Prince Fielder’s Baseball Career Is Over

After last season, Prince Fielder was named the American League Comeback Player of the Year. Neck problems and surgery ruined Fielder’s 2014, but he came back to run a 124 wRC+ over 158 games played. Fielder was plenty deserving of the award, and it looked like the 31-year-old had his career back on track. But this season, Fielder developed symptoms similar to the ones he had before. He was diagnosed with about the same problem, requiring a second surgery, and now Fielder’s playing days are done. Though he’s not actually retiring, he’s also not receiving clearance to return, which means functionally the same thing. The difference is important to the Rangers, but it doesn’t matter to the fans.

Situations such as these are always difficult to discuss from the outside. We know Fielder as a baseball player, and we know baseball players by their numbers. Fielder, right now, doesn’t care about his numbers; he cares about his own ability to move. He cares about what reduced flexibility could mean for his quality of life. It’s important to understand that being declared medically disabled means there’s something wrong with an actual person. As of today, Prince Fielder is one of us, and he’s hurting. Three months ago, he turned 32.

So, there’s no way for us to know what Fielder is truly going through. There’s no real way for us to connect beyond the shallowest of terms. I think the best we can do is to wish Fielder well, and to say that in his chosen line of work, he was outstanding for several years, a hitter sufficiently complete to overcome some obvious drawbacks.

On his FanGraphs page, Fielder is listed at 5’11, 275. On his Baseball-Reference page, the numbers are the same. When Fielder was drafted as a teenager, he was listed at 5’11, 286. Think about what it must be like to be a teenager with those dimensions. Think about what it must mean when you’re a teenager with those dimensions, and still you’re selected seventh, one slot after Zack Greinke.

The offensive bar for Fielder to clear was high. That didn’t take a lot of scouting skill to assert. Fielder just wasn’t going to be much of a runner, and he wasn’t going to be much of a defender. Indeed, I looked at players over the last 20 years, calculating numbers on a rate basis, and in terms of big-league baserunning value, Fielder rated in the bottom five percent. In terms of big-league defensive value, Fielder also rated in the bottom five percent. Fielder was always going to need to mash, and he’d need to be able to stay in the lineup. Otherwise, he’d become someone who’d drift around Triple-A, waiting for Septembers or go-nowhere years.

Fielder mashed, and he did so for most of a decade. As a hitter, he rated in the top 10 percent, and that’s including the time he spent playing through neck issues. He’s one of the better hitters in recent baseball history through age 29, and Fielder was never just about dingers. He hit plenty of those, sure, and he celebrated them, but Fielder was a total threat, if not quite at the Pujolsian level. As a starter, Fielder consistently walked about an eighth of the time he came up. He never once struck out a fifth of the time he came up, even with league strikeout levels rising. Fielder had both a strong bat and a quick bat, and that gave him enviable plate coverage. He didn’t have many holes, and you couldn’t get away with busting him inside.

Fielder’s build was such that it was often the punchline, even if it was left unsaid. Athletic defensive plays were entertaining — because Fielder was big. Stolen-base attempts were entertaining — because Fielder was big. His two inside-the-park home runs were entertaining — because Fielder was big. Absolutely, Fielder’s size is part of his story, but that isn’t where he began and ended. Even though he was big, he was a complete hitter. Even though he was big, he was an everyday first baseman. And even though he was big, Fielder was for a time the league’s active iron man, up until the first neck operation. I don’t know what caused the neck problems, and I don’t know how Fielder might’ve aged without them. But his weight didn’t prevent him from being a star-level baseball player. Fielder was at least a four-win player four times in six years. He twice slugged over .600.

As such, through 29, Fielder was as good a hitter as Orlando Cepeda. He was as good as Carl Yastrzemski, Harmon Killebrew, Mike Schmidt, and Gary Sheffield. Unfortunately, much of the way people think about Fielder has been colored by the events since. A questionable exchange by the Rangers sending Ian Kinsler away has worked out to be a disastrous one. And now Fielder is finished, with a contract running through 2020. According to current reports, the Rangers will be on the hook for $9 million each year until the deal is up. And the Rangers will apparently have to keep Fielder on the 40-man roster through the offseasons. That means one fewer player that could be protected from the Rule 5 Draft. Fielder, as a Ranger, was worth less than zero WAR. It’s hard to forget about his diminished state. From a baseball perspective, this has been more or less a worst-case scenario.

You just can’t ignore the human perspective. Nor can you ignore that, from a baseball perspective, much of Fielder’s career was a best-case scenario. He needed to hit like David Ortiz, and that’s what he did. That’s what he did as literally an everyday player, and everyone eventually reaches an end. Fielder’s came early. He’s no happier about it than you are.

Hopefully he can still live the private life that he wants. In his public life, he did more than enough.

Jeff made Lookout Landing a thing, but he does not still write there about the Mariners. He does write here, sometimes about the Mariners, but usually not.

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7 years ago

Career home runs Cecil Fielder 319, Prince Fielder 319.

7 years ago
Reply to  southie

Prince’s 7 best HR years in descending order: 50, 46, 38, 34, 32, 30, 28
Cecil’s 7 best HR years in descending order: 51, 44, 39, 35, 31, 30, 28