Gil LeBreton

Healed and confident, Rangers’ Fielder feels like a prince again

Prince Fielder’s batting average on balls in play (BABIP) dropped from .350 to .290 in the second half last season because of defensive shifts.
Prince Fielder’s batting average on balls in play (BABIP) dropped from .350 to .290 in the second half last season because of defensive shifts. mfaulkner@star-telegram.com

For driving in 98 runs, batting .305 and posting an .841 OPS, among other regal things, Prince Fielder of the Texas Rangers was named the American League’s Comeback Player of the Year last season.

But just you wait. Nearly two years after undergoing neck surgery, Fielder feels he’s swinging with a confidence and an abandon that he had never before enjoyed in a Texas uniform.

True, he went 0 for 2 against the Seattle Mariners on Sunday and remains hitless in the Cactus League exhibition season.

But Fielder is swinging hard, pounding the ball into the defensive shift.

He seems stronger, if you can imagine such a thing. He seems happier, as if the uncertainties of last season have been conquered.

“Last year I came into spring with a different attitude,” Fielder recalled. “I was back, but I didn’t know for sure.

“Now I have a whole different attitude. I know I’m capable of playing. I know I’m not going to break it again, and nothing’s going to happen.”

At one point in Fielder’s career, he had played in 547 consecutive games, longest in the major leagues at that time. In four of the five seasons before being traded to the Rangers, Fielder had played in all 162 games.

When he was placed on the disabled list on May 22, 2014, it was the first time in his career that Fielder had gone on the list.

As Prince discovered when he did return last season, even when you’re back, sometimes you’re not entirely back. Players returning from a first-time injury are often shaken by the experience.

They’re afraid that whatever caused the injury remains vulnerable.

Even a big man such as Prince.

“There’s another level of confidence that you have to find, for sure,” he said.

If Fielder was holding back anything in 2015, however, he clearly fooled the postseason award voters. He led the league’s official qualifiers in batting average for much of the season, before finally finishing at .305.

More than that, manager Jeff Banister said he saw signs of the old Prince Fielder throughout the season.

“Mentally and energy wise, it’s the same guy,” Banister said. “He loves to play the game. He shows up to beat you. He’s driven and focused.”

Fielder maintained his upbeat attitude last season even in the face of an extreme defensive shift, night after night.

He has never really complained about the way other teams play him as an extreme pull hitter. His frequent response is a shrug and an acknowledgment that, “The bats don’t have GPS.”

“I saw a guy in Milwaukee who would take whatever you’d give him,” said Banister, who coached against Fielder in the National League. “He’d take a single this way or a double that way and drive it. If there was an RBI to be had, he’d do what he could to drive the run in.

“And if you made a mistake on him, he’d hurt you.”

But there lies the rub, doesn’t it?

After the delicate neck surgery, can Prince Fielder’s swing be powerful enough to hurt anybody again?

“Oh, I think he can — yes,” Banister said. “It’s still there, yes.”

As productive a season as he had, Fielder only hit 23 home runs, the lowest full-season total of his career.

He was on his way to a possible 30 homers, however, when his fortunes — and maybe his stamina — faltered in the season’s second half. After batting .339 in the first half, his average fell 72 points and his OPS dropped by 182.

Part of the reason might be found in baseball’s new analytics. Whatever Fielder was doing right against the opponents’ shift in the first half appeared to elude him after the All-Star break. His batting average on balls in play (BABIP) dropped from .350 to .290 in the second half.

This year, Fielder said, the plan is to hit line drives to all fields. And let loose whatever subliminally was holding him back last season.

“I’m going to go with that,” Prince Fielder said, confidently, last week.

The weakness that was once in his left arm is gone, he said. He feels strong ... confident ... princely.

Just like the manager remembers.

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