On Heavy Players

Yesterday, in writing about the pros and cons of signing Prince Fielder to a free agent contract, the issue of his weight and what it could mean to his future was brought up and discussed.

When making a prediction in baseball, I’ll look to history. No, it’s not fool proof. Things do happen that have never happened before. We’ve seen this first hand in Toronto with the emergence of Jose Bautista. However, given the large samples that the game of baseball offers us, if something has never happened in the past, it’s reasonable to believe that it won’t happen in the future. Likewise, if things occur frequently throughout baseball history, it doesn’t seem unreasonable to me to believe that those instances will continue to be frequent in baseball’s future.

And so, in trying to guess as to how Prince Fielder will age over the life of a seven year contract, I looked to baseball’s past.

There were several challenges in attempting this. The records for players’ weight don’t often change from their rookie season. For instance, on Baseball Reference, Barry Bonds is still listed as a 6’1″ outfielder, weighing in at a spry 185 lbs.

However even if accurate weights were listed, surely 250 lbs would have a different impact on the career of a 5’8″ player compared to a 6’8″ player. Lessening any potential sample size even further was the fact that no player in the history of baseball has ever started his career with a body like Prince Fielder’s.

Adam Dunn is the only position player with a weight listed above Fielder’s and he’s seven inches taller than the Brewers’ first baseman. Jim Thome is listed at 250 lbs, but I recall recently seeing his very first home run, hit at Yankee stadium, and back then he wouldn’t have weighed that much if he was soaking wet, carrying a fifty pound weight in each hand as he rounded the bases. On that note, who’s to say that putting on weight throughout one’s career is easier or harder on your body? There are too many variables and not enough examples to say that heavier players do or don’t age well, let alone say anything definitive about Prince Fielder specifically.

What we can say is this: If Prince Fielder signs a contract on par with what the Boston Red Sox gave to the two year older, but better defensively, Adrian Gonzalez, he would earn $154 million over seven years. In order to make this contract worthwhile, in terms of other free agent contracts that have been handed out, Fielder would have to put up something close to 27 wins above replacement over the length of his contract.

149 players in baseball history have accumulated 27 or more WAR from the age of 28 to 34. Keeping in mind the difficulties in tracking a player’s weight, of those 149, only 32 of them are listed as weighing 200 lbs or more. The total number falls to eight when we look at players with a listed weight of 225 lbs or more. Then, only two players weighing 250 lbs or more in the history of baseball have put up more than 27 wins above replacement from the age of 28 to 34: Jim Thome and Frank Howard. Two things should be remembered when considering this: 1) Only 27 position players have a recorded weight of 250 lbs or greater; and 2) Prince Fielder is listed as weighing 275 lbs.

Once again, there isn’t a clear answer. On one hand, it would be surprising if Fielder didn’t offer a team as much value as Robin Ventura did after his 28th birthday. On the other hand, there is no precedent for a player of Fielder’s size and talent playing at his level. For what it’s worth, and I don’t really think it’s worth much, Prince’s father Cecil Fielder had his peak season at the age of 26, and then, after the age of 30, never again recorded a single win above replacement in any given season.

Of course, the father and son appear to be on very different career paths: