At two different points in yesterday’s Tigers-Blue Jays game in Detroit, it appeared the game could hinge on, of all things, Prince Fielder’s speed. The Tigers scored a run in the bottom of the first after Fielder beat out what looked like a sure double play ball. Later, with a two-run lead in the sixth, Fielder legged out an infield single to give the Tigers two on with two outs and a chance to blow the game open.
The Tigers didn’t blow it open, and the Blue Jays scored four runs in the seventh and went on to win 8-6, but this game was an example of something we’ve seen multiple times throughout Fielder’s career. Obviously, Fielder doesn’t have great speed — he has a minus-38.5 runs baserunning score since 2006, with only Paul Konerko worse (minus-44.4 runs). But this is partially a product of a brilliant .392 OBP and 4,868 plate appearances — only Derek Jeter and Ichiro Suzuki have more.
It could be much worse. Fielder took the extra base in 26 percent of opportunities last year, per Baseball-Reference. His mark was well below the 41 percent league average, but better than quite a few players we’d expect to leave Fielder in the dust in a footrace, such as Will Middlebrooks, Michael Young, Justin Smoak and Ramon Santiago, to name a few.
We see it once or twice every year: an opposing first baseman will either forget or simply decline to hold Fielder on and he’ll build up a lead and go. Fielder stole a base last year for the seventh consecutive season, making him one of 82 players to carry a seven-year stolen base streak into 2013. Of first baseman with at least 1,000 plate appearances since 2006, 10 have been worse baserunners on a per-plate appearance basis: Casey Kotchman, Ryan Howard, Billy Butler, Justin Smoak, Paul Konerko, Ryan Garko, Kevin Millar, Michael Morse, Matt LaPorta and Kendrys Morales.
None of these players are burners, of course, but Fielder specifically scared teams away in the draft because of his body. According to his Baseball America draft report, “Prince is shorter and heavier than Cecil was at the same age, and Cecil had one of baseball’s all-time bad bodies.” Prince stole more bases in his rookie year (seven) than Cecil did in 13 seasons (two).
Credit to Fielder for running hard, of course, but as Tigers color announcer Rod Allen points out, there wasn’t much urgency from the defenders, particular with Bonifacio’s turn.
Infielders play based on the speed of the runner all the time, but Bonifacio took it too far. It was even more visible in Fielder’s sixth inning infield single. Only at the last second does Bonifacio realize he’ll need to charge the ground ball to throw Fielder out, and by then it was too late.
Fielder doesn’t have to get much out of his legs to be a great player. His bat always has and always will do the talking. But he squeezes every last drop of value out of those legs, and the means taking advantage when opponents take his speed too lightly, as Emilio Bonifacio did on a couple of occasions in Wednesday’s game.
How does he do it? Quite simply, when opposing players underestimate the speed his (listed) 275-pound frame can reach, he makes them pay.