Texas Rangers manager Ron Washington is preparing well in advance for his team's opening day series against Philadelphia, telling Drew Davidson of the Star-Telegram last week that he "already has a set lineup." According to the report, Washington's batting order will look similar to this: Shin-Soo Choo, Elvis Andrus, Prince Fielder, Adrian Beltre, Alex Rios, Mitch Moreland, Geovany Soto, Jurickson Profar and Leonys Martin. If anything looks a bit out of place in his batting order, it undoubtedly is the placement of Fielder in the No. 3 hole -- a position that has occupied just 12% of his plate appearances to this juncture of this career compared to the 80% that have transpired out of the cleanup spot with Milwaukee and Detroit.
“Hitting in front of Beltre — that’s not a bad thing,” Fielder told Davidson. “That’s fine with me. I don’t have any problems with it. I’m excited. The top two guys [Choo and Andrus] have speed, and they can hit as well. I think it’s going to set the table for the rest of us, which is going to be a lot of fun.”
While I can say that hitting in front of Beltre will at least somewhat help Fielder's cause this season, and a hitter-friendly Rangers Ballpark to boot, his offensive regressions last season are concerning. Posting a .279/.362/.457 line and 120 OPS+ that are each well below his career .286/.389/.527 and 141 OPS+ marks, Fielder took significant steps back with the Tigers in 2013, mainly when we see his .071 point decrease in slugging percentage from 2012 to last season. Where did Fielder's power go last season? We need not look further then his lefty-righty platoon splits.
Comparing Fielder's results and averages versus LHP
Against same-handed (lefty) pitching last season, Fielder took steps forward in several respects compared to his numbers from 2008 through 2012, including (but not limited to) batting average, OPS and HR/FB rate even though he wasn't able to place better contact against those pitchers (.217 WHAV last season compared to .256 prior). Now let's see his splits versus righties...
Comparing Fielder's results and averages versus RHP
Fielder's success rate against right-handed pitchers went in the opposite direction last season, however. A .302 hitter from 2008-'12, Fielder's average dropped to .271 against them last season and his OPS plummeted by nearly .200 points. His HR/FB rate was essentially cut in half to a career-low 13.2% last season and his WHAV against righties dropped in similar fashion to that against lefties. Now that we understand the primary reason behind Fielder's drop-off last season, we need to figure out what contributed to his relapse.
Fielder's in-play rate vs. RHP relative to pitch location, 2012
Fielder's in-play rate vs. RHP relative to pitch location, 2013
As we can see, Fielder's in-play rates against right-handed pitchers have fluctuated significantly with respect to pitch location. In 2012, the majority of the offerings he put in play were located low-and-away, evidenced by a 51.3% in play rate to the lower and outer portion of the strike zone. Last season, however, his strength in that regard turned into a weakness, posting a 44% in play rate in that region of the zone. Conversely, the biggest chunk of Fielder's in-plays last season were in the upper-and-inner location of the zone.
So Fielder is putting different balls in play. Who cares, right? Wrong. The fact that Fielder is putting significantly fewer low-and-away pitches in play is particularly concerning because opposing right-handers are attacking this area of the zone more often, locating 39% of their pitches to this region of the zone last season compared to 36% in 2012 (and 33% in 2011). Now that right-handers are recognizing and attacking this weakness, it may only get worse if left unaddressed this spring.