Sports Reference Blog

How Prince Fielder, Mark Teixeira, and Alex Rodriguez Changed Baseball

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):

Rk Player Rfield HR
1 Albert Pujols 31.0 32
2 Alfonso Soriano 17.0 33
3 David Wright 12.0 30
4 Carlos Beltran 10.0 33
5 Brandon Phillips 9.0 30
6 Carlos Pena 8.0 46
7 Jimmy Rollins 5.0 30
8 Mark Teixeira 0.0 30
9 Jim Thome 0.0 35
10 Justin Morneau 0.0 31
11 Carlos Lee 0.0 32
12 Paul Konerko 0.0 31
13 Matt Holliday 0.0 36
14 David Ortiz -1.0 35
15 Alex Rodriguez -1.0 54
16 Ryan Howard -4.0 47
17 Chris Young -4.0 32
18 Adrian Gonzalez -8.0 30
19 Lance Berkman -11.0 34
20 Ken Griffey -14.0 30
21 Prince Fielder -15.0 50
22 Dan Uggla -15.0 31
23 Pat Burrell -17.0 30
24 Miguel Cabrera -19.0 34
25 Adam Dunn -26.0 40
26 Ryan Braun -32.0 34
Provided by View Play Index Tool Used
Generated 8/11/2016.

With this group of 25-HR players this year:

Rk Player Rfield HR
1 Nolan Arenado 14.0 30
2 Adam Duvall 13.0 26
3 Manny Machado 12.0 26
4 Robinson Cano 9.0 25
5 Kris Bryant 8.0 28
6 Josh Donaldson 8.0 27
7 Trevor Story 4.0 27
8 Khris Davis 2.0 27
9 Miguel Cabrera 2.0 26
10 David Ortiz 1.0 25
11 Edwin Encarnacion 0.0 31
12 Chris Carter -1.0 26
13 Evan Longoria -2.0 25
14 Nelson Cruz -3.0 28
15 Todd Frazier -4.0 31
16 Mark Trumbo -5.0 31
17 Mike Napoli -7.0 28
18 Jay Bruce -14.0 27
Provided by View Play Index Tool Used
Generated 8/11/2016.

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:

Rk Player Rfield ISO
1 David Wright 12.0 .222
2 Corey Hart 7.0 .244
3 Chris Young -4.0 .230
4 Melvin Upton -7.0 .209
5 Adrian Gonzalez -8.0 .220
6 Prince Fielder -15.0 .330
7 Miguel Cabrera -19.0 .245
8 Hanley Ramirez -28.0 .230
Provided by View Play Index Tool Used
Generated 8/11/2016.

And here's that same cohort in 2016:

Rk Player Rfield ISO
1 Mookie Betts 15.0 .236
2 Nolan Arenado 14.0 .283
3 Manny Machado 12.0 .252
4 Kris Bryant 8.0 .263
5 Gregory Polanco 5.0 .217
6 Bryce Harper 4.0 .205
7 Wil Myers 4.0 .222
8 Trevor Story 4.0 .296
9 Corey Seager 4.0 .229
10 Mike Trout 3.0 .234
11 Aledmys Diaz -3.0 .207
12 Rougned Odor -5.0 .218
13 Yasmany Tomas -6.0 .231
14 Marcus Semien -7.0 .217
15 Jake Lamb -9.0 .299
16 Marcell Ozuna -9.0 .205
17 Nick Castellanos -10.0 .214
18 Miguel Sano -11.0 .236
Provided by View Play Index Tool Used
Generated 8/11/2016.

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.

10 Responses to “How Prince Fielder, Mark Teixeira, and Alex Rodriguez Changed Baseball”

  1. Jared Says:

    I must be missing something here with WAR. Looking at your >= 30 HR and <= 1.5 WAR table, Dante Bichette had a -2.3 WAR in 1999 despite having a decent OBP and good batting average, along with relatively few strikeouts. Is it being tempered by the fact he played in Coors Field?

  2. Jonah Gardner Says:

    Jared, the problem for Bichette is that, given the general run environment in 1999 and the specific offensive environment in Coors Field, his offensive production isn't enough to overcome his rough defense. WAR is basically saying a replacement player could come close to his offense given what hitters were doing in 1999 in Coors while giving the Rockies more in the field

  3. Jared Says:

    I concede that his defense was certainly below average, especially for that season. However, he only had < 2 chances per game, and he failed to make a play on average once every 5 games -- pretty high for a LF, but I'd still take a near-.300 hitter with low Ks for the heart of my order than Joe Random hitting (using league averages) .271 and striking out over 100 times. To say he cost his team 2 games seems to overvalue defense.

  4. Jonah Gardner Says:

    That's a fair point, and I understand how weird it is to be talking about someone with 34 HRs and 133 RBIs, but Bichette's hitting has to be considered in the context of his era. OPS+, which just scales his OPS to the league average over the era (and adjusts for ballpark) has him 2% above what an average 1999 hitter would have done in Coors, which is a rough tradeoff for Bichette's defense. But really, one of the points I was trying to make is that regardless of what WAR says, players like Bichette are still super fun to watch and I hope there's still a place for them in the game

  5. Jared Says:

    Agreed! I was drawn to this post as a Fielder fan and feel the same sentiment. Bichette was the only WAR delta that jumped out at me so I was curious. Most of the big boppers with limited range need no explanation.

  6. Roger Says:

    Jared, I would add to Jonah's explanation that the defensive stats we have for that era (Total Zone, which uses play-by-play data) are generally not considered to be as accurate as what we have today (DRS, which uses batted ball data). Also, even the creators of the modern stats warn that we should use three-year samples as often as possible because it takes that long for the data to stabilize. This method misses out on sudden changes in talent level (or just bad years by good players), but it smooths some of the noise. WAR doesn't do this, however, and that's one of the reasons it should always be used as a conversation starter rather than ender. If we use a 3-year average of Dante's TZ numbers (-13ish instead of -34), he'd be at -0.2 WAR instead of -2.3. Not quite as awful, but still no better than replacement. Pretty amazing that Coors + homerun era + defensive butchery can totally negate a 34 dinger, .354 OBP season.

  7. DCA Says:

    Looking at the tables of "everyone under 25 who had an Isolated Power over .250 in 2007 [and 2016], sorted by fielding runs" and I'm a bit confused. It would appear that the majority of players on both lists have ISOs lower than .250. Am I missing something?

  8. Jonah Gardner Says:

    Sorry, DCA. That was a typo! It's fixed now

  9. Ron Bown Says:

    I am not a big fan of Mark Trumbo. When I'm molding a team, I stay away from the low-average, high strikeout guys, even when they have lots of power. That having been said...if Mark Trumbo's WAR for this season is close to nothing, then there is something wrong with WAR.

  10. Rob Says:

    This whole blog entry becomes totally worthless and nonsensical at the very first mention of the term WAR.
    Just say, "no" to WAR...the most ridiculous statistical creation in the history of this game.

    Using OPS is about senseless too.