As Prince Fielder preps to miss the rest of the 2014 season, having weighed and considered the option to have surgery on a herniated disc in his neck, the mind starts to wonder to to the possibility that we may have seen the better stretch of baseball that Fielder is likely to play. Though such surgeries are not atypical, the spine is such an odd and at times antagonistic menace that we can never be particularly sure what the outcome is going to be.
And in this light, it is rather remarkable to note that Prince Fielder has been amazingly healthy over his baseball career. From his first full season in 2006, Fielder has averaged 160 games played a season. That is astounding. From 2009 to 2013 he played in every game except one.
And now, he is going to miss 120 games, over nine times as many games as he has missed in his career.
The body is an odd thing at times. Having gone through a recent bout of poor health myself, involving primarily my spine and the nerves it encompasses, I can say with keen insight that it has a profound affect on everything you can attempt to do. Standing, sitting, picking up a pencil, typing, turning your head, it all comes at a price when you are dealing with pinched nerves, slipped discs, and herniations.
In that sense, it would be much too dismissive to write off his performance this year as some sort of new equilibrium. The fact of the matter is, you need your spine to do everything, and if it hurts, you hurt. Add in the daily rigor of baseball related activities, and I can only imagine how difficult it has been for Fielder to try and stay upright, let alone swing a club, dig out ground balls, and run the bases.
The affect that this malady has had on his play has been prevalent; his hitting line alone is a testament to the amount of pain that he has been playing with and trying in vain to circumvent. For the year, Fielder was hitting.247/.360/.360. Last season, which was the worst of his career (worst being a relative term, a la "This is the worst million-dollar car in the world"), he hit .279/.362/.457. That was a down year, in that for his career he was hitting .287/.393/.538 prior to 2013.
The only other player that comes to mind recently to have the same similar procedure that Fielder is likely to receive was one Monsignor Peyton Manning. Though he struggled through some arm strength troubles in his first year back as a starter, he certainly managed to overcome most of the issues, or at least work around his shortcomings in year two, in which he broke the NFL single-season records for passing yards and passing touchdowns.
Both have similarity, in that they are both considered at or near the top of their respective professions, they have similar injuries (though Manning's accrued over a sum of years), and perhaps we should expect similar outcomes. It is possible for great players to come back and still be great, and baseball presumably has much less threats of physical violence associated with it.
But no two surgeries ever seem to be the same, and the physiological sinew and marrow that we are concocted of tends to do as it pleases, regardless of our wishes. There's a possibility that Fielder comes back and just can't swing the bat the way that he used to, and the Rangers may be on the hook for six years of above-average cost for below-average production. He recently turned 30, and so his natural decline, combined with such an injury, might portend a bleak future.
On the other hand, he has been a remarkably healthy, and even more remarkably a productive player, for nearly a decade. And maybe that's enough, or maybe the truth is somewhere in between. The baseball world is better with Fielder in it, and there's been enough bad news for the Rangers lately that they should be due for a good break.