JAWS and the 2022 Hall of Fame Ballot: Prince Fielder

The following article is part of Jay Jaffe’s ongoing look at the candidates on the BBWAA 2022 Hall of Fame ballot. For a detailed introduction to this year’s ballot, and other candidates in the series, use the tool above; an introduction to JAWS can be found here. For a tentative schedule and a chance to fill out a Hall of Fame ballot for our crowdsourcing project, see here. All WAR figures refer to the Baseball-Reference version unless otherwise indicated.

2022 BBWAA Candidate: Prince Fielder
Prince Fielder 1B 23.8 24.9 24.4 1,645 319 18 .283/.382/.506 134
SOURCE: Baseball-Reference

The son of three-time All-Star and two-time American League home run leader Cecil Fielder, Prince Fielder was practically bred for the major league spotlight. He grew up as his father’s baseball sidekick, memorably photographed as a six-year-old holding up one of the home run balls from the night that his father hit his 50th and 51st shots of the 1990 season, and then filmed striking out dad in a McDonalds commercial as an eight-year-old, and receiving tips on the finer points of baseball superstitions — and gravy — at age 11. The food-related photo opportunities lent themselves to easy potshots given the bulky physiques of both father and son, but when 12-year-old Prince used a wooden bat to hit upper deck home runs in batting practice at Tiger Stadium, served up by Detroit third base coach Terry Francona and witnessed by legendary broadcaster Ernie Harwell and Hall of Famers Alan Trammell and Al Kaline, his royal lineage as a slugger came into focus.

“You can’t ever say that you look at a kid that age and say that you know he’s going to hit 40 or 50 home runs someday, but Prince was unbelievable,” said Kaline years later. “Here’s a 12-year-old kid commonly hitting homers at a big league ballpark.”

In a 12-year career cut short by recurring neck problems, the younger Fielder made six All-Star teams, finished in the top five of MVP voting three times, and won a home run title himself. Not only are he and his father the only such combination to win home run titles, but each slugger ended his career with exactly 319 homers. Along the way, the younger Fielder played a major part in turning the Brewers into contenders, landed one of the largest contracts in major league history, and proved to be quite the entertainer.

Prince Fielder was born on May 9, 1984 in Ontario, California; at the time, his father was in his second year of professional baseball in the Blue Jays system, having been traded to Toronto after being drafted by the Royals in the fourth round in 1981. Though a natural right-hander like his father, Prince was taught to hit left-handed, and the experiment took; as an eight-year-old Little League shortstop (!) in Grosse Point Michigan, he towered over his teammates, and hit five homers in his first nine games.

Fielder spent his junior high and high school years in Florida. At age 14, in 1998, he was first covered by Baseball America, which caught up with him when he was a 5-foot-11, 220-pounder entering high school at the private Florida Air Academy. “He’s got shoulders as wide as his daddy’s, and his back is as wide,” his mother Stacey told BA. “But he can run. I was a track athlete, so he must have gotten his speed from me.”

After three years at the Academy, Fielder transferred to the public Eau Gallie High School in Melbourne, Florida for his senior season. Scouts already had their eyes on him. Via the Boston Globe’s Gordon Edes:

Even before he transferred to Eau Gallie, Fielder’s every game was watched by a gaggle of scouts. His senior year, at age 17, he stopped by the Tigers’ spring training facility in nearby Lakeland and hit eight balls over the wall in a round of batting practice, including two that cleared the 410-foot sign in center.

Fielder hit .524 with 10 homers and 41 RBI as a senior, but his weight ballooned to 300 pounds; working with a personal trainer helped him drop 40 pounds, although there were enough concerns about the weight on his frame that he projected as a future designated hitter. As the 2002 amateur draft approached, the Tigers eyed him as a potential number eight pick, but the Brewers — a National League team, with no DH slot available — chose him at number seven. As his 2003 BA scouting report noted, “Prince has power so rare that scouting director Jack Zduriencik said it was impossible to pass up… he also has a sweet left-handed swing, an advanced hitting approach and solid plate discipline.”

