MLB: ALCS-Boston Red Sox at Detroit Tigers

The Tigers scored seven runs last night so any and all concerns over their offense are officially waylaid, right? Right. Thanks for reading, enjoy the game!

If only it were that simple. Wednesday night, Jim Leyland pushes the right buttons, shuffling his batting order to great effect. A skeptic might point to the Red Sox defensive gaffs as a major offensive catalyst for Detroit’s output on this night.

An even more skeptical mind might credit Red Sox manager John Farrell with the Tigers offensive resurgence, citing Farrell’s decision to hand the ball to Jake Peavy in Game Four of the ACLS. Peavy was very much not good in this start, struggling to throw anything in the strike zone, going as far as walking the slumping eighth place hitter Austin Jackson on four pitches with the bases loaded. Only one out of every three Peavy pitches ended up in the strike zone, yet he still managed to give up seven runs on five hits and three walks.

The Tigers banged out nine total hits and drew five walks, though Prince Fielder failed to contribute to either ledger. Fielder has three hits this series and only one extra base hit this postseason. Rather than a brief statistical blip, this is part and parcel for a down year for the suddenly power-strapped slugger.

Of all the things to abandon Prince Fielder before he turned 30, his power seemed like the least likely skill to bolt for the door. And there is a very good chance that this power outage is a temporary thing, perhaps related to an injury otherwise unreported by the extremely durable Fielder.

But this year’s numbers paint a grim picture, crafting an image of a first baseman who still gets on base but a man whose bat might be a touch slow. His league-adjusted numbers (125 wRC+) suggest 2013 was his worst season since 2008. While his average and on base percentage struggled, it is his slugging and power numbers that are most alarming. His slugging percentage of .457 marks a career low, as does his .178 ISO (slugging percentage with batting average subtracted, a quick measure of extra base power) dipped below .200 for the first time. His 25 home runs are also a career worst total.

Looking at the manner in which Fielder was pitched, a clear pattern emerges – Fielder struggled with pitches on the outside half, particularly fastballs. Teams didn’t throw Fielder more pitches away but they did challenge him with more fastballs on the outer half. According to Pitch f/x, the Tigers first baseman tried pulling more of these pitches, to no avail. He slugged .402 on hard stuff on the outside half this season, compared to .578 during the previous two seasons combined (via ESPN Stats & Info).

The Red Sox and Athletics both continued this trend into the postseason, pounding the outside of the zone against Fielder with 69% fastballs, against which he has three hits and his lone double. But the biggest difference, in my eyes, is a total lack of fear in the Red Sox game plan. They worked those fastballs on the outside half seemingly unconcerned with his ability to make much of them. A player with a very robust career walk rate as teams timidly pitch around him, Fielder now watches pitchers fill the zone against him.

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John Lackey worked Fielder carefully but he certainly didn’t pitch around the big man. Nobody really seems afraid of Fielder these days. Hitting behind Miguel Cabrera is a great way to pad your RBI numbers but, for the better part of this entire season, this isn’t the Prince Fielder we’re used to seeing.

In two Game One at bats against tonight’s starter Jon Lester, Prince saw only fastballs. He singled on a first pitch cutter over the middle in the first inning, then lost a good, seven-pitch battle when he grounded out on an outside fastball. Lester fell behind 3-1 in this encounter but continued working the ball inside and out. In their final matchup, Lester hit Fielder with an inside fastball after throwing two more heaters up in the zone.

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Will this trend continue tonight? I have to believe it will. Whatever is hampering Fielder didn’t go away overnight. Maybe he comes back next season with a clear mind (after a trying year in his personal life) but, for now, the Red Sox will continue attacking one of the league’s highest paid players, a slugger suddenly missing his pop.