Prince Fielder has followed in his father’s footsteps to Detroit. In 1990 and 1991, Big Cecil Fielder hit 95 home runs for the Detroit Tigers and was twice the MVP runner-up. Prince is the same age entering next season as his father was following that season. The elder Fielder continued to eclipse the 30 home run barrier four more times in his career, but his on base percentage and slugging percentage dropped. He last slugged over .500 at age 30, and we know he was all bat, as a designated hitter, with very little contribution elsewhere.
According to baseball-reference’s wins over replacement, Cecil was 10.1 wins above replacement (WAR) at ages 26 and 27 (Prince, 7.9 WAR over last two years), and had only 4.8 wins above replacement for the rest of his career, which lasted to age 34. That would be a disastrous result if Prince aged like his father.
Of course, Prince Fielder has been a better player for longer than his father, who did not get 200 plate appearances in a season until 1990. Fielder has hit over 30 home runs over each of the last five seasons from ages 23 to 27, joining elite company: Albert Pujols, Alex Rodriguez, Vladimir Guerrero, Harmon Killebrew, Hank Aaron, Eddie Mathews, Mickey Mantle, and Jimmie Foxx. That’s probably a list that Scott Boras had handy as he worked teams for this contract. If Fielder is in that company for the decade, this contract is a steal from a team perspective: those men averaged 43.4 WAR over the next 9 seasons.
Wins above replacement does not think as highly of Prince Fielder, though. His similar players were some pretty good sluggers through age 27, but not in that same company as the above mentioned guys. From his baseball-reference page, the most similar batters at the same age are Eddie Murray, Juan Gonzalez, Jose Canseco, Mark Texeira, Greg Luzinski, Darryl Strawberry, Kent Hrbek, Boog Powell, Jim Rice, and Orlando Cepeda. Luzinski, Hrbek, and Powell particularly also tend toward Prince’s body type. Murray, Powell, Rice and Cepeda were the only ones to have a single season with at least 3 wins over replacement after turning 32 (once each). The group averaged 16.3 Wins Above Replacement for the next 9 seasons.
That’s better than what Cecil did, but still would be a pretty bad investment by the middle of the contract if Prince is like the sluggers listed as most similar through age 27. He may be a vegan and try to stay in shape, but will it last?
Detroit has in essence signed a designated hitter to replace Victor Martinez, lost for the season, and has upgraded the position. They will have no choice but to get rid of Martinez, who was signed before last season and is under contract through 2014. Miguel Cabrera played first base last year, but will either have to move to third in the short term, or DH if Prince plays first. It’s a win now move in a very winnable Central Division, and a potentially expensive one.
This isn’t the Pujols deal or Rodriguez deal, big long term contracts to Hall of Famers past age 32. It’s not the Ryan Howard deal, though the body type may have some bearing. Fielder is a better player, and younger, than Ryan Howard, who signed a deal that most people knew was bad from the outset. The issue here is simply whether attempts by Fielder to stay in shape will matter, or whether genetics and his big body type conspire against him, leading to a faster decline than many realize.
[photo via Getty]