Louis Cardinals during Game Five of the National League Championship Series at Busch Stadium in St. Louis, Missouri. It was reported that the Detroit Tigers agreed with Fielder on a 9-year, $214 million deal. (Photo by Jamie Squire/Getty Images)
Prince Fielder is among the game's richest first basemen thanks to his new deal with the Tigers, but should he be?
Prince Fielder is really good at baseball. Let's just get that out of the way at the beginning. The Tigers will win more games with Prince Fielder around than they would had they not decided to commit nine years and $214 million to him. At first, anyway -- things change, including skill level, conditioning, and the budget of a team. But, in the short-term, the Tigers are, unsurprisingly, better with Fielder than without.
This new contract made him one of the five highest-paid first basemen in the game. After his 2011 season, it's kind of obvious he belongs in that group, as he hit .299/.415/.566 with 38 homers, helping to lead the Brewers to the NLCS. Well, obvious if you don't look at the rest of his career, anyway.
Fielder has spent each season since 2006, his first full year in the majors, bouncing back-and-forth between pretty good and elite. He has never had two consecutive seasons one would consider elite in his six full years with the Brewers. He has never been bad, he just sometimes is much better. The problem is, with his defensive issues, he needs to be ridiculous at the plate to be considered one of the most productive first basemen. Using the various iterations of wins above replacement -- courtesy of Baseball-Reference, Fangraphs, and Baseball Prospectus, respectively -- we can see how inconsistent Fielder has been in terms of value:
WAR isn't everything, in the sense we haven't nailed things down to a point of accuracy where its word is gospel. But there are some dramatic shifts in value represented here, across all three systems, and it's not because of massive fluctuations in his defense (the least-reliable portion of any WAR system): Fielder's power shifts dramatically up and down each year, as we can see by looking at his Isolated Power (slugging percentage minus batting average, in order to achieve exactly what the name implies):
There's nothing wrong with those seasons where his ISO is just a bit over .200, but the years in which he performed equal to the level he is now being paid at are the few where he exceeds or approaches that lovely .300 mark.
Like said above, Fielder is still real good. He has been incredibly durable, averaging 160 games played a season since 2006. He owns a career .390 on-base percentage and over 100 walks in three-straight seasons. He is capable of hitting the ball pretty far, a necessity for Tigers thanks to their home park.
But is he as good as his similarly-paid brethren? Adrian Gonzalez ($22 million per year) has put up three straight seasons as good or better than the very best campaign Fielder has achieved. Mark Teixeira ($22.5M) has bounced around performance-wise in the same way Fielder has as of late, but Yankees money and Tigers money aren't exactly valued the same, either. The Yankees could absorb the risk of multiple Prince Fielders and laugh it off with more spending if that's what it took to win. Albert Pujols' ($24M) worst three seasons are basically the highlights of Fielder's career. In 2011, Pujols hit "just" .299/.366/.541 with 37 homers in his "worst" season. In a pitcher's park, in 15 fewer games than Fielder. They were basically equal.
Fielder's contract isn't the worst among the high-paid first basemen, though. That honor goes to Ryan Howard and the Phillies, and not just because Howard's ridiculous $25 million a year extension was signed two years before he was eligible for free agency. No, Howard's is the worst because just once in his career has he ever been anywhere near as good as the rest of the group, and that includes Fielder. His home park has buoyed his numbers over the years, and a great lineup around him helped him tally up RBI that impressed those who don't understand concepts like rate and opportunity.
According to Baseball-Reference, Howard has put up four campaigns similar to Fielder's disappointing 2010 season in the last five years. For this, he is the highest-paid first baseman in the game. Congratulations, Detroit -- you were at least able to beat out Ruben Amaro and the Phillies.
Fielder is real good at hitting baseballs. The Tigers, as a team, are now better offensively, and were able to replace Victor Martinez's bat in 2012 with this signing. Fielder just might not be as good in the long run as the Tigers need him to be, or as good as he is being paid to be. With the potential for a weight problem hanging over his head in addition to the drop in production any player heading into their 30s faces, Fielder's deal is easily the riskiest of this bunch, excepting Howard's bogus deal. The reward isn't as high as it is for the less risky contracts, either, but if Detroit can pull in a World Series victory with the help of Prince Fielder, the future problems might just be worth it.