There’s a distinction to be made between the terms “power hitter” and “hitter with power.”
The former typically lives and dies with three true outcomes — maybe only two if they lack discipline. Adam Dunn perfectly represents this group, a hitter who would be nothing without his ability to mash the ball 500 feet. Jose Bautista has other skills, but driving fly balls out of the park tends to define his performance. Other examples include Carlos Pena, Russell Branyan, Mark Reynolds.
And then you have the hitters with power. These are the guys the scouts note for their “hit tool” first and their mammoth power second. They can do it all — make contact, draw a few walks, and it just so happens that when they make contact the ball goes pretty far too. Think David Wright, Albert Pujols, Joey Votto, Robinson Cano, Ryan Braun.
Prince Fielder broke into the majors as a power hitter. He struck out often thanks to his uppercut, all-or-nothing swing. But over the last few years, we’ve seen him reshape himself as a hitter with power.
For years, viewers of the Fox Sports Wisconsin broadcast would hear Daron Sutton or Brian Anderson talking about Prince Fielder’s goal to hit .300. It was a noble pursuit. Fielder hit .271 when he first came up and then ranged from .261 to .299 over the next five seasons — he mustered a .299 mark twice, just missing his goal in both 2009 and 2011.
From 2006 through 2010 — the first five seasons of his career — Fielder simply struck out too often. Each year at least 21% and up to 23.8% of his at-bats resulted in a strikeout, about four points higher than the league average. When it comes to batting average, starting out with zeroes in over a fifth of your at-bats makes it tough to make up enough ground to get back to .300.
Of course, Prince was still productive as a power hitter. He hit at least 28 home runs each season, peaking at 50 in the 2007 season. That year he put up a .330 ISO and .618 SLG, his best marks in either category, and his .417 wOBA is still his career high. But some years, the power didn’t show up quite as much — 2006, 2008 and 2010 saw 28, 34 and 32 homers respectively. The result was wRC+ marks of 111, 125 and 137 respectively — fine, but not at the All-Star level we’ve come to expect from Fielder.
And that’s just part of power: it’s fickle. Fielder is projected for just 29 home runs this year by ZiPS. If so, it would be his first time under 30 since his rookie year. This year, he just hasn’t mustered the “Just Enough” home runs as measured by ESPN HitTracker:
Still, he’s been producing well in 2012 without the prodigious homer totals. His 143 wRC+ ranks third among first base qualifiers behind Joey Votto and Edwin Encarnacion. And that’s because over the past two seasons, he has reshaped himself in the mold of the hitters with power. In 2011, his strikeout rate dropped to 18.6% of at-bats — better than the league average — and this year the nosedive has continued. Entering play Thursday, Fielder had just 54 strikeouts in 407 at-bats, a fantastic 13.3% rate. Fielder now sits on the first page of the strikeout rate leaderboard.
There were concerns about Fielder’s ability to hit at Comerica Park, a tougher hitters’ venue than Miller Park. Perhaps these concerns were warranted — Fielder has just a .201 ISO this season, a career low, and perhaps he won’t be able to hit for the same eye-popping power we saw from him in Milwaukee. But the way Fielder has improved his contact ability is enough to keep him among the most productive hitters in the league. Even with a walk rate down to 11.1% — another career low — Fielder has a .400 OBP entering play. If he can hold that mark, 2012 will be his fourth consecutive .400 OBP season.
And Prince Fielder still has mammoth power. Nobody would be surprised if he has another 40-homer season or two left under his belt. At this point, though, Fielder has tooled his swing in such a way where such power is just gravy. He is now a hitter with power, not just a slugger.