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?

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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.

Jason Rollison

Jason Rollison has been analyzing baseball and the Pirates in one way or another for 4+ years.

Jason’s previous stops include rumbunter.com, Pittsburgh Sporting News, Call To The Pen and several print publications. He also covers the State College Spikes for the Centre County Gazette (State College, PA)

When it comes to analyzing baseball, he likes to take a middle-of-the-road approach, with one foot on the analytics side of the fence and the other on the old-school side. Having said that, he is a sucker for pitchf/x. Jason has appeared as a phone-in and in-studio guests in numerous outlets, including Trib Live Radio and 93.7 The Fan (CBS Sports Radio)

  • I’ve been a champion of for Frazier from the first time i heard his name and went.. Adam who? He has hit at every level and yeah his defense is messy sometimes but passable. If he can play 2nd/SS/3rd/OF and catch balls hit to him.. should be a good enough stand in utility guy.

    I was also (and still am) a champion of Josh when he got here. I was absolutely ripped apart for suggesting Josh should be on the 25 man because he couldn’t field and might not ever hit.

    Its hard to say regression for someone with less than 200 pa’s 😉

    • Jason Rollison

      haha that may be true. But regression for regression’s sake I guess.

      It wasn’t until I started to get into some of the stuff I talk about here that I really became intrigued. He is, for all intents and purposes, just a better version of Harrison.

  • Lee Foo Young

    depending on who you talk to, Frazier still has a way to go to learn

    Depending on who you talk to? Try EVERYBODY who has seen him play in the field….lol.

    • Jason Rollison

      Some in the organization think he has the athleticism to play 2B regularly and handle most of the positions he will be asked to. Errors were mental.

  • leadoff

    IMO, Frazier should be the starting 2nd baseman, Harrison should assume his super utility role. I have no worries about Frazier’s defense, he uses proper techniques and like a lot of rookies he just needs major league experience at one position. A lot of players can play multiple positions, but there are times when these players could be better off at one position. I think it is very hard for a young kid to practice at one position when he might be playing anywhere, most utility players don’t get a lot of practice at one position, this is why I say he might not be cut out to be a utility player even though he does play everywhere. Also remember Derek Jeter had two years of 22-24 errors, how did he turn out?

    • Jason Rollison

      right there with you. If many in the organization feel it ijust a mental/reps issue, then let him play through it.