David Fry Is Flying High

Ken Blaze-USA TODAY Sports

We knew the best hitter in baseball this year would be a multi-positional talent. We knew he would play for one of the top teams in the league. We knew the value of his contract would begin with the words “seven hundred” and the first syllable of his last name would be a source of complex carbohydrates. What we didn’t know is that it would be Guardians catcher/outfielder/first baseman/third baseman/DH David Fry, who is making $741,100 this season and currently leads the majors (min. 50 PA) in OBP (.488), OPS (1.079), wOBA (.459), and wRC+ (204).

The Brewers took Fry in the seventh round of the 2018 draft, eventually sending him to the Guardians during the 2021-22 offseason as the player to be named later in a trade for right-hander J.C. Mejía. Fry had first appeared on the Brewers’ top prospect list ahead of the 2020 season, when Eric Longenhagen ranked him 24th in a weak system, noting the positional flexibility that made him “an interesting potential bench piece.” That assessment largely stuck as Fry rose through the minor leagues (and switched organizations), although he was downgraded from a 40 FV to a 35+ FV in 2021 and eventually fell out of the Guardians’ top 50 ahead of the 2023 season. Eric tweaked his evaluation that year, subtly downgrading Fry from “interesting potential bench piece” to “interesting 26th man candidate.” It was a fair assessment at the time; Fry was roughly a league-average hitter in his first full season at Triple-A (105 wRC+). Entering his age-27 campaign, there wasn’t much reason to bet on his upside.

Yet, Fry was hard to ignore during his first full spring in big league camp in 2023. He bookended that spring training with home runs in his first and last at-bats and hit well in between, too, finishing with a 154 wRC+ in 19 games. Although he didn’t make the Guardians’ Opening Day roster, he surely made a good impression; after a solid month back at Triple-A, he earned his call to the show. Playing catcher, first base, corner outfield, and a little bit of third (with a couple of pitching appearances to boot), Fry showed off his versatility while hitting well enough (106 wRC+) to collect major league paychecks for the rest of the year. Entering 2023, ZiPS projected a .291 wOBA from Fry, and he boosted that projection to a .306 wOBA before the start of this season. Nobody would call his performance last year a breakout, but he put himself on the inside track to play a role for Cleveland once again in 2024.

As it turns out, “playing a role” for the Guardians was a massive understatement. Fry leads the team in WAR at two separate positions: catcher, where he has a grand total of 28 plate appearances, and DH, where he has 18. He has also been the team’s most valuable pinch-hitter. Only two Guardians players, Steven Kwan and José Ramírez, have more WAR than Fry this season. Meanwhile, only closer Emmanuel Clase has a higher WPA. Despite Fry’s limited playing time, he has been a key contributor on the team with the third-best record in the majors. Indeed, though I may have been exaggerating when I called him the best hitter in baseball, it wouldn’t be a hyperbole to say he’s been one of the best so far this season. In just 123 plate appearances (37 games), he ranks among the top 40 position players in WAR. By wRAA, only 10 hitters have provided their teams with more offensive value; by offensive WPA, only one player, Jordan Westburg, has Fry beat.

As mentioned earlier, when you set the minimum playing time threshold to 50 plate appearances, Fry ranks first in OBP and wRC+; he’s also second in batting average (.344) and seventh in slugging (.591). His 204 wRC+ means he has been more than twice as productive as a league-average batter and 14% better than the next best hitter, Shohei Ohtani. You could bring the threshold all the way down to five plate appearances and still only three batters would have a higher wRC+ than Fry: Josh Jung (285 wRC+ in 19 PA), Mark Vientos (229 wRC+ in 26 PA), and Brett Wisely (205 wRC+ in 21 PA). It’s impressive in the other direction too; if you add 45 hitless at-bats to Fry’s overall line so that he qualifies for rate stat leaderboards, he’d still rank among the top 30 players in OBP and the top half of qualified batters in OPS.

It comes as no surprise that Fry is running a .406 BABIP, and his .459 wOBA is nearly 90 points higher than his .372 xwOBA. Without a doubt, his Josh Gibson-esque offensive numbers are unsustainable. That said, we don’t have to write his phenomenal start off completely because it has come in a small sample. Fry is doing a lot of things really well. Perhaps most impressive is his 17.9% walk rate, which is driving his near .500 OBP. He has also managed to get hit by six pitches already this season, and since his debut, he has been hit 10 times in 236 trips to the plate. Only six players (min. 100 PA) have been hit by pitches at a higher rate in that time. Perhaps this is no fluke; as our associate editor Matt Martell wrote in a piece for The New York Times last year, getting hit by a pitch is actually a skill that players have and can develop. On top of that, Fry has struck out less often than the average hitter this season. Thus, combining walks and HBP, he has more free passes (28) than strikeouts (25).

On the topic of his recent success, Fry told reporters, “When I’m going well, I’m not thinking about my swing. Just how I’m going to attack the pitcher and his plan.” That may well be true, but it’s funny to think that his primary method of “attack” is patience. Rather than hitting his opponents first with a pre-emptive strike, he likes to wear them down (or wear their pitches) until they defeat themselves.

Fry has swung at fewer than 20% of pitches outside the strike zone this year, putting him in the 92nd percentile for chase rate. He has offered at only 15 of 111 (13.5%) pitches in the chase zone and none in the waste zone. For context, the league average swing rates in each zone are 22.7% and 5.5%, respectively. Out of 314 hitters who have seen at least 100 pitches in the chase and waste zones combined, Fry ranks in the 93rd percentile in swing rate.

