Down Goes Todd Frazier’s Power

Less than two months ago, some of the game’s best players gathered in Cincinnati to participate in the Midsummer Classic. The game featured Mike Trout being Mike Trout and Jacob deGrom looking like he was ready to graduate to a better league. The night before, Major League Baseball rolled out a new Home Run Derby format that was met with near universal approval. It certainly helped that hometown favorite, Todd Frazier, captured the title.

The derby was something of an emergence for Frazier. While he was coming off a 4.7 WAR season in 2014 and accumulated  11.1 WAR in 1,846 plate appearances between 2011 and 2014, the 29-year-old still carried one of those “underrated because he plays in a small market” weights around his neck. Frazier was a very good player before 2015; our ZiPS/Steamer blend gave him a 3 WAR projection based on average defense at third base, and a 112 projected wRC+.

In your head, you’re probably thinking that projection feels light. Frazier was riding in after a season just short of 5 WAR and was still on the right side of 30. But entering the year, Frazier had a 112 career wRC+ and had never topped 121. Essentially, every facet of his game profiled as average — with the exception of his power. His power looked be above average, but short of great. Then the first half of 2015 happened.

Todd Frazier
Pre-2015 1846 7.9% 21.3% .193 .294 112
2015 First Half 374 6.4% 17.4% .301 .282 146

Frazier had a monster first half, driven largely by a huge power breakout. He trimmed some strikeouts, but fewer walks and a lower BABIP came along for the ride. The difference between Todd Frazier before and Todd Frazier during the first half of this year was more than 100 points of ISO. The difference between Frazier at 110 wRC+ and 140 wRC+ is huge. You’re talking three wins. If Frazier was, in fact, a 140-150 wRC+ hitter, the Reds were sitting on an incredible set of corner infielders.

And then Frazier won the derby in impressive fashion. I don’t think anyone really takes the derby seriously as a test of objective in-game ability, but hitting a bunch of dingers over the span of a few hours on national television certainly brings awareness to your skill set. Frazier was having a great start to the season, and then we found ourselves in the perfect situation to appreciate it. His power was one of the early season stories.

This attention to his power led us down the traditional path of explaining and celebrating the breakout. Our Owen Watson wrote one of those pieces back in June, pointing out Frazier’s evolution into an extreme pull, fly ball hitter and it’s influence on his growing home-run total. If you go back and read the piece, there’s not really a lot with which to argue. Owen makes a good case that Frazier’s power spike is attributable to a general increase in fly-ball distance and better coverage of pitches up in the zone. Owen wisely discusses the high probability of some regression, but the other players who wind up getting cited in the article are Trout, Josh Donaldson, Bryce Harper, Giancarlo Stanton, Yasiel Puig and Andrew McCutchen.

In other words, Frazier looked like a guy who was legitimately turning the power corner. Given the setup, you can see where this is going, so let’s stop beating around the bush:

Todd Frazier 2015
First Half 374 6.4% 17.4% .301 .282 146
Second Half 192 5.7% 21.9% .157 .256 69

Frazier cratered after the break. I’m sure someone will want to attribute it to the derby performance — that’s why the Internet has comment sections — but the idea of the derby hangover generally hasn’t been supported by evidence. The other, easier to defend, narrative is that Frazier is simply regressing. He was playing above his head in the first half and this is simply a correction. That’s a satisfying approach because Frazier had a 121 wRC+ in 2014 and has a 120 wRC+ in 2015.

In theory, this could be a correct explanation. It’s basically just as likely Frazier would hit 140 wRC+ as it would be for him to hit 80 wRC+ if you think his true talent is around 110 wRC+. Presumably if you grab a sample of his plate appearances, you’re going to have good stretches and bad, all evening out to roughly the season he is having. But that does sort of buy into a gambler’s fallacy, as realistically we should have expected Frazier to play to his true talent in the second half rather than playing below it.

Regardless of how you want to frame the split, we can agree on the shape of it. Frazier’s results were better than we expected in the first half — either because he got better or he got lucky — and Frazier’s results were worse than we expected in the second half — either because he got worse or because he was unlucky. That’s not groundbreaking analysis, it’s just defining the situation.

