There is nothing apathetic about Fielder. His weight-lifting regimen is the stuff of legend. He cares about defense and works at it, as Tim Kurkijian pointed out last week. Even if his range is never going to be exceptional, he doesn’t make many mistakes. Last year, he made only 4 errors in over 1400 innings.
He hasn’t rested on his laurels as a hitter either, as he probably could have following his early breakout. His walk rate has gone up consistently, to the point that a slugger once characterized as a free swinger led the majors in walks and BB/PA in 2010. He’s never been on the disabled list. And while it’s true that he’s performed substantially better in odd-numbered years (1014 OPS), he hasn’t exactly been a bum the rest of the time (861 OPS). And we’re supposed to attribute such statistical oddities to small samples, right?
During his tenure, the Brewers have become a team with an identity and he’s one of their leaders, quite obviously beloved by his teammates (cue the choreographed earthquake celebration), so there’s no reason to read his “surliness” as anything more than a cultivated competitive persona.
It’s hard not to come to the conclusion that people simply don’t like Prince Fielder because he’s fat. He is judged on his appearance and the inescapable association with his father, Cecil Fielder, who was afflicted by a wide variety of bad habits, had a hard time staying on the field, and was out of baseball by age 35. But with the exception of the physical resemblance, I simply don’t think the filial comparison is a fair one. First off, all accounts suggest they are temperamental opposites (who, as a result, have been estranged for long periods of time), and, like many children whose father’s suffer from Cecil’s “proclivities,” Prince has very purposefully cultivated a quieter, more ascetic lifestyle. Also, although they both will be remembered for hitting 50 HR during eras when that was a rare accomplishment, they are not particularly similar hitters. In nine seasons, Cecil never walked more than 90 times. Prince has averaged 100 walks per season since 2007. Prince has never struck out more than 138 times, a relatively modest total for a power hitter. Cecil topped that mark on four occasions (four out of the five seasons in which he played more than 140 games). Prince’s career batting average (.281) is higher than his father’s career best (.277 in 1990).
I would argue that Prince, in addition to being a better and more likable player than most people realize, is actually the best investment a team can make from amongst the premium talent at his position. Here’s how he stacks up statistically (totals are per season over the last five years or, in the case of Votto, since he’s been a full-time player):
WAR(BR) = Wins Above Replacement per Season as calculated by Baseball-Reference.com
WAR(FG) = Wins Above Replacement per Season as calculated by FanGraphs.com
$/WAR = Millions of Dollars per WAR based on average of WAR(BR) and WAR(FG)
Obviously, a player who’s worth four extra wins per season is very, very expensive. Taking the average of the contracts handed out recently to Mark Teixeira, Ryan Howard, and Gonzalez we can estimate that each win from first base is worth $5,346,000. Of course, that would mean Pujols is worth about $43 Million a year. Even his agent probably wouldn’t hazard that argument.
With the exception of Albert, there isn’t a huge disparity between these players. Joey Votto ranks a little higher according to FanGraphs, but that could have to do with his smaller sample. Both scouting reports and defensive metrics are consistently mixed in their evaluation of how bad Fielder is and how good Votto really is with the glove. When it comes to hitting metrics, both traditional and advanced, the group (sans Pujols) is bunched even closer together. Fielder and Howard hit for lower averages, but make up for it with greater power and, especially in Fielder’s case, better discipline.
Considering how little difference there is in how they produce on the field (and especially in the batter’s box), factors like durability play an even bigger role. Even though they’ve largely avoided trips to the D.L., Teixeira and Gonzalez have played through relatively serious injuries which have required offseason surgeries (same goes for Pujols). Not so for Fielder. And, more importantly, Fielder is the youngest player on this list (yes, even younger than Votto, who entered the league two years after him), and, as such, should be the furthest from the decline phase of his career when he signs his nine-figure deal.
His age is also a reason to discount the “big bodies don’t age well” argument. Of course, there are some famous instances of big bodies that aged very well. One of them built a house in the Bronx. But even the big bodies on whom the anti-fat cliche is built tended to perform very well into their early 30s. The injury that ended Mo Vaughn’s career didn’t derail him until he was 33. David Ortiz was an MVP candidate at age 31 and remains an above average run producer at 35. Even Cecil had one of his strongest campaigns at the age of 32. Prince will have served four or five years for his new franchise before the risks tenuously based on his weight even become particularly relevant.
Although they signed at different ages and for different amounts, one thing is consistent in the contracts of Teixeira, Howard, and Gonzalez. They all end when the player is 36-years-old.
This is not a coincidence.
Since the current PED policy went into effect (prior to the 2006 season), there have been more than 50 contracts handed out to position players for four years or longer. Only six have agreed to pay a player past the age of 36.
Alex Rodriguez – $275 Million over ten years, through his age 41 season.
Alfonso Soriano – $136 Million over eight years, through his age 38 season.
Jayson Werth – $126 Million over seven years, through his age 38 season.
Adrian Beltre – $96 Million over six years, through his age 37 season.
Ichiro Suzuki - $90 Million over five years, through his age 38 season.
Jorge Posada - $52 Million over four years, through his age 39 season.
I think we can characterize at least two contracts on this list as giant albatrosses, with two more possessing that potential, and the final (and least expensive) pair dictated by unusual circumstances (both Ichiro and Posada are franchise icons, and Ichiro has an idiosyncratic skill set which makes it reasonable to imagine him performing well above the norms for his age). But the reason teams generally avoid these types of contracts is obvious. After 36, regression is almost guaranteed to be dramatic. In the last five years, here are the the best seasons by hitters older than 36.