Opposing pitchers have certainly tried to tempt him into chasing. Nearly 300 batters have seen at least 400 pitches this year, and only one, Mitch Garver, has seen sliders at a higher rate than Fry. Even so, Fry’s chase rate against sliders is a mere 11.9%; the league average rate is almost three times as high. Nearly 200 hitters have seen at least 50 sliders outside the strike zone this year, and only two have swung less often than Fry. And, for what it’s worth, although he has seen only eight curveballs outside the zone, he has yet to be tricked by a single one of them.

It’s not that Fry doesn’t swing at all. His 71.5% in-zone swing rate (per Baseball Savant) is actually higher than the league average, which sits at 67% this season. Moreover, it’s not as if he hasn’t had to make his fair share of difficult swing decisions. Of the 235 pitches he has seen in the strike zone, 47.7% have been on the edges, the areas known as the shadow zone. League average is only 46.3%. Simply put, he is seeing pitches well and making good swing decisions, and it’s paying off.

Fry has done a much better job getting ahead in counts this year, bringing his first-pitch strike rate down from 69.9% to 56.9%. Consequently, he has seen 30.1% of all his pitches while ahead in the count; the league average is 26.3%. He also swings more often than the average player on pitches in the strike zone while he is ahead in the count. That’s more good evidence that his plate discipline is an act of selectivity and not just passivity; he’s not afraid to swing at a pitch he likes even if he’s in a good position to draw a walk.

To that point, another benefit of excellent plate discipline is that the pitches Fry chooses to swing at are going to be better pitches to hit. That’s one reason why he has done such a tremendous job getting the bat on the ball this season. He has an above-average swing rate in the heart zone. His launch angle, sweet-spot rate, and pull rate on balls in the air are all well above average. By making contact at ideal launch and spray angles, he is compensating for mediocre bat speed and exit velocities, which is why he has been able to hit for a good bit of power (five doubles and six home runs) this season. He likely won’t remain a premier power threat all year, but right now, he’s doing exactly what he needs to do to succeed.

Despite all that, Fry’s offense might not even be the most impressive aspect of his season; we’ve barely scratched the surface of his defense. His glove hasn’t stood out at any one spot, but the unusual combination of positions he plays puts him in rare territory. Since the implementation of the designated hitter in 1973, only 10 different players have played at least three games in a single season at catcher, first base, third base, outfield, and DH. Only two have done so with a wRC+ above 100: Fry and Hall of Famer Carlton Fisk. If Fry appears in one more game at third base (he’s currently at three), he’ll join Jake Fox in 2010 as the only players to have appeared in at least four games at all five of the aforementioned positions. With two more games at the hot corner, Fry will become the first player in recorded history to play at least five games in a single season at all five of those spots.

And don’t forget, we’re talking about a guy who also pitched last season. In 2023, Fry became one of only seven players to have played catcher, first base, third base, outfield, DH, and pitcher at least once in a single season. He and Chris Gimenez are the only players to have done so with a wRC+ above 100. Finally, Fry is one of only six players to have played at least two games at all six of those positions at any point in his major league career. Todd Zeile is the only other one with a career wRC+ above 100. What’s more, Fry accomplished the feat far quicker than any of the five before him:

Six Players, Six Positions
Player Dates # of Games
David Fry 5/1/2023 to 4/3/2024 62
Willians Astudillo 6/30/2018 to 4/16/2021 106
Shane Halter 4/6/1997 to 10/1/2000 223
Chris Gimenez 6/3/2009 to 7/3/2016 251
Steve Lyons 5/18/1985 to 7/21/1991 656
Todd Zeile 8/18/1989 to 7/26/2004 2099

One last thing Fry has managed to do remarkably quickly is sway the projections. The rest-of-season projections you’ll find on his player page already look dramatically different from the preseason figures. Entering the season, ZiPS and Steamer both had Fry as a 95 wRC+ hitter. Two months later, his ROS Steamer projection is up to 112 wRC+, while his ROS ZiPS projection is up to 122 wRC+. Even the lower of those two numbers would be a delightful surprise from a hitter who looked like a Quad-A utility guy as recently as this time last year. Davis Schneider is calling, and he’d like his schtick back.

The Guardians, on the other hand, have had less success convincing the projections they are for real; we still have them as a below-.500 team for the rest of the season. Nonetheless, Cleveland has been so dominant over the first two months of the 2024 campaign that it has become the favorites in the AL Central. David Fry, the most unexpected contributor for the unexpected contenders, might be the number one reason why.

Leo is a writer for FanGraphs and MLB Trade Rumors as well as an editor for Just Baseball. His work has also been featured at Baseball Prospectus, Pitcher List, and SB Nation. You can follow him on Twitter @morgensternmlb.

Newest Most Voted
Inline Feedbacks
View all comments
23 days ago

I’m wasn’t sure the best hitter in 2024 would be a “multi-position talent” unless you count Juan Soto and Yordan Alvarez’s ability to play both OF and DH, Aaron Judge’s ability to play RF and CF and Shohei Ohtani’s theoretical ability to play anywhere he wants.

Still a very nice shout out to an unexpected star. Do people still say “shout out”?

23 days ago
Reply to  Ivan_Grushenko

i think that first paragraph was a reference to Ohtani but it seems to indicate that the first syllable of his name is “Oat” and that his name is pronouced “oat-ah-ni” which is, um, not correct.

23 days ago
Reply to  hebrew

Yes. And the seven hundred thing. Still he wasn’t a sure thing to be the best hitter in my mind

John Elway
22 days ago
Reply to  hebrew

Show-hay Oat-ah-nee. Sounds about right to me.

Just neighing.