Prince’s Rise: Fielder Becomes Feared Hitter At Young Age

By Gary D'Amato
Updated: October 8, 2007

MILWAUKEE — Prince Fielder put up such staggering offensive numbers in 2007 that the question begs to be asked: Did the Milwaukee Brewers’ first baseman have his career year at 23?

Is it possible Fielder reached his peak at an age at which most players are still climbing through the minor leagues or experiencing growing pains at the major-league level?

According to those within the organization who have closely monitored the development of the big left-hander, the answer is a resounding “No.”

“He hasn’t reached his full potential, by any means, as an offensive performer,” Brewers manager Ned Yost said. “He’s just going to be a superstar. He’s already a superstar. He’s going to be in an elite class in the major leagues.”

Said general manager Doug Melvin: “Prince has obviously put up some huge numbers at a young age, but he will find ways to improve his game. He’s not one to be satisfied with what he’s done.”

If they are right, National League pitchers have much to fear.

Fielder led the league with 50 home runs and a .618 slugging percentage and finished with 354 total bases, 109 runs scored, 119 runs batted in and a .288 average. He also drew 90 walks — 21 of them intentional — and had an impressive .395 on-base percentage.

“Maybe it’s my own prejudice, but I think he’s the best hitter in the league,” said Brewers hitting coach Jim Skaalen. “He’s got plate coverage, he can drive balls the other way, he can get to a fastball in. I think he’s the best overall hitter in the league.”

But as Fielder sat dejectedly in front of his locker Friday, after the Brewers were eliminated from the Central Division race and the post-season, he didn’t sound like a player who had put together one of the best seasons in franchise history.

“I sometimes think what I could have did extra, just little things,” he sighed. “I’m not second-guessing myself, just thinking about the game overall.”

Fielder pointed to plate discipline and his average against left-handed pitchers (.261) as areas in which he would strive to improve. Like all the young starters in the Brewers’ infield (average 2008 opening-day age: 24.25) Fielder also could stand to clean up his defense after making 14 errors.

But is it realistic to expect much more than Fielder gave the club in ’07?

“I think the only thing is to sustain the level he’s at,” Melvin said. “It’s going to be different. I’m sure teams will want to pitch around him later on, like a (Albert) Pujols or a (Barry) Bonds.

“You’d never think a guy could get better when he’s hitting 50 home runs. But, I mean, he could hit .320. Maybe his power goes down a little bit but he becomes a .320 hitter and has 130 RBI.”

Skaalen said there was modest room for improvement in Fielder’s plate discipline. But he said the first baseman made huge strides in that area this year. After a July lull (three homers, 10 RBI), Fielder smashed 20 homers and drove in 43 runs in August and September.

“Prince early in the year was a little too aggressive,” Skaalen said. “He was chasing stuff, fastballs up and breaking balls down out of the zone. And he learned through consistent approach to see the ball better and lay off those pitches. Now it’s 2-0 and the count is in your favor and that’s where your power numbers go up.”

Brewers starting pitcher Jeff Suppan, who played with Pujols in St. Louis, was asked to compare Fielder with the Cardinals’ slugger.

“Prince really carried us a lot of times offensively, which I’ve seen Albert do many times,” Suppan said. “What impresses me about Prince, being 23, is that his at-bats are so professional. He always has good at-bats. He’s trying to accomplish something every time out there, which you don’t always see in a 23-year-old.”

Fielder also developed into one of the team leaders, a role in which he undoubtedly will continue to grow. Veteran infielder Craig Counsell said Fielder had a “presence” in the locker room and that his teammates admired and respected his hard-nosed approach to the game.

“He’ll snap and he’ll cuss because there’s a lot of fire in him,” Skaalen said. “That rubs off. Everybody sees this guy running balls out when we’re up eight, down eight, it doesn’t matter. That’s how you play the game.

“If he’s doing it, then everybody else needs to be following that lead or there’s a good chance he’s going to get in your grill.”

Fielder said he was honored to be mentioned in the same sentence with sluggers such as Willie Mays and Hank Aaron, who put up big numbers early in their Hall of Fame careers. But he made it clear he wants more from the game than a bunch of tape-measure homers.

“I really wanted to be able to jump on that field,” he said quietly after the Brewers were eliminated. “The only time I got to do it was in high school. Unfortunately, in high school you can’t pop champagne. Ever since then I’ve always wanted to be able to celebrate on the pitcher’s mound.

“We weren’t able to do that this year. I’m just glad I’m still young.”