Going into the season, the Brewers were a popular pick to win the NL Central as they had just gone for broke on Zack Greinke and Shaun Marcum to fill out the starting rotation and give Milwuakee's talented young hitters a chance to win the division for the first time since 1982.
In a 43-year history that started in Seattle, the Brewers have been to the playoffs just three times and been to the World Series just once when they lost in 7 games to their now Central division rival St Louis Cardinals. It was clear that with the acquisition of those two top of the rotation pitchers, a clearing out of the farm system of any talent, and the impending free agency of power hitter Prince Fielder, that Milwuakee was in a "now or never" mindset that makes 2011 very crucial to their chances of making the playoffs for just the fourth time in their history.
While I wouldn't say that winning isn't important to Fielder, as I'm sure that it is, it's that impending free agency that may weigh just as heavily on his mind. Players say it doesn't matter, and they're only focused on the field, but it would be hard to believe that your future paycheck isn't always somewhere on the back of your mind. If the average person reading this article would worry about a $1 per hour raise at their current job, which I most definitely have, then how much will Fielder be thinking about the potential difference of dozens of millions of dollars depending on his performance in 2011?
Going into the season, there was a lot of talk that Fielder would age quickly just like his father Cecil did. The elder Fielder led the league in home runs in his age 26 and 27 seasons when he banged 51 and 44 home runs respectively. He finished 2nd in the MVP voting both years and was a 3-time All-Star before he turned 30. However, he started to miss time in 1994 and 1995 with injury and subsequently his numbers began to drop and his OPS was down to a good but not great .818. Fielder would hit 39 HR in '96 but his overall game had deteriorated and he was out of the league before he turned 35.
While there are definitely similarities between the father and the son, Prince has thus far been a much better player than his dad. Cecil had to go to Japan to get regular playing time very early in his career after he couldn't get an every day job in Toronto. Prince was the 7th overall pick in the draft and has been hitting home runs since he came into the big leagues at age 21.
Much more after the jump...
Cecil had a lower average, struck out considerably more, and didn't walk as much as his son has. There's a clear talent advantage from son to father. That hasn't stopped some people from questioning whether or not a team should give a large contract to the 27-year-old.
Some would consider it absolutely astounding for a team to sign a player this young to a long-term contract when he's already accumulated 211 career home runs. He seems well on his way to 500 and could go much further than that. A proven run producer at this age seems like a fairy tale. Consider that another impending free agent first baseman, a free agent for the first time, will be Albert Pujols who will be turning 32 before next season.
Players usually get locked up by their teams long term when they are this talented and rarely hit free agency before they turn 30. Fielder knew that coming into the season he was one big year away from what could be a life-changing deal.
Much like Jose Reyes, another impending free agent, it wasn't about how talented you are or what you had done in previous seasons, it was all about 2011. Fielder was coming off of a 2010 that saw him hit a career low .261 and just 32 HR, the lowest total of his career since his rookie year, and slugged under .500 for the first time. For many people this seemed to be a red flag that indeed he was just like his pops.
So if Fielder didn't return to form this year, it was very likely that he could find himself looking at an Adam Dunn-like contract instead of a potential 9-figure deal. Fielder is a year younger than what Mark Teixeira was when he signed an 8-year/$180 million deal with the Yankees, so it was possible he could be closer to $200 million than $100 million if he just had the right kind of year. A career year, not unlike Adrian Beltre's 2004 contract season with the Dodgers.
If he slugged under .500 again and struck out too much, teams would be fearful of going longer than 4 seasons and he could wind up with a Dunn-like $56 million. Not bad, but a potential difference of $100 million plus.
His response in 2011 isn't just eye-opening, it's downright confusing.
If you're a fantasy-owner of Fielder like I am, then you know what I am talking about. Fielder, as has been discussed throughout this article, is a very good player. Offensively, he has shown the potential to be a top 10 hitter in the league when he is on. So it's not surprising when he smacks bombs and drives in runs, he's led the league in both categories before. He just happens to be doing it at a faster pace than he ever has before, showing the form he had when he hit 50 in 2007.
That year he hit a home run every 11.46 at-bats. This season, he has a home run every 12.42 at-bats. That pace has quickly gotten shorter and shorter as Fielder has been the leagues hottest hitter for over the last two weeks.
In his last 17 games he's hit .404/.543/.942, 8 HR, 4 2B, 21 RBI, 15 BB's and just 5 K's. Over a 162-game season that's a pace of 77 home runs and 201 RBI. While the sample-size is far too small to assess that Fielder is going to hit 70 home runs, 17 games is still large enough to be eye-opening.
The most shocking part to all observers will of course be Fielders walk and strikeout numbers. Fielder has always had respectable plate discipline for a power hitter, sitting in the low 20's in terms of strikeout% throughout his career.
This season, through 66 games, Fielder is striking out just 13.1% of the time. That's not quite Pujols-esque, perhaps the greatest non-strikeout power hitter of the modern era, but it's pretty amazing. Especially for a player who has never struck out less than 20% of the time in any season. It seems a little late in the game to improve on your plate discipline that dramatically, but over 1/3 of the way into the season, that's exaclty what Fielder is doing.
The most telling difference in Fielders 2011 resume won't be in his batted ball rates, which all sit in normal territory. It won't be in his swinging stats, which show that he's still swinging at pitches in and out of the zone at about the same rates in which he always has. No, the most dramatic jumps according to fangraphs, are in his contact percentages, which have gone up an absurd amount for a player with as many career at-bats as Fielder has.
Fielder made contact on pitches outside of the zone at a career-high 60.1% of his swings last year. This season that number has jumped to 71.9%.
His contact% at pitches in the zone has consistently been between 85 and 87 percent, and that number is now at 94.8%. Those numbers make his overall contact% at 85.1% and a swinging strike rate of just 6.2%. Significantly lower than the 9.8% he's had the last two seasons.
Basically, if Prince is swinging, he's making contact nearly all the time. An unbelievable rate for any player, especially one that is known for putting balls over the fence.
ZiPS believes that Prince will eventually regress back to striking out over 20% of the time and that he'll settle into being the good version of Prince, rather than this Pujolsian version, and given the size of data we've had on Fielder it's not hard to believe that he's playing way over his head right now. That being said, it's still unreal to see what he is doing and we have no way of knowing whether or not significant changes to his game are making some of these changes somewhat real.
The Brewers went into the season with World Series aspirations but they found themselves 5 games back on May 17th. Since that time they've gone 18-6 and sit with a .5 game lead.
Fielder came into the season with 9-figure aspirations and as the Brewers have gone, so as he, turning in a performance that could garner him the deal he was hoping for, though he will be hurt by the fact that the Yankees and Red Sox are set at first base for the long-term future.
For Fielder owners with such high aspirations, they have so far reaped the benefits and should continue to do so as long as the Brewers and Fielder have something big to work towards in 2011.