Nick Swisher and Prince Fielder, Compared
Prince Fielder casts a large shadow, both physically and figuratively, as even a year removed from his signing with Detroit, his name still continues to be linked to discussions of what the Mariners might do or should have done in the past. Ever since I advocated for Swisher in the off-season plan, a common response has been that we wouldn’t have to overextend ourselves for a mediocre player like Swisher if we had just stepped up and signed a real difference maker like Fielder a year ago. Any discussion of the off-season always begins with how this is not a good free agent class, unlike last year, when real stars like Fielder were available.
It’s funny how labels often do far move to deceive than inform. Rather than actually stopping and looking at the relative merits of the two players, the perception of the two is vastly different simply based on the kinds of words that are used to describe them. So, I figure its time we just drop the labels and actually show you exactly what the differences between the two have been over the last several years.
First, here are just their raw stats from 2010 to 2012:
Fielder wins in a landslide across the board. 39 more hits. 24 more home runs. 76 more walks. Swisher’s totals simply don’t stack up, and this is why having a real cleanup hitter like Fielder is just so much more valuable than a complementary piece like Swisher, right?
Well, take a look at the numbers again, only this time, we’ve normalized the number of plate appearances. After all, the argument for Fielder is about quality of results, not quantity. No one’s arguing against Swisher because they think he gets hurt too much, but because he simply doesn’t provide the same impact when he’s at the plate. So, let’s rescale those numbers to 600 plate appearances each, or about one full season for a regular position player.
Three more singles. Five more home runs, but four fewer doubles. This isn’t over a week, or even a month. This is over an entire season. We’re talking a gap of four additional base hits, with only one of those hits being an extra base knock. The real advantage Fielder has over Swisher as a hitter – intentional walks and number of times hit by pitch. The unintentional walk rates are identical, as basically the entire difference in times reaching base is IBBs and HBPs. Those things have value, of course, and no one’s going to argue that Swisher is Fielder’s equal at the plate, but we should at least understand what the actual differences between them over the last three years have actually been.
Three extra singles, one more extra base hit, and two dozen extra free passes to first base, either the hard way or the way that makes us all boo the pitcher for being a coward. That’s what the difference between Fielder’s .291/.409/.521 line and Swisher’s .274/.366/.478 line work out too over one full year’s worth of plate appearances.
I’m sorry, but you just can’t make a mountain of that kind of mole hill. Fielder’s a really good hitter, but there’s no way you can justify the claim that Swisher is just a marginal role player when the actual difference has been four extra hits and 24 extra IBB/HBPs per 600 plate appearances. Especially when a large part of the dismissal of Swisher comes from discounting the value of walks. You can’t simultaneously dismiss getting on base via the free pass and then also claim that Fielder is a dramatically superior offensive player. His durability, and the extra 200 plate appearances he’s received over the last three years by playing everyday, certainly has value and should be factored in, but make sure that you realize that a lot of the offensive gap between them has been about quantity of playing time, not impact on a per plate appearance level.
If you liked the idea of Prince Fielder for $150 million — forget the crazy $214 million that he actually got — then you should love the idea of Swisher at half that price. Yes, he’s a few years older and not quite as good of a hitter, but he’s also a drastically better defensive player who can handle multiple positions, a better baserunner, a switch-hitter, and doesn’t have a physique that screams “knee problems!” There are pros and cons to both. If you’re just deciding which one you’d rather have without any regard to cost, you’d go with Fielder, but a rational analysis of their performance would tell you that the gap isn’t as huge as the perception difference.
But, once you factor in cost — especially now that the Yankees have decided to avoid multi-year contracts in an effort to get under the luxury tax — the choice between the two is a no-brainer. There’s no way that you can spin the difference between them as worth an extra $150 million or whatever the gap in their total contracts ends up being.
The Mariners don’t need to sign an inferior player like Nick Swisher to make up for the fact that they missed their chance to sign a real hitter like Prince Fielder last winter, even if that’s the story people want you to believe. They get the chance to sign a good player like Nick Swisher — and still have a bunch of money left to bring in more talent as well — because they didn’t fall into the trap of labels and drastically overpay last winter.
That’s why I don’t buy into any of this talk about this being a bad class of free agents. That’s like criticizing Safeway for being a bad grocery store compared to Whole Foods. You can probably get a slightly higher quality product at Whole Foods for double the price, but that doesn’t mean you can’t find good stuff at better prices by avoiding the marketing hype and buying things that are on sale. A store isn’t bad just because it doesn’t have overpriced stuff you shouldn’t pay for to begin with. This market might not have high-end players with overinflated price tags, but it has a host of good players who can dramatically improve the Mariners roster without costing them a large part of their future.
Given the reports about the kinds of offers Swisher is getting, he’s shaping up to be a freaking steal, and he’s exactly the kind of player that the Mariners need. Don’t let the labels that have been affixed to him and Fielder distract you from the truth. Just like Fielder, he’s a really good player. And at the reported price tag, getting him this winter would be a far better result for the franchise than signing Fielder last winter would have been.