Fielder signed for a $2.375 million bonus and began his career at Rookie-level Ogden, where he homered 10 times in just 41 games before being promoted. He debuted on the BA Top 100 Prospects list at number 78 the following year, and after a 27-homer, .536-SLG season at A-Level Beloit (where he’d finished 2002) he rocketed to 10th. After a strong season at Double-A Huntsville in 2004, the 21-year-old slugger was called up from Triple-A Nashville to join the Brewers in mid-June ’05, when they began a stretch of interleague play.

Fielder went 0-for-4 in his major league debut against the Devil Rays on June 13, but two days later collected a pair of doubles off Hideo Nomo and Danys Baez. On June 25, he cranked a three-run pinch-homer off the Twins’ Jesse Crain, giving the Brewers a lead they wouldn’t relinquish. Though he was sent down in early July, he returned in mid-August, but was limited mainly to pinch-hitting duty while the popular Lyle Overbay manned first base. On August 31, he hit a two-run walk-off homer off the Pirates’ Jose Mesa. Fielder’s third and final two-hit day of the season, on September 4 against the Padres, coincided with this scribe’s run in the Brewers’ Sausage Race. He finished his cup of coffee with a .288/.306/.458 line in 62 PA spread over 39 games, while the Brewers finished 81-81, their first time reaching .500 since 1992.

In December, the Brewers cleared the way for Fielder to take over first base by trading Overbay to the Blue Jays as part of a five-player deal. Fielder hit a solid .271/.347/.483 with 28 homers as a rookie, though his -22 DRS at first base — a record low for the position at that point, surpassed only once since — actually sank his WAR to -0.7. Ouch.

Fielder improved on both sides of the ball in 2007, blasting a league-leading 50 home runs to go with a .288/.395/.618 line; his slugging percentage and 157 OPS+ both ranked second in the NL, his 119 RBIs third; even so, his -15 DRS, while representing some improvement, remained DH-ready. He made the NL All-Star team for the first time, placed third in the NL MVP voting behind Jimmy Rollins and Matt Holliday, and helped the Brewers to 83 wins, their first above-.500 season since 1992. With the increased media attention on his performance, reports of his estrangement from his father — who “squandered the family fortune on gambling and odd business ventures,” according to an ESPN Magazine profile by Jeff Bradley — circulated.

“I never want to be considered just a slugger,” Fielder told Bradley, who wrote about him modeling his approach at the plate after Mo Vaughn, a bulky slugger with a more complete approach at the plate than his own father. “I want to be a guy who hits for a high average, hits a lot of doubles and walks a lot, too. I know if I do all those things, I’m helping my team more than if I’m just hitting home runs and striking out. I hate striking out.”

Fielder’s production dipped to 34 homers, a 130 OPS+ and 1.5 WAR in 2008, but the Brewers won 90 games and secured the NL Wild Card berth on the final day of the regular season, their first trip to the playoffs since 1982. Alas, Fielder went hitless until the 13th of his 14 plate appearances against the Phillies before hitting a too-little, too-late solo homer off Joe Blanton.

Fielder rebounded to produce a banner season in 2009, hitting .299/.412/.602 while leading the NL in RBIs (141), placing second in the NL in homers (46), OPS+ (166), and slugging percentage, fifth in on-base percentage, and seventh in WAR (6.3, a career high that would endure). He played in all 162 games, the first of four times in a five-year span that he’d do so. Again he made the NL All-Star team, and at the festivities at Busch Stadium won the Home Run Derby, beating out Nelson Cruz in the finals, 23-21. He placed fourth in the NL MVP voting, though Albert Pujols won unanimously. The Brewers again underachieved, however, going 80-82. The next year, Fielder underachieved as well, slipping to 32 homers, a 135 OPS+ and 1.5 WAR; his defense dropped from an anomalous 0 DRS to a more typical -17, but he did lead the NL with 114 walks, and placed second with a .401 OBP. In 2011, he helped the Brewers to a club record 96 wins and their first NL Central title. Thanks to an improved contact rate, he hit .299/.415/.566, ranking second in OBP and homers (38), third in SLG, and fourth in OPS+ (164). Again he placed third in the NL MVP voting, this time behind teammate Ryan Braun and Matt Kemp.