Todd Frazier
Year LD% GB% FB% Pull%
Pre-2015 20.7% 39.8% 39.5% 41.2%
2015 First Half 19.6% 31.8% 48.6% 44.3%
2015 Second Half 18.5% 40.0% 41.5% 49.6%

The first thing to note is that while part of the first half story for Frazier was the increase in fly balls, and pulled balls, the trajectory numbers have returned to normal. He’s hitting fly balls at his lower, pre-2015 rate, but he’s also pulling the ball more than ever. The upshot of that is more pulled ground balls, and pulled grounds balls aren’t a super great way to hit for power.

From a discipline standpoint, he’s been more aggressive against a generally lower number of strikes:

Todd Frazier
Year Swing% Contact% Zone%
Pre-2015 48.8% 75.2% 45.3%
2015 First Half 51.3% 78.4% 45.9%
2015 Second Half 55.4% 77.4% 43.9%

He’s swinging more often and making no more contact per swing, meaning that you have more swinging strikes. Add that to the increase in ground balls and you don’t have a formula for power. Perhaps the most interesting aspect of this for me is how pitchers are adjusting to Frazier. They’re challenging him with more heat:

Todd Frazier
Year Hard% Breaking% Offspeed%
Pre-2015 61% 29% 10%
2015 First Half 60% 30% 10%
2015 Second Half 66% 24% 10%
SOURCE: Brooks Baseball

I think you can brush off a lot of first half/second half differences with sample size and random variation, but this one really sticks out. Pitchers are trading breaking balls for fastballs, and it has Frazier off his game. It’s not easy to track the causation, but the added ground balls have come primarily on pitches on the inner third, especially the lower inner third. He was hitting those pitches in the air earlier this year and has started rolling over them since the break. Pitchers are throwing more fastballs and fewer strikes during the time as well, but it’s difficult to piece those facts together in a way that makes them look like a clear cause and effect.

For some reason, Frazier has been less able to get those low and inside pitches into the air, and the lack of balls in the air has played a large role in his more limited production. There’s also a whiff issue, but that’s generally the story. It’s possible that this is the result of more fastballs overall, or perhaps Frazier is nursing an injury that isn’t publicly known. Who knows, maybe the derby did impact his swing. It’s unlikely, but it’s not as if it’s impossible.

Unfortunately, we don’t get to know the true cause. That’s outside of our field of vision. Frazier had great results for a few months and has had bad results for a couple of months. We can observe pretty clearly where the problems exist, but we can’t do much more than theorize about their origins.

Baseball is a game of adjustments. We wanted to believe the fly ball-pull power of Frazier was an adjustment he made to become a power hitter. The problem we run into pretty often is the league adjusts back. Even if luck played only a small role in this entire story, changes aren’t guaranteed to be permanent. Injuries can happen, players can fall out of their mechanics or their opponents can implement a new strategy that neutralizes the initial change.

We want to believe the pre-break Frazier is the real Frazier and that this is a simple slump or bad luck. In reality, the real Frazier is very similar to the Frazier we knew before 2015. He had good raw power that can play up over certain stretches, but he can become aggressive. With his contact profile, that can lead to prolonged slumps. This is very likely who Frazier is.

That’s not to diminish him as a player, because he’s certainly extremely valuable. Yet it should lead us to temper our expectations about player breakouts. We shouldn’t just exercise caution due to the noise of baseball statistics (I think most serious fans are pretty good at this), but also because breakouts are notable precisely because they are difficult to sustain. If it were easy to add more power to your game, more hitters would do it. But baseball, like life, is about trade-offs. Frazier altered his approach during the first half, but that opened him up to other potential problems that are popping up in the second half. He’ll make another adjustment and the league will make theirs, and on and on it will go. Clearly he’s talented enough to for the good to cancel out the bad, but Frazier is a good reminder that judging a player by their best or worst stretches is a good way to misjudge a player.

Neil Weinberg is the Site Educator at FanGraphs and can be found writing enthusiastically about the Detroit Tigers at New English D. Follow and interact with him on Twitter @NeilWeinberg44.

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Yan Gomes
8 years ago

See I knew I had more trade value than Todd Frazier.