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Patience equals power for Prince

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McClatchy Tribune
August 21, 2009

One of the things that makes Prince Fielder a dangerous hitter is his stubbornness at the plate, his refusal to give in to the pitcher.


At times in the past, however, that trait worked against him.


“I learned to wait for my pitch,” said the Milwaukee Brewers’ dynamic first baseman. “If I don’t get a pitch to hit, I take my walks.


“If you swing at the pitcher’s pitch, you help get yourself out. I know better now what pitches are tough for me. I try to take those. It’s not that I’m trying to walk but by waiting for a pitch I can handle, it’s working out for me.”


That revelation, coming in his fourth full season in the major leagues and with more than 2,200 at-bats under his belt, has helped Fielder raise his game to a higher plane in 2009. Already known as one of the most feared sluggers in the National League, Fielder has become a multi-faceted force at the plate.


Check the leaderboards in most of the “sexy” offensive categories in the league and you’ll find Fielder’s name at or near the top. He is first with 108 runs batted in, second with a .599 slugging percentage, third with 61 extra-base hits, fourth with 32 home runs, 261 total bases and 78 walks, and fifth with a .416 on-base percentage.


Proving that he doesn’t have to be an all-or-nothing player, Fielder is batting .307, an impressive 29 points higher than his career norm entering the season.


St. Louis first baseman Albert Pujols is still the gold standard for offensive production but Fielder is setting up camp nearby.


“He has obviously gotten to another level,” Brewers hitting coach Dale Sveum said. “You have to put him in that class now.”


One certainly can’t blame Fielder for the free-falling Brewers dropping out of the playoff race. His batting average and OBP have slipped (.289 and .345) since the all-star break—oh yeah, let’s not forget he was the Home Run Derby champ in St. Louis—but Fielder has socked 10 homers and driven in 30 runs in 32 games.


In surging to the major-league lead in RBI, Fielder has a shot to join Cecil Cooper as the only Brewers to top all hitters in that category. Cooper, now manager of the Houston Astros, led the majors with 122 RBI in 1980 and again in 1983 when he tied Jim Rice with 126 RBI.


Fielder, 25, is on pace for 146 RBI, which would obliterate Cooper’s club record of 126. He also is on pace for 106 walks, which would top the club mark of 99 established by Jeromy Burnitz in 2000.


It is Fielder’s focus on getting runners home in any fashion that best shows his maturity as a hitter, according to Sveum.


“When guys are in scoring position, you don’t have to hit home runs to drive them in,” said Sveum. “As well as driving them in, you’re keeping the line moving, giving others their chance. He can drive a run in and get on base.


“There’s been a tremendous amount of improvement in everything, pitch selection, the ability to hit every kind of pitch. He takes his walks, knows the situation, knows how to get RBI now. He takes what the pitcher is going to give him.”


That includes taking the ball to the opposite field more often than in the past. After becoming the youngest player (23) to hit 50 home runs in a season in 2007, Fielder admits he became a bit too pull-happy. His homer total dropped to 34 last year and his strikeouts rose (from 121 to 134) while his batting average fell (from .288 to .276).


After thinking about it, Fielder decided to go back to hitting to all fields as he did while forging a .297 batting average in the minors.


“I’m trying to stay on the ball,” he said. “Before, I probably tried to pull the ball too much. I try to make good contact.


“I’m trying to get a good pitch I can hit. When a pitcher makes a good pitch, I’m not trying to hit it unless I’ve got two strikes.”


Most left-handed sluggers struggle against left-handed pitchers, which is how the role of lefty specialist in the bullpen originated. No left-handed hitter in the NL sees the opposing manager walk to the mound with his left arm raised than Fielder.


But Fielder hangs in there against southpaws, as evidenced by his .288 batting average against them, 11 homers and 38 RBI.


“He’s hitting lefties well,” said Sveum. “That doesn’t bother him.


“A lot of his home runs are big home runs. He hits game-changing home runs off lefty specialists.”


As the No. 3 hitter ahead of Fielder in the Brewers’ lineup, Ryan Braun has watched his teammate evolve into one of the best all-around hitters in the league. It’s certainly no accident that Braun ranks among the NL leaders with 86 runs scored.


“He’s been more consistent with his approach and he has a game plan,” said Braun. “He’s maturing as a hitter. He has an idea of what they’re trying to do to him.


“I always say the hitter that makes adjustments the quickest will have more success. He has figured out what they’re trying to do to him and making adjustments. Obviously, it’s showing because he’s having an incredible year.


Should the Cardinals go on to win the NL Central, Braun realizes it will be nearly impossible to deny Pujols another MVP award. But, should the Brewers somehow climb back into the race—a long shot at this point—Braun would like to see his teammate at least get some consideration.


“Albert’s having such a phenomenal year, you can’t argue with him right now,” said Braun. “But Albert won it last year and the Cardinals finished fourth in our division. So, there’s precedent for it.


“Prince is having a phenomenal year, too. There’s still a lot of baseball left. The guy who wins the award is usually the guy who puts up the numbers throughout the whole season. Prince at least deserves to be in the conversation.”



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