In the Division Series opener against the Diamondbacks, Fielder doubled and scored the Brewers’ first run, then capped the scoring with a two-run homer in the seventh inning to secure a 4-1 win. He went 5-for-18 in the five-game series, then homered in the first two games of the NLCS against the Cardinals; his two-run shot off Jaime García in the fifth inning of Game 1 gave the Brewers the lead for good. The Cardinals held him to just one hit in his final 14 PA over Games 3-6, however, and went on to win both the NLCS and the World Series.

With that, Fielder reached free agency. From 2006 to ’11, he had hit .282/391/.541 with 228 homers, more than anyone in baseball except Ryan Howard (262) and Pujols (244), while his 141 OPS+ was the majors’ sixth-highest mark among players with at least 2,000 PA; he missed just 13 games in those six seasons. Dreadful defense at first base suppressed his value to an average of just 2.8 WAR in that span, however; via DRS, he was at least 12 runs below average in four of those six full seasons.

While it was no surprise that Fielder signed with an AL team, the shocker was that he became just the third player to net a $200 million deal, after Alex Rodriguez (twice) and Pujols; this was agent Scott Boras doing the voodoo that he did so well. Fielder’s nine-year, $214 million deal put him on the same team as DH-ready slugger Miguel Cabrera, not to mention the incumbent-but-injured DH Victor Martinez, whose loss for the 2012 season via a torn left ACL stimulated the Tigers’ interest in Fielder. What’s more, he stepped into the shadow of his father, who enjoyed the vast share of his major league success in Detroit.

“I know Mr. Ilitch is probably excited because he’s been wanting that kid since he was a little kid, so he finally got his wish,” said Cecil in an MLB Network Radio interview while admitting he was “shocked” by the news.

Fielder opened his Tigers career with a single off the Red Sox Jon Lester, then hit two homers off Josh Beckett the following day. Though his 30 homers was his lowest total since his 2006 rookie campaign, he played every game and hit .313/.412/.528 — marks that ranked sixth, second, and seventh, respectively, with the first one setting a career high. Fielder’s 151 OPS+ ranked fourth, his 108 RBIs fifth. While playing 159 games at first base as Cabrera played third and Delmon Young DHed, Fielder posted a respectable -4 DRS; his 4.7 WAR was the second-best mark of his career.

At that summer’s All-Star Game in Kansas City, Fielder again won the Home Run Derby, making him the second player (after Ken Griffey Jr., his favorite player growing up) to win twice, and the first to do so for two different teams, and for different leagues.

Featuring a rotation that included both Justin Verlander and Max Scherzer, the Tigers won the AL Central and the AL pennant, but were swept by the Giants in the World Series. Fielder hit just .173/.232/.231 with one homer in the postseason, and was just 1-for-14 without a walk in San Francisco’s sweep.

Though he made the AL All-Star team again while playing every game in 2013, Fielder’s .279/.362/.457 line and 122 OPS+ represented his lowest numbers since his rookie season save for the slugging percentage, which was the lowest of his career — as was his 25 homers. His defense (-10 DRS) and overall value (2.2 WAR) took tumbles as well. He did produce one of the season’s lighter moments when, after attempting to run down a foul ball, he took a dip into a fan’s nachos.

The Tigers won the AL Central again, even with Cabrera’s brutal work at third base (-17 DRS, a drop from -4 the year before). Fielder was dreadful in the postseason, hitting just .225/.311/.250 without an RBI in 45 PA as the Tigers beat the A’s in the Division Series but fell to the Red Sox in the ALCS.

One month and one day after the Tigers were eliminated, they surprised the baseball world by trading Fielder to the Rangers straight up for second baseman Ian Kinsler; Detroit kicked in $30 million to help offset the difference in the two players’ remaining contract guarantees ($168 million over seven years for Fielder, $62 million over four years for Kinsler). In addition to providing the Rangers with an upgrade over Mitch Moreland at first base, the move was supposed to clear space for highly-regarded prospects for both clubs, with Nick Castellanos taking over third base for the Tigers as Cabrera moved back to first, and former number one prospect Jurickson Profar taking over second base for the Rangers.

