Todd Frazier and smashing expectations

Joe Camporeale-USA TODAY Sports

In contrast to preseason expectations, Todd Frazier has been MLB’s best third baseman in 2014, and his output this season compares favorably to the production of some of baseball’s elite third baseman in recent years.

Prospect coverage and the hype it brings are central in shaping our perceptions of a player long after he is in the minor leagues. Every year, it seems, an MLB club calls upon an unheralded rookie who goes on to find more success in the majors than his prospect pedigree foretold.

Reds third baseman Todd Frazier was just such a player back in 2012 when he was promoted to the Show in early April. Baseball America had ranked Frazier as the No. 1 prospect in Cincinnati’s system (and 43rd in the minors) in 2009, but the third baseman’s stock soon plummeted. By the time 2012 rolled around, Frazier had fallen to No. 9 among Reds prospects according to Baseball America and tumbled out of the Top 100 rankings entirely.

That didn’t prevent Frazier from batting .273/.331/.498 with 19 home runs and a 121 wRC+ in 465 plate appearances during his rookie season. He also finished third in the NL’s Rookie of the Year voting that year, losing out to some guy named Bryce Harper.

But 2013 didn’t go quite so smoothly for Frazier (he hit .234/.314/.407 in 150 games while seeing his line-drive rate and power plummet), and the lack of any high praise from prospect gurus in the past surely enabled many to write off Frazier as an impact player.

His performance this season has changed all that, of course. Frazier leads MLB third baseman in WAR (3.5), ranks third in wRC+ (136) and wOBA (.370), and has belted 17 home runs for a Reds team that has needed his production with Jay Bruce slumping and Joey Votto ailing.

Even still, I’m not sure if the baseball world is appreciating just how great Frazier has been.

The 28-year-old’s numbers compare favorably to those of more high profile third baseman in the past as Frazier’s modest reputation continues to cloud the quality of his on-field performance.

Take Evan Longoria, for instance, who finished sixth in the AL MVP voting last season. Frazier has been slightly better than Longo was at the plate last season, though the long-time Rays standout surely holds an advantage in the field:

Player PA AVG OBP SLG HR BB% K% wRC+ WAR
Todd Frazier 380 .291 .353 .494 17 7.9% 20.3% 136 3.5
Evan Longoria 693 .269 .343 .498 32 9.3% 18.8% 133 6.8

Similar statements can be made about Frazier and Josh Donaldson’s 2013 production, even as the A’s slugger's lower strikeout rate gives him better on-base ability.

Player PA AVG OBP SLG HR BB% K% wRC+ WAR
Todd Frazier 380 .291 .353 .494 17 7.9% 20.3% 136 3.5
Josh Donaldson 668 .301 .384 .499 24 11.4% 16.5% 148 7.7

Let’s go back a little further, and compare Frazier to Adrian Beltre’s 2010 campaign, his only season in a Red Sox uniform. Beltre’s performance that season led the Rangers to lock him up to a six-year, $96 million contract at the age of 31 in the winter of 2011:

Player PA AVG OBP SLG HR BB% K% wRC+ WAR
Todd Frazier 380 .291 .353 .494 17 7.9% 20.3% 136 3.5
Adrian Beltre 641 .321 .365 .553 28 6.2% 12.8% 140 6.6

Again, Beltre holds a slight advantage over Frazier (mostly due to his elite contact ability). Yet Frazier’s production isn’t that far removed from Beltre’s that year, while the Reds slugger is also three years younger than Beltre was prior to signing that six-year deal.

Frazier isn’t a free agent until 2018 (he is making just $600,000 this season), but it is fair to wonder just what he could land on that open market this offseason.

The adjustments Frazier has made are pretty easy to see. He has cut his O-Swing% by nearly four percentage points from 35.1% in 2013 to 31.9% this season. At the same time, Frazier’s Z-Swing% has slightly increased, meaning the third baseman is laying off the pitches he shouldn’t chase more often and being more aggressive on offerings in the zone.

This has allowed Frazier to make better contact (his line-drive rate has increased by five percent, while his ground-ball, fly-ball, and infield-fly percentages have all decreased), which is helping to drive his improved production. That Frazier’s BABIP sits at .329 shouldn’t necessarily be seen as a product of good fortune, but rather the result of more consistent and harder contact.

Frazier’s stellar performance in 2014 has been a boon for the Reds, who find themselves in the thick of a tight division race yet again. Add in the breakouts of Billy Hamilton and Devin Mesoraco, and this Cincinnati lineup looks deeper and improved from years past. Getting Votto healthy will be key for any hopes the Reds have to play this October, but the club now has a number of other hitters it can depend on as well.

Considering the surprising play of Kyle Seager and Lonnie Chisenhall, along with Donaldson’s continued excellence, the hot corner is home to a few new top performers in 2014. Frazier is front and center in this mix, and regardless of his past, it’s time he gets more recognition for being one of MLB’s best third baseman.

...

All statistics courtesy of FanGraphs.com.

Alex Skillin is an editor at Beyond the Box Score. He also writes for SB Nation's MLB hub and The Hardball Times, among other places. You can follow him on Twitter at @AlexSkillin.

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