When the Chicago White Sox acquired third baseman Todd Frazier from the Cincinnati Reds last winter, the organization’s goal was to find some lineup protection for first baseman Jose Abreu. Frazier responded with a power surge he hadn’t yet experienced during his young MLB career, but didn’t do much else outside of that, leading to a rather mediocre overall performance at the plate.
Given the lackluster free agent market this winter — especially at third base — one would assume that a player fresh off a 40-homer, 98-RBI season like Frazier would’ve been a hot commodity on the trade market.
That wasn’t the case, though, and the rebuilding White Sox still have him on their roster with the hopes he can improve from the 102 wRC+ and 2.4 fWAR he produced in 2016.
Where exactly can Frazier’s game improve? There’s not always a simple answer to a question like that, but he needs to stop hitting the ball in the air so freakin’ much.
Batted Ball Progression
For power hitters, it’s important to get the ball up in the air with regularity — unless you’re one of those hitters who can be awfully resourceful about it — and when the ball starts leaving the park at a high rate, it’s easy to keep going back to the well.
This strategy worked for Frazier in the home run department, but ended up failing him in just about every other offensive category. Check out the batted ball progression from his last two years in Cincinnati (2014 and 2015) compared to what happened with Chicago last year.
The ground balls are down, which is probably part of the reason why he’s gone from 29 homers in ’14, to 35 in ’15 before that career high of 40 in ’16, but that progress has fueled concerning trends elsewhere.
Out of 146 qualified hitters, nobody had a lower line-drive rate (LD%) or higher infield fly-ball rate (IFFB%) than Frazier last year, while only Chris Carter matched his fly-ball rate (FB%). This is a big reason why his batting average has plummeted nearly 50 points over the last three years and his .767 OPS with the White Sox was his lowest mark as an everyday player since 2013 (.721).
Can’t Really Blame it on Bad Luck
Lots of times, people tend to look at a player’s BABIP and chalk up a tough season to some bad luck on balls put in play. That’s easy to do with Frazier — after all, he just hit 40 homers! Last year’s .236 BABIP shows he’ll regress back toward his career norm (.278), right?
Only if he makes a conscious effort to make solid contact more often. It doesn’t necessarily have to come in the form of more line drives, but that’s the batted ball event where the most consistent success typically happens.
|Frazier ’16 Batted Ball Event||BABIP||OPS||Hard%||wRC+|
Getting back to more of a line-drive approach could also help him revive his doubles production, which went from a career-high 43 in 2015 to a career-low 21 in 2016. Many people will look at the gaudy home run number, but Frazier’s slugging percentage fell 34 points from one year to the next because his doubles took a complete nosedive.
The homers are great, but it’s the whole package that makes a so-so performance a great one.
Hit Those Fastballs
According to Brooks Baseball, Frazier has never had much luck against four-seam fastballs. At least, that’s what one would assume when looking at his career numbers — despite a .528 slugging percentage and .284 ISO against the pitch, he’s produced just a .244 average and .257 BABIP.
The lack of results went to a new level in 2016, though.
While his slugging percentage (.578) and ISO (.356) were better than normal, his .223 average and anemic .199 BABIP tell another story. Frazier saw fastballs 52.9% of the time last season, so not only does he see that pitch more than any other, but it’s also the one he needs to be doing the most damage with.
We’re circling back to an earlier point, but if he can limit those fly balls and pop-ups (compared to earlier years), that would at least be a good start (BIP stands for Ball in Play).
Of course, this is easier said than done. When given a choice, though, one would have to imagine that improving outcomes against four-seam fastballs is an smoother process than doing it against off-speed or breaking stuff.
2016 Wasn’t All Bad
We’ve spent a fair amount of time pointing out what went wrong during Frazier’s first year with the White Sox, but there was one positive to take from his offensive performance other than the homers: His ability to draw a walk reached an all-time high.
After posting an 8.3% walk rate in 2013, the third baseman watched this number slowly decrease over the next two seasons before shooting up to 9.6% in Chicago. He accomplished this by swinging less frequently than he ever has in his career.
He actually went from two extremes, which was a career-high 52.9% swing rate in 2015 to a career-low 46.7% swing rate in 2016. Frazier made less contact overall (76.5% in ’15 to 73.3% in ’16), but that drop wasn’t nearly as significant as his swing rate.
However, with less swings being taken, it’s even more important to make them count as much as possible.
Putting it all Together
The 2017 season will be an important opportunity for Frazier to combine this increased home run production and improved plate discipline with better all-around results for a couple reasons.
First, a quick start could help land him on a contender prior to the non-waiver trade deadline. After seeing his decline in various areas, it’s not surprising that teams weren’t willing to part with prospects to acquire him — he needs to prove the needle can be pushed in the right direction again.
Second, this is Frazier’s final year before hitting free agency, which will be his best shot at getting the biggest contract of his career. If there’s ever a time to buck alarming trends at the plate, it’s right now.
Only seven sluggers hit more baseballs out of the park than Frazier last year, but that kind of accomplishment gets diminished a bit when it comes at the cost of overall offensive performance.
A lot of things go into a season’s worth of stats, but the goal in 2017 should be simple for Frazier: make solid contact more often on pitches he can do the most damage with while limiting fly balls and pop-ups more than he has in recent years.
He’s done it before. He just needs to get back to that approach.