Posted by Jonah Gardner on August 12, 2016
We like to think of it as slow and incremental, but change tends to happen pretty fast. The game may have been shifting over the last few years, but it's hard not to have whiplash from the events of the last seven days. In rapid succession, Mark Teixeira and Prince Fielder announced their retirement from baseball, while the Yankees cut Alex Rodriguez, in a transaction that also seemed like it could signal the end of A-Rod's career.
In their prime, all three players were superstars who came to define their era. And it's hard not to see this moment as something of a paradigm shift. Over the last few years, there's been a dramatic shift in our understanding of the game, and you'd have a hard time finding three players closer to the center of it than Fielder, Teixeira, and A-Rod.
Let's start with this: Mark Teixeira was almost certainly a better player on paper than Prince Fielder. You know about the gap in fielding that made Teixeira one of the best defensive first basemen of his era, and Fielder that absolute worst. But the distance between the two players as hitters may not be as wide as you'd assume.
That's not to say Fielder wasn't the better hitter; he had four seasons with an OPS+ over 150 vs just one for Teixeira. But Fielder's career OPS+ was 134 while Teixeira's was 127, which is essentially the same as the difference between Freddie Freeman and Wil Myers this year. Even at a relatively unimportant defensive position, it's hard to argue that a difference of 7 points of OPS+ is worth the downgrade from "one of the best of his generation" to "the absolute worst."
Then there's Wins Above Replacement. Thanks to his longevity, Teixeira obviously has the edge in total WAR (as he does in Home Runs, finishing his career with around 90 more than Fielder, depending on the rest of the season). But even in terms of his peak, Teixeira has the edge. If we compare their best 7 seasons by WAR (which is a component of JAWS, a stat that measures Hall of Fame worthiness), Tex had 37.9 WAR while Fielder's was at just 24.5.
However, their public perception didn't track with this. Prince Fielder had 3 Top 5 finishes in MVP voting, while Teixeira finished in the Top 5 just one time. Fielder made six All-Star Games while Teixeira only played in three. Personality was part of it, but Fielder's game was simply more entertaining. The highs were higher, the lows lower. It was easy to appreciate and love Fielder and even easier to overlook the flaws and just enjoy watching the guy mash.
Fielder was emblematic of a certain kind of player and a certain school of thought. Of everyone who hit 300 HRs, Prince Fielder had the 13th lowest WAR. Joining him in the bottom 20 of that group are players like Ryan Howard (currently #1) and Adam Dunn. This kind of bat-only slugger was a fixture of the game for a while. Since the 1994 strike, there have been 37 player seasons with 30 or more HRs but 1.5 or less WAR.
However, in 2014 and 2015, there were 0 (although, barring an unlikely WAR binge, Mark Trumbo is likely to do it this year). As our lens for understanding the game has shifted from Batting Average and Runs Batted In to OPS+ to WAR, the scope of expectation for players has grown. Not just among fans, either. Since Pujols left the Cardinals, only one World Series winner, the Boston Red Sox, had a 30-HR player on it, who hit exactly 30 HRs and happens to be retiring this year as well.
In short, this kind of "All I Do is Mash" player may be on the way out. The Fielders are being replaced by an army of Teixeiras. Compare this list of 30-HR players in 2007, ranked by fielding runs (the fielding component of WAR):
With this group of 25-HR players this year:
50% of 30-HR hitters in 2007 cost their team runs in the field. In contrast, only 38.8% of 25-HR hitters were negative in fielding runs. But, more to the point, teams were far more willing to tolerate truly awful fielding. Eight 30-HR hitters in 2007, 30.7% of the list, didn't just have fielding runs in the negative, but were in negative double-digits! Using the old ten runs equal a win conversion rate, Ryan Braun's epically disastrous stint at third base cost the Milwaukee Brewers three wins!
In contrast, 2016's second-worst fielding 25-HR hitter, Mike Napoli, would only be the 10th worst on the 2007 list. However, the shift away from the floor hasn't occured entirely at the ceiling of the list. Both years had 6 players worth 8 or more fielding runs, 33.3% this year versus 30.7% in 2007, but the real difference is in the middle.
2007 had just one player worth more than one fielding run, but less than eight. This year, however, that "middle class" of fielding home run hitters is thriving, with four players contributing at least a run. Admittedly, Ortiz getting on there on the strength of one game at first base is a little flukey, but even if you expand the "middle class" to be, say, +5.0 to -5.0 fielding runs, it includes 42.3% of power hitters in 2007 but 55.5% of them in 2016.
To sum it up, the average power hitter has gone from being worth -2.9 fielding runs in 2007 to +2.1 in 2016. This movement towards fielding is especially reflected in today's youth movement. Here's everyone under 25 who had an Isolated Power over .200 in 2007, sorted by fielding runs:
And here's that same cohort in 2016:
Not only are there more power hitting youngsters, but they're much better at playing the field. The majority of players under 25 are a net positive in the field this year, compared to 2007 when only two out of eight were.
This comes back to the third man we talked about in the beginning. If you're 25 now, you were 5 for A-Rod's breakout 1996 MLB season. Rodriguez was worth 9.4 WAR that year, belting 36 home runs while also establishing himself as a world-class fielder at the most important position on the defensive spectrum. Four years later, you'd have been 9 when A-Rod used that same cocktail of supreme baseball ability to launch a bonkers streak of six straight seasons with a WAR of 7.9 or better.
You can draw a straight line from A-Rod's jack-of-all-tradesness to today's crop of do-it-all young players. People like Mike Trout, Corey Seager, and (though he's stepped back a little this year) Carlos Correa have given their teams real power while holding down important defensive positions. At the same time, that philosophy has spread across the diamond, as players like Mookie Betts, Nolan Arenado, and Manny Machado are providing the power traditionally associated with corner positions while also giving their teams a real defensive edge.
But has something been lost? Another glance at that list of 300+ HR hitters with below par career WARs reveals that it contains a lot of players who were just plain awesome to watch. It would be sad to think of losing out on future players like 2006 Ryan Howard or 2007 Prince Fielder.
Perhaps this is just a pendulum swing. And maybe Fielder's cohort will prove as influential to a generation of young baseball watchers as A-Rod was years before. But either way, the game will be just a little emptier without Fielder, Teixeira, and Rodriguez.