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Breaking down Prince Fielder's off year

Prince Fielder's batting average and home run numbers are down. Will he recover?

Prince Fielder strikes out August 16 against the Royals
Prince Fielder strikes out August 16 against the Royals
Leon Halip

The past week has elevated the discussion of Prince Fielder's hitting, or lack thereof.  Personal reasons aside, let's take a deep dive into the numbers.  Note all figures are as of mid-day Saturday.

Prince has over 5,000 plate appearances, or eight full seasons, so there is plenty of history.  This is not a situation like Delmon Young with one above average year, but an accomplished veteran having a down year.  The concern starts with his batting average of .258.  It stands in sharp contrast to 2012's .313, but that was his career high.  Prince's career average is .284.  Given normal year-to-year variation, .258 is about as far below average as last year was above average.

Prince still gets on base more often than the average player, with a walk rate of 11.2% contributing to an on base percentage of .348.  But these figures are his lowest in seven years.

Fielder's strikeout rate is 17.4%, much higher than last year's impressive 12.2% but right in line with his career rate of 17.6%.

Stat geeks love to look at BABIP, batting average on balls in play.  A below normal figure can indicate bad luck.  This was the case early the season with Victor Martinez.  He was hitting balls hard but right at the fielders.  A low BABIP reflects this and is an indicator that a player's batting average will likely rise going forward.  Prince's BABIP is .287, under his career rate of .301.  Last year it was .321.  Last year the hits were falling in more often than could be expected, and this year they are not.

A slugger can make up for a lower average with power.  Prince has averaged a stellar .527 slugging percentage in his career, which would be 11th in the American League this year.  This year his 18 home runs have contributed to a slugging percentage of .429, nearly 100 points below normal.  This is the largest concern.

Where are the home runs going?  Last year Prince had 30 home runs, 33 doubles, and a triple in 581 at bats for an extra base hit rate of 11%.  This year he has 18 home runs and 27 doubles in 473 at bats for an extra base hit rate of 9.5%.  At this rate he will have more doubles than last year.  This could mean that some balls that were just clearing the fence last year and falling just short this year.

Over his career, 19.2% of Prince's fly balls have cleared the fence.  Last year, this was 17.9% and the lowest in six years.  Many predicted this as Comerica Park has a deeper power alley for left-handed hitters than Miller Park.  This year only 12.1% of Prince's fly balls have gone for home runs.  His fly ball rate is 38.8%, right in line with a career rate of 39.5%.  So Prince is hitting fly balls as he normally does, but they are not turning into home runs as often.

Is Prince expanding the zone?  He is swinging at 30% of pitches outside of the strike zone, with a career rate of 29%.  But last year it was below 28%.  He is actually being a little more selective in the zone, swinging at 62.6% versus a career rate of 63.3%.  Overall he is swinging at 44.8% of pitches, within 1% of his career rate.  But the pitchers are being more aggressive with 57.3% of first pitches in the zone, versus last year's 51.7%.  Last year Delmon Young hit behind Prince, and they pitched around him.  This year Victor Martinez hits fifth, and they are attacking Prince.  Perhaps Prince actually needs to be more aggressive early in the count.

Last year Prince's offensive results were about as good as his skill set will provide.  This year, they are about as bad should be expected.  He is striking out more and walking a little less, and those are concerns.  Ground balls and line drives are being hit right at fielders more often, and fly balls are clearing the fence less often.  If the strikeouts and walks stay the same, but batted balls evade fielders and clear the fence like normal, his results will be acceptable given his salary.

In his first at bat of Saturday night's game, Prince hit a double to the edge of the warning track in deep left center field.  This ball had the distance to be a home run if hit down the line.  In the seventh inning, Prince hit a home run that would be out of any park.  The night epitomized his season.   He can still hit, should not be expected to hit .300, but the home runs will return.