Prince Fielder: Pressing or Unlucky?

June 13, 2010- Milwaukee, WI. Miller Park..Milwaukee Brewers Prince Fielder  rounds the bases after hitting a solo home run off of Rangers starter Colby Lewis in the bottom of the 1st inning..Milwaukee Brewers lost to the Texas Rangers 2-7,the Rangers took 2-3 games in the series at Miller Park..Mike McGinnis / CSM.

The Brewers beat the Angels 12-2 on Monday night, and while there were plenty of offensive fireworks — 7 of the 10 Brewer batters that appeared in the game got a hit — it was another quiet night for the Brewers’ big first baseman, Prince Fielder.  Fielder went 0-for-4 with a walk and again didn’t drive in a run. 

After driving in a franchise record 141 last season, he’s only driven in 24 so far this season.  While he continues to heat up when it comes to the home run ball (he’s hit 5 in June), he hasn’t driven in someone other than himself in nearly a month — May 19.  Heading into Monday night, he was hitting .202/.349/.235 with runners on base and an even worse .161/.350/.210 with runners in scoring position.

This, predictably, have led to cries of Prince being unclutch by some fans.  Aside from “clutch” still being on shaky statistical ground, this claim is pretty ridiculous.  Has he struggled in his RBI opportunities so far this season?  He sure has.  But the truth is that Prince is coming off one of the most “clutch” seasons in franchise history.  In 2009, he drove in those 141 runs in 719 plate appearances.  According to Baseball-Reference, the average player would drive in 82 runs in those 719 PA’s.  His WPA last season was 7.79.  He was incredible in high-leverage situations.  In short, Prince is about as far from “un-clutch” as a player can be… he’s just having a “down” 80 plate appearances with RISP.

So what’s his problem this year if it can’t simply be explained as being “un-clutch?”

Well, this shouldn’t be a surprise to anyone, but he’s having a hard time finding good pitches to hit in those situations.  While he’s still doing a good job of laying off when opposing pitchers are blatantly pitching around him (he’s walking in 14.8% of his plate appearances, which would be the second best mark of his career), it also looks like he’s trying harder to make things happen by swinging at more bad pitches than he did last year.

His K-rate is up from last year, from 23.4% to 24.9%.  He’s swinging at 30.2% of pitches he sees out of the strike zone, up from a career-best 25.5% last season.  Predictably, swinging at more pitches out of the zone leads to weaker contact — his line drive percentage is down to 15.4% (which would be the lowest of his career by far if it holds), he’s hitting more ground balls (42.3% of the balls he puts in player are grounders), and when he is hitting the ball in the air, it’s much more likely to be an infield fly than last year (10.8% as opposed to 5.5% in 2009).  All of that considered, you can probably see why Fielder’s BABIP has dipped a bit overall (.307, down from .315) and plummets to .261 with runners on and .200 with runners in scoring position.

Of course, a lot of these numbers dealing with RISP and men on should have “SSS” plastered all over them for the small sample size.  When you’re only dealing with 80 or so plate appearances, you’re going to get some weird numbers. 

Still, when trying to figure out where Prince is going wrong this year, it’s easy to point to the BABIP and say he’s simply getting unlucky.  He’s just not quite squaring up on the ball like he was last year, and it’s resulting in a lot more outs.  Prince’s plate discipline has grown by leaps and bounds since his days as a rookie, but he’s still painfully self-aware of his own performance at times.  It’s possible that he knows his run production has fallen off a cliff compared to last season, and aside from hurting his trade value for the Brewers, it’s hurting any dreams of a record arbitration decision he may have had for this offseason.  As a result, he could be trying to “catch up” by swinging at more pitches out of the zone.

Of course, that’s just conjecture.  But even without looking at the numbers, that’s the conclusion that a lot of people are likely reaching.

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