Remember early-career Jose Bautista? Everyone knows the guy who hit 50 home runs in one season, but what about the guy who had a spot on five teams (a major-league record) in one season? Most fans can name the player whose 28.7 WAR since 2010 ranks sixth in baseball, but do they care about the player who finished 379th in the majors with 0.3 WAR over the preceding six years?
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It's weird to think that Joey Bats once played the role of replacement-level scrub. At that time, he possessed solid plate discipline, yet couldn't stick at the major-league level, on account of middling power and BABIP. He turned 29 after 2009, and for players of that age, with that background, the long-term outlook didn't inspire hope.
But enough about him. Let's jump ahead to the present, to talk about Todd Frazier. Prior to 2015, he played at a decidedly above-replacement level; his 11.3 WAR from 2011 to 2014 placed him 70th in baseball. He's put that behind him, though, and enhanced his game: At the time of this writing, he's racked up 2.0 WAR, a mark that only eight other position players can beat. Once a solid hitter, Frazier has joined the elite.
How did he undergo this transformation? His defense hasn't improved (which I don't intend as a slight — he's one of the game's best fielding third basemen), so offense must have caused this. And indeed, it has. The 150 wRC+ he currently sports blows his earlier level of play out of the water, and ranks 25th in baseball. Perhaps more intriguing than his rise, however, are the factors behind it.
Through his first four campaigns with the Reds, Frazier had about even ground ball and fly ball rates, popped up and homered a fair amount, and distributed the ball evenly to all fields. Bautista, interestingly, did pretty much the same thing across his six journeyman seasons:
Of course, Frazier hit more line drives, and knocked more homers, but he also hit better overall than did Bautista. In the end, the two men shared one key trait: They each failed to reach their potential.
Let's focus in on Bautista for a moment. He made a significantly larger leap than Frazier did, coming from lower and (thus far) soaring higher. To facilitate this, his batted-ball distribution and location changed dramatically. Since 2010, a mere 36.9% of the balls he's put in play have stayed on the ground, whereas 47.3% have gone airborne; 15.3% of the latter have stayed in the infield, while 19.9% have left the yard. Furthermore, he started yanking the ball a lot more, as evidenced by the location of his homers:
(If you're more numerically inclined, 50.7% of the balls he's put in play have gone to left.)
Those alterations have directly affected Bautista's game in two big ways. While he'd never accumulated many hits on balls in play before, posting a .281 BABIP before breaking out, he's done so even less recently, with a .263 BABIP post-explosion. Because of his elevated fly ball and popup rates, this shouldn't come as a surprise. But his increased clout — another byproduct of the batted-ball change — easily compensates for the losses elsewhere: He's upped his ISO a full 125 points, from .161 to .286.
Looking at his PITCHf/x plate discipline stats, we can see an indirect ramification as well: Pitchers began to justifiably fear Bautista. From 2007 to 2009, 52.3% of the pitches he saw fell within the confines of the strike zone; since then, that number sits at a much lower 47.5%. Even as a mediocre hitter, he possessed a sharp eye, walking in 10.8% of his plate appearances. The newfound hitting prowess has simply allowed him to take advantage of that to a much greater extent — he's improved his free pass rate by more than five percentage points, to 15.9%. Moreover, the presence of more balls has helped him cut down on strikeouts: While he used to go down on strikes 21.3% of the times he batted, he now does so at a 16.2% clip.
Combine all of these pieces, and you get one of the most fearsome hitters in the world. How does Frazier relate to this? The real question is, how doesn't he? (The answer is, he doesn't in one somewhat major way, but we'll get to that in a moment.)
- 2015 Frazier has put the ball on the ground only 33.6% of the time, compared to 45.8% in the air. This has brought more shallow fly balls (22.4% IFFB%), in addition to more deep fly balls (24.5% HR/FB%). His BABIP has deflated to .221, and his ISO has surged to .333.
- It used to be that spectators in Cincinnati's outfield seats could expect a Frazier-delivered baseball, regardless of where they sat:
- As gauged by Zone%, pitchers don't fear Frazier any more than they did before his performance skyrocketed. Thus far, he's seen 44.8% of pitches in the strike zone, in line with the 45.3% mark from before. How, then, has his walk rate increased from 7.9% to 11.0%, and his strikeout rate decreased from 21.3% to 16.9%?
Realistically, Frazier will lose some power as the season progresses, and gain some hits on balls in play, as regression takes its toll. But the basic tenets will remain the same: Frazier has adopted Bautista's approach, and if it worked for the latter, it'll probably do the same for the former.
Bautista has shown no signs of aging in 2015, slugging his way to a 135 wRC+ and 0.9 WAR in 131 plate appearances. Everything from the first half of the decade still defines him — he walks a ton, hits a lot of home runs, and doesn't see many of his balls in play go for hits. At 34, he has a much brighter long-term outlook than anyone would have suspected back in 2009.
Frazier's prospects have never dimmed enough for him to know how Bautista must have felt at that time. Nonetheless, he had, until this season, come up short of what he could do. As with Bautista, he's finally unlocked that ability, which should seriously scare the rest of the league.
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All data as of Saturday, May 16th, 2015.
Ryan Romano is an editor for Beyond the Box Score. He also writes about the Orioles on Camden Depot and on Camden Chat that one time. Follow him on Twitter at @triple_r_ if you enjoy angry tweets about Maryland sports.