Nothing quite panned out as planned; Castellanos was a disaster at the hot corner, and Profar was sidelined due to a shoulder injury. Fielder was injured as well. He hit just three homers and slugged .360 in 42 games before undergoing cervical fusion surgery to repair a herniated disk in his neck, a problem that had apparently bothered him in 2013. As I wrote at the time for SI.com:

According to general manager Jon Daniels, while Detroit and Texas swapped medical information, Fielder didn’t undergo a physical at the time of the trade, and didn’t have one as a member of the Rangers until spring training. He underwent a standard physical at that time, but since he didn’t mention any neck issue, he received neither MRIs nor cervical x-rays. Last month [April 2014] he finally informed the Rangers that he had been dealing with the problem — which has caused pain and stiffness in his neck and weakness in his left arm — since last season.

Fielder underwent the surgery and recovered in time to join the Rangers for Opening Day in 2015. Though his prodigious power didn’t entirely return, his .305/.378/.463 line with 23 homers in 158 games was still good for a 126 OPS+ and 2.0 WAR, not to mention AL Comeback Player of the Year honors. The Rangers won the AL West but fell to the Blue Jays in a hotly-contested five-game Division Series, the one punctuated by José Bautista’s epic bat flip. Again Fielder struggled in October, going 3-for-20 with one RBI. Dating back to Game 3 of the 2011 NLCS, he had hit .175/.246/.214 with one homer and four RBIs in his last 33 postseason games, covering 138 PA. Yikes.

Unfortunately, the 2016 season brought more neck problems for Fielder, who hit just .212/.292/.334 with eight homers in 80 games. He underwent a second cervical fusion procedure on July 29, and was soon declared “medically disabled,” meaning that doctors could not clear him to return to play but that the Rangers could collect insurance money to help cover the remainder of his contract. At the end of the 2017 season, the Rangers released Fielder, having negotiated a settlement allowing them to defer part of the annual insurance payments.

With the abrupt end to Fielder’s career, some questions linger. Though he had been remarkably durable for the first eight years of his major league career, averaging 160 games and never playing fewer than 157, did he push himself too hard by playing through nagging injuries? Would improved conditioning have lengthened his career, and would he have even been the same hitter? Would he have suffered less wear and tear as a full-time DH? We can only speculate, but it does seem probable that Fielder would have been a more valuable player as a DH, had the opportunity been there.

We can only speculate, but it does seem probable that Fielder would have been a more valuable player as a DH, had the opportunity been there. Via DRS, he was 100 runs below average for his career, the lowest mark for any player who spent a majority of his time at first base; Jason Giambi’s -83 runs is a distant second. Some back-of-the-envelope math using Baseball Reference’s positional adjustment of -15 runs per 150 games for a DH suggests that he’d have been worth another 4.7 WAR over the course of his career — not a game-changer, but about 20% more valuable, assuming his offense didn’t suffer.

Not that such a move would have made Fielder a Hall of Famer by itself. He would have needed longevity for that, at the very least, longevity and probably some kind of turnaround in the postseason. Even the likes of Edgar Martinez (147 career OPS+) and David Ortiz (141) set a very high bar that Fielder, with his 134 OPS+, did not measure up to in isolation. Still, the man could hit, and he was a hell of a lot of fun to watch when he did.

Brooklyn-based Jay Jaffe is a senior writer for FanGraphs, the author of The Cooperstown Casebook (Thomas Dunne Books, 2017) and the creator of the JAWS (Jaffe WAR Score) metric for Hall of Fame analysis. He founded the Futility Infielder website (2001), was a columnist for Baseball Prospectus (2005-2012) and a contributing writer for Sports Illustrated (2012-2018). He has been a recurring guest on MLB Network and a member of the BBWAA since 2011, and a Hall of Fame voter since 2021. Follow him on Twitter @jay_jaffe... and BlueSky @jayjaffe.bsky.social.

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2 years ago

Always liked Prince. It was fun in Detroit for the 1st year.

Can’t believe Texas didn’t do an MRI on him. Spending $138 million, I know I would require one.

One thing missing is The Tigers almost HAD to trade him. He made some comments during his postseason struggles that came across as not caring that he was struggling, kind of a “hey, I’m still getting my $$” type comment that was likely misconstrued. My memory is the fans were booing him by the end of the 2013 ALCS.

2 years ago
Reply to  PC1970

Yeah I don’t buy into “clutch” but I think added pressure can get in some players heads. He was clearly pressing in both postseasons with Detroit and fans were losing patience.