Print and Go Back ESPN.com: 2011 [Print without images]

Tuesday, January 24, 2012
Fielder helps Tigers bats, hurts pitchers

By Tristan H. Cockcroft
ESPN.com

The Detroit Tigers moved quickly and aggressively to replace the injured Victor Martinez, likely out for the season with a torn ACL, and in doing so, they sure stole one of the biggest headlines of the 2011-12 offseason.

Prince Fielder
Will Prince Fielder's power translate to the American League right away?

Martinez's replacement: One Prince Fielder, who reportedly agreed to a nine-year, $214-million contract, per ESPN.com's Jerry Crasnick.

That means that, 20 years after Fielder's father Cecil hit 35 home runs for them, the Tigers have "Big Daddy's" son, Prince. And Prince very well should match his father's output, two decades later, and might even exceed it. Heck, during the life of Prince's contract, he'll have an excellent shot at surpassing his father's career total with the Tigers: 245. Enjoy that, keeper leaguers.

Let's discuss the impact upon Fielder himself first.

Though Fielder's power ranks among the game's elite -- he has ranked among the top five in baseball in home runs and top eight in RBIs in three of the past five seasons -- the move from Milwaukee to Detroit means a downgrade in ballparks, as well as a potential adjustment period to a new set of pitchers. Pairing Fielder with Miguel Cabrera, 2011's No. 7 fantasy player overall, presents an enticing 1-2 punch; what it should not do is inflate your expectations to the point where you'd put Fielder on equal footing with Cabrera.

Per ESPN Stats & Information's Mark Simon, Milwaukee's Miller Park was a favorable one for left-handed power: Since 2009, left-handed hitters hit 209 homers at Miller compared to 174 in Milwaukee Brewers road games; that gives Miller Park a Ballpark Factor of 116 for lefties, sixth-highest in the majors. During the same time span, however, lefties hit 191 homers at Detroit's Comerica Park compared to 213 in Tigers road games; Comerica's Ballpark Factor of 89 was eighth-lowest.

As for adapting to a new league's worth of pitchers, Cabrera himself is as good a comparison point as any. In 2008, Cabrera's first year with the Tigers and as a member of the American League, he batted .281/.350/.459 in 81 games in the first three months of the season. In the final three months of that year, however, he batted .304/.349/.613 in 79 games, and managed at least a .900 OPS in each of those final three months as well as a .300-plus batting average in two.

To reference a related study I did for ESPN The Magazine, albeit one four years ago, a sample of 16 hitters who switched leagues between 2003 and 2007 averaged roughly a 35-game "adjustment period" following said switch, and that group averaged approximately a 200-point OPS drop during that time.

That's not to say Fielder can't be an exception, but talk of a return to his 50-homer (career high of 2007) or 141-RBI (career high of 2009) ways is probably premature. I didn't change his rank a bit following his signing; he's right where he was, at a healthy No. 13 overall, and fifth among first basemen.

What Fielder's arrival does for his Tigers teammates, however, warrants a closer examination.

Cabrera instantly benefits, if only because he'll either experience an RBI boost if Fielder slots in at No. 3 ahead of him in the order, or he'll potentially see a few more juicy pitches to hit, not to mention score a few more runs, if he's the No. 3 hitter with Fielder behind him. Either way, both players' counting numbers should be excellent, with 100-plus apiece in runs and RBIs well within reach. It's why I agree with colleague Eric Karabell that, with the news, Cabrera vaults to No. 1 overall in my top 250; he and Albert Pujols were effectively 1 and 1A initially anyway.

Whoever bats first and second ahead of these two sluggers -- likely Austin Jackson and Brennan Boesch -- will also benefit in terms of runs scored. The Tigers do, after all, now sport the game's No. 4 and 5 players in terms of 2011 slugging percentage in the Nos. 3 and 4 spots in their lineup. Those Nos. 5-6-7 hitters -- perhaps Alex Avila, Delmon Young and Jhonny Peralta, as a quick guess -- should also benefit in terms of RBIs with the game's Nos. 1 and 4 players in terms of 2011 on-base percentage hitting ahead of them.

But here's where it gets interesting: Where do Cabrera and Fielder play?

Miguel Cabrera
Miguel Cabrera could add third-base eligibility this season, but at what cost to Tigers pitchers?

If you believe the scuttlebutt that Fielder didn't want to accept a designated-hitter role, the Tigers have a conundrum on their hands, now trying to decide how to wedge two first basemen into their lineup. Fielder actually makes the most sense as DH; per Simon, Fielder ranks dead last among first basemen since 2006 in a defensive metric called Defensive Runs Saved, with minus-48. Cabrera didn't rank much higher, with minus-21 during that span.

Cabrera could, however, shift to one of his former positions: Third base, left field or right field, but again, he wasn't an exceptional defender at any of those, either. Imagine an infield with Cabrera and Fielder at its corners?

That'd be terrible news for noted ground-baller Rick Porcello, whose 52.1 percent rate ranked 22nd among qualified starters in 2011, or Doug Fister, whose 45.9 percent rate of balls in play ranked 33rd. Both pitchers rely on their defense to keep their ERA/WHIP numbers in check; they'd both suffer noticeably.

Until we know whether Cabrera indeed is shifting to another field position, Fister fans shouldn't run screaming -- though they should brace themselves for the possibility. He'll plummet in my rankings if that's indeed the resolution.

Tristan H. Cockcroft is a fantasy baseball analyst for ESPN.com and a two-time champion of the League of Alternative Baseball Reality (LABR) experts league. You can e-mail him here, or follow him on Twitter @SultanofStat.