Baseball is a meritocracy. We have a bazillion stats to tell us which players are better than the others. Keep performing, and you keep playing. Don't perform, and you get benched, sent to the minors or released.
Except: Baseball also has a class system. Veterans are treated differently. They get the best locations in the clubhouse, they get to pick the music, they get to dress up the rookies in funny clothes and make them carry the bag of treats out to the bullpen. Most importantly, they're extended a longer leash if they're struggling.
Prince Fielder is struggling. He's hitting .205/.274/.315 with five home runs. Among qualified regulars, only Nick Ahmed, Alcides Escobar and Billy Burns have a lower OPS. He ranks 148th out of 170 regulars in isolated power, just below teammate Elvis Andrus, a guy not exactly known for power. His walk rate is at a career low. His "well-hit average" -- the percentage of balls described as hit hard -- is at a career low. It's difficult to find a silver lining here. Maybe there's been some bad luck on grounders and soft liners, as his .226 average on balls in play is fifth-worst in the majors.
Here's a chart that indicates a player in severe decline, looking at some core statistics (skipping 2014, when he had neck surgery and missed most of the season):
Two columns stand out to me. The "competitive" column indicates the percentage of pitches within 18 inches of the center of the strike zone. Fielder is seeing a lot more pitches in the middle of the zone this year; pitchers simply aren't afraid of him. Then there's the "well-hit average" column, where Fielder has been in steady decline for years. He simply doesn't hit the ball as hard as he once did. He's tried to adjust, but that's resulted in a little more aggressiveness at the plate, leading to a higher chase rate and the resulting lower walk rate. Some of his decline last year was actually masked by a career-high BABIP.
So what should the Texas Rangers do? Certainly, they have every incentive to see if Fielder can work his way out of this slump. He's signed through 2020, and while the Tigers will pick up $6 million of his salary per season, the Rangers are still paying him $18 million per year -- that's $72 million in future salary beyond this season. Fielder is not only a veteran, but a respected veteran who was an All-Star as recently as 2015. Maybe there's an injury he's playing through that the Rangers have kept quiet. He also turned 32 in May and maybe his body is finally catching up to him. He's also been one of the worst players in the league, however; given that he has no value in the field or the bases, he has to hit an extremely high level to produce value for the Rangers.
Sitting down in Triple-A is Joey Gallo, the 22-year-old slugger with prodigious power. He's hitting .263/.402/.594 with 14 home runs in 160 at-bats. He won't hit for a high average, but there's little doubt that he'd outproduce Fielder right now, and provide the flexibility to play third base, first base or left field. The Rangers also have Jurickson Profar, who has hit well since his call-up but is essentially serving as a utility guy now that Adrian Beltre is back in the lineup. And with Shin-Soo Choo back, Ryan Rua will see less playing time and he's hitting .287/.368/.485. You can argue that the best Rangers lineup includes Gallo and Profar instead of Fielder and Mitch Moreland, with Rua at least playing regularly against left-handers.
It's not an easy decision for manager Jeff Banister. He does have some wiggle room in the standings to play with, since the Rangers hold a 10-game lead over the Astros. But Houston is starting to surge and, as well as the Rangers have played, Colby Lewis and Derek Holland just joined Yu Darvish on the disabled list. There's no urgency to make a decision now, but a 10-game lead can vanish surprisingly quickly at times. Banister may feel like he owes it to Fielder to keep him in the lineup. A sulking and unhappy Fielder -- a potential scenario if he's benched -- won't be a positive for the clubhouse. But Banister also owes it to the team to play the best lineup possible.