Barry Bonds (2006) – Age 41 – 4.6 WAR(BR)
Brian Giles (2008) – 37 – 3.9
Jim Thome (2010) – 39 – 3.5
Barry Bonds (2007) – 42 – 3.3
Frank Thomas (2006) – 38 – 3.3
Chipper Jones (2010) – 38 – 3.2
Gary Sheffield (2007) – 38 – 3.1
Omar Vizquel (2006) – 39 – 3.1
Manny Ramirez (2009) – 37 – 3.0
Jeff Kent (2007) – 39 – 3.0
There is only the slimmest chance (1-3%) that anybody can “earn” upwards of $20 Million/yr. much beyond their mid-thirties. Because of Fielder’s relative youth, a team could match or even exceed all precedents at the position and still argue that they were taking on less risk, because Fielder would be barely on the other side of his prime when the deal ended. There is a very strong chance that Fielder’s best season is still in front of him (it could be 2011, as he’s gotten off to a sizzling start), while every other player on this list has probably peaked already or will peak before he gets to free agency (as in the case of Votto).
But what about the elephant in the room?
WAR would have you believe that Albert Pujols is worth nearly as much as any other two players on this list. And he is, undoubtedly, going to set a new salary bar, not only for first baseman, but probably for baseball players generally. (Dan Rosenheck of the Times and I debated how much Pujols was worth a couple months ago, if you’re interested.) I don’t think Pujols’ new deal will be bigger than A-Rod’s in terms of total price, but I expect it will exceed his $27.5 Million average annual value. I believe the best thing for both the Cardinals and Pujols would be to agree to a five-year, $150 Million deal with some mutual or vesting options.
What makes evaluating Pujols so difficult is that he could regress somewhat dramatically in his mid-thirties and still be worth as much or more than just about every other player in baseball. And, the skill which most distinguishes Pujols from his peers (that freakish BB/K ratio), is one that tends to age well. Take Derek Jeter, for instance; even as we’ve witnessed steady declines in his power, quickness, and the ability to hit line drives, there has been very little change in his strikeout, walk, and contact rates. Brian Giles, Todd Helton, and Kenny Lofton are all players who remained surprisingly valuable during the regression phase of their careers in large part because they walked more than they struck out.
The fact remains, however, Time waits for no man. For Pujols to be outperforming Fielder in 2016, when he’s 36 and Fielder is 32, would be highly unusual. Tom Tango graphed WAR by age for Hall of Famers in 2009. As you can see, hitters generally peak sometime between 26 and 32, and hold a pretty steady level of production through those years. Even the best hitters in history, start a precipitous decline by 33 or 34. Of course, Pujols has a long, long way to fall. Assuming Pujols and Fielder conform to this career path (and both have been within the HOF range up to this point), here are some estimates of what the next six seasons might look like:
Pujols would still have two “prime” seasons during his next contract before his decline began and it would be another year or so before he and Fielder were more or less equals. However, by the end of a six year contract, Fielder would have created about 75% of the value of Pujols, and would continue to close the gap each additional year. So, if you can have Prince for around the same price as Adrian Gonzalez ($22 Million/Yr.) and Pujols commands close to $30 Million/Yr., you’re probably getting a better deal with the younger player, purely in terms of on-field performance.
Of course, there are other factors to consider. Pujols could be nearing 500 HR before the first year of his new contract ends. He’ll approach 3,000 hits before it’s over and could lay claim to various other milestones and even records. We know the Yankees paid big premiums on Jeter and A-Rod because of their historical relevance. Pujols should get similar consideration.
But the other thing that has to be taken into consideration is the type of teams who will be negotiating for their services. It has been pretty well established that teams with larger revenue streams can take on larger risks. The three franchises with the best revenue streams – the Yankees, Red Sox, and Phillies – are unlikely to pursue either Pujols or Fielder because they already have first-basemen, and none of the players involved seem likely to condescend to becoming full-time DHs. The White Sox and Tigers can probably be ruled out for the same reason. Two other large-market franchises, the Dodgers and the Mets, though both could use a slugging first baseman, aren’t likely to have their financial difficulties resolved in time for an offseason shopping spree.
So, the courtship of Pujols and Fielder will likely be performed by the Cubs, Angels, Giants, Cardinals, and Rangers, though there are some potential darkhorses like the Orioles and Astros who might be compelled to make a splash. The Cubs, Angels, and Giants are all large enough to survive an albatross or two, but each already has at least one such contract on the books (Soriano, Vernon Wells, Barry Zito). I believe the owners of small and mid-market franchises should be risk-averse when it comes to long-term contracts (that doesn’t mean they will be). Based on that criteria, the younger and less expensive player, Fielder, would seem the safest bet.
Of course, I cannot account for the Scott Boras factor. Boras has been notoriously good at extracting above-market deals from mid-market franchises. The situation this winter could really play to his strengths, as Fielder will likely attract bids from teams made more desperate by missing out on Pujols and/or Jose Reyes. On an eight or nine-year deal Fielder becomes substantially less appetizing, but over the next six years, there’s a strong chance he’ll get you more bang for your buck than any first-baseman not named Miguel Cabrera.