The Pittsburgh Pirates hold Adam Frazier in high enough esteem to have him serve as their primary utility backup in 2017. What can he do to guard against regression?
The Pittsburgh Pirates sometimes have a knack for finding great value out of unheralded prospects. Adam Frazier certainly lands in that designation. The left-handed rookie tailled 160 plate appearances in 2016, posting a 0.7 fWAR season that saw him acclimate to major league pitching quite well. In 66 games, Frazier posted at .301/.356/.411 slashline, a 110 wRC+, and solid – if at times sloppy – defense
What pratfalls might await Frazier in 2017 – presumably his first as a full time major league – and how can he work to avoid them?
A Better Version of Josh Harrison?
Given Frazier’s skillset and hitting profile, an inevitable comparison to the current Pittsburgh Pirates second baseman Josh Harrison is often made.
Though both share some traits – namely a lack of consistent power – Frazier and Harrison are entirely different hitters. While Harrison maintains a low strikeout rate, he tempers that with a notoriously low walk rate.
Frazier’s walk rate was similarly low last year – just 7.5 percent – and his strikeout rate reached into the teens with a 16.3 percent mark.
It can be difficult to determine if these numbers are what we can expect from Frazier as he continues to see more experience against major league pitching. If his minors performances are any indication, it would be fair to expect somewhere in the range of a 9.5 percent walk rate and 10 percent or less strikeout rate once Frazier becomes fully acclimated. Again, these numbers are arrived at purely by looking at the past two years of minor league work – a combined 722 plate appearances between Double and Triple-A.
That does not always translate to the major leagues, however. But what works in Frazier’s favor is just how well he makes contact on pitches that aren’t as conducive to hard hit balls. His 31.4 percent hard-hit rate in 2016 was right at the National League figure (31.3) in 2016. After looking at his zone breakdown from Statcast, Frazier’s hard hit rate becomes more impressive while offering a harbinger of what may be coming his way in 2017:
Frazier can clearly drives the ball well from an outside part of the plate. Though it was seen in a small sample size, Frazier has an ability to drive pitches that break to the outside from left-handed pitching. This bodes well for continued success, and the fact that he can hit left-handed pitching well allows his left handed bat to play against either handedness. This alone makes him more than just a bench-bat or utility guy.
But The Times Might Be A-Changin
However, the Pittsburgh Pirates and Frazier will have to look for pitchers to pitch him much differently in 2017. Frazier saw a steady diet of four-seam fastballs in 2016. No surprise there, as many pitchers will challenge a rookie bat with the heat to see how the rest of their offerings might play.
That doesn’t seem to be that interesting on the surface, until a closer look reveals two key facts.
First, Frazier actually fared better against breaking pitches overall.
Second, his selection against what Pitch F/X labels as “offspeed” pitches is encouraging to say the least. Here we will continue to compare him against Harrison, based on 2016 data.
Because Frazier had a much small sample size than Harrison in 2016, we need to turn our focus towards the percentages in this breakdown. There are three important takeaways from this data:
- Frazier is more selective than Harrison overall. Taking about nine percent more balls than Harrison superficially could tell us that the 25 year-old has more patience, but that fact is truly borne out by the difference in hits versus balls in play. Nearly fifty percent of the balls that Frazier puts in play land for hits; Harrison rates just 31.8 percent. While Harrison is somewhat of a free swinger without striking out, Frazier puts up similar whiff and called strike numbers while swinging more selectively.
- Though the difference is small, Frazier has a lower percentage of fouls. This can be read a few different ways, but can be considered a good thing in context with the other data shown here. From what we have seen from him so far, if Frazier feels that a pitch is “swing worthy,” then chances are it might have dropped in for a hit if certain conditions were different. A slight drop in velocity here, slightly less wind there, and some of these fouls could have dropped for hits.
- This may sound nuts, but the fact that Frazier had about three percent more called strikes – again, by percentage – than Harrison can be a good thing. As Frazier sees more pitches, he will presumably be better able to judge borderline pitches that he should offer at. Again in context with his other data, these could fall in for more hits.
Adding It All Together
It would not be a stretch to say that Adam Frazier as currently constructed is well on his way to becoming a better overall hitter than Josh Harrison.
The comparisons beg to be made as both seem to be cut from the same swath. Both carry a low power ceiling, both display a welcome adversity to striking out. The Pittsburgh Pirates love versatility. Harrison and Frazier provide that versatility at virtually the same positions, though Harrison was locked into second base for 2016.
Harrison has proven to be a very capable defender and, depending on who you talk to, Frazier still has a way to go to learn how to play effective defense at the major league level. His learning process appears to be more mental, however, mitigating this risk.
But, as we’ve reviewed, the similarities take a drastic turn at the plate. Though everything written up to this point must carry the caveat of a small sample size, peripherals and pitch data show that Frazier may be able to do more with the same base skill set than Harrison has shown at this point.