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Adam Frazier needs consistent time at shortstop this spring

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MLB: Spring Training-Pittsburgh Pirates at Detroit Tigers Reinhold Matay-USA TODAY Sports

In the continued pursuit of versatility, 2016 Pirates utilityman Adam Frazier has lined up at a whopping five different positions (2B, SS, 3B, RF, LF) in his seven starts this spring. While it’s difficult to fault the Pirates’ commitment to maximizing the number of ways they can get Frazier into games, it is concerning to see how little he’s playing shortstop given the team’s glaring weakness in the middle infield.

Even if Jordy Mercer and Kevin Newman require their share of the time in spring shortstop action, there’s little reason for Max Moroff and Gift Ngoepe to be wasting precious innings at short, as they’ve started two of the Bucs’ 14 games in addition to the reserve innings they’ve spent there. The recently acquired Phil Gosselin is a fallback option, so it’s not unreasonable for the team to give him work as they guard against the uncertainties of Alen Hanson’s game and Jung Ho Kang’s return . However, Frazier receiving the same number of starts at the position as Gosselin is befuddling.

It isn’t that anyone truly believes Frazier is (or ever was) the future of the team at shortstop because two straight error-prone seasons in 2014 and 2015 forced him to focus on a utility role instead. But his bat should play, and Frazier’s clearest path to increased playing time happens to be his old position. And what do the Bucs have to lose by testing his viability at shortstop regularly in Grapefruit League action? If Frazier flops, the team knows definitively that Gosselin or Hanson is needed to handle backup duties. If Frazier proves to be a respectable option, the team can potentially mitigate two offensive issues plaguing them last season, Jordy Mercer’s bat and the absence of a suitable leadoff hitter.

Mercer’s Bat

The most surprising note from the Pirates’ winter was the internal discussion about signing Jordy Mercer to an extension. Mercer isn’t bad, but he took a sizable step backwards in terms of range in 2016, and that’s unlikely to improve with him entering his age-30 season. And yet it’s his anemic bat that has numerous fans clamoring for the team to discard him.

His offensive line obviously leaves a lot to be desired, but a closer examination of his splits suggests he could thrive in a more limited role as a platoon-mate rather than a full time starter.

Mercer splits: vs RHP & vs LHP

Vs. RHP PA BB% K% AVG OBP SLG OPS w OBA wRC+
Vs. RHP PA BB% K% AVG OBP SLG OPS w OBA wRC+
2013 276 5.1% 19.6% 0.247 0.297 0.357 0.654 0.282 79
2014 426 6.8% 17.8% 0.236 0.292 0.366 0.658 0.282 80
2015 340 5.3% 17.4% 0.233 0.277 0.304 0.580 0.250 56
2016 464 7.5% 14.7% 0.252 0.314 0.355 0.669 0.290 80
Vs. LHP PA BB% K% AVG OBP SLG OPS w OBA wRC+
2013 89 9.0% 9.0% 0.410 0.460 0.692 1.152 0.490 224
2014 129 4.7% 10.1% 0.314 0.349 0.455 0.803 0.351 127
2015 90 10.0% 15.6% 0.284 0.356 0.383 0.738 0.323 107
2016 120 13.3% 12.5% 0.275 0.378 0.451 0.829 0.357 125

Not only has Mercer been more patient against lefties, but he’s also been stellar in the contact he has made against them, producing 25 percent more runs than league average two of the past three seasons. Unfortunately, his numbers against right-handers are abysmal, producing 20 percent fewer runs with a wOBA only approaching .290 once in the last four seasons. Among all qualifying shortstops, only three regulars were worse than Mercer in that latter category last season. One of the three was the thirty-five year old Alexei Ramirez (who remains unsigned), and the other two were above-average gloves whose defense was valuable enough to offset their offensive deficiencies. If Mercer could bring that sort of defensive value, it’d be worth playing him even against righties, but he doesn’t. Considering the average hitter sees 72 percent right-handed pitchers, there isn’t any justification for rolling him out there regularly.

In Frazier’s brief playing time for Pittsburgh, he performed significantly better against lefties, but he’s spent the past two minor league seasons hitting right-handers better, batting .331/.390/.424 and .335/.417/.432 in AA and AAA, respectively. Additionally, Frazier’s overall 2016 major league numbers against righties are skewed by a miserable August when his flyball percent spiked and he failed to walk even once. He ultimately made adjustments and finished the last 62 plate appearances walking 14.5 percent of the time and producing a wRC+ of 123. Of course it is a small sample size; however, there’s reason for optimism between those numbers and his minor-league track record that he’ll continue to be superior offensively to Mercer.

Ultimately, Frazier doesn’t have to be average defensively to give the team more value than Mercer against right handers. He just has to not embarass himself, which isn’t a particularly high bar. It’s not an ideal situation, but the team doesn’t have any promising alternatives at the moment.

Who is leading off for the Pirates?

After utilizing John Jaso as the leadoff for the majority of the 2016 season, Clint Hurdle turned to Josh Harrison down the stretch and was pleasantly surprised with the results, as Harrison went on to bat .326 with 10 doubles over the final 33 games. The unexpected numbers has led to Hurdle to consider the role for him in 2017, but despite the success last season and Harrison’s skills on the basepaths, he’s not exactly a strong candidate given his reluctance to take walks and his below-average ability to get on base.

Like Mercer, Harrison fared better against southpaws but had OBP issues largely caused by struggles against righthanders:

Harrison splits: vs RHP & vs LHP

vs. RHP PA BB% K% AVG OBP SLG OPS w OBA wRC+
vs. RHP PA BB% K% AVG OBP SLG OPS w OBA wRC+
2011 141 1.4% 12.1% 0.293 0.301 0.383 0.685 0.299 89
2012 182 3.8% 13.7% 0.252 0.303 0.344 0.647 0.286 79
2013 53 1.9% 11.3% 0.167 0.216 0.250 0.466 0.212 31
2014 431 3.9% 16.0% 0.307 0.340 0.491 0.832 0.363 136
2015 331 3.3% 16.3% 0.282 0.314 0.388 0.702 0.306 95
2016 426 3.8% 14.6% 0.277 0.303 0.370 0.674 0.290 80
vs. LHP PA BB% K% AVG1 OBP SLG OPS w OBA wRC+
2011 63 1.6% 11.1% 0.226 0.238 0.355 0.593 0.256 59
2012 94 3.2% 12.8% 0.198 0.231 0.349 0.580 0.249 55
2013 42 2.4% 9.5% 0.350 0.381 0.600 0.981 0.422 177
2014 119 4.2% 10.1% 0.345 0.370 0.487 0.856 0.372 142
2015 118 6.8% 14.4% 0.302 0.364 0.396 0.761 0.333 113
2016 96 2.1% 14.6% 0.311 0.344 0.467 0.810 0.346 118

On the bright side, Harrison’s defensive versatility and proficiency makes him a logical defensive player to keep in the game, especially when he wasn’t embarrassing himself at the plate against righties just a season before. There’s arguably no one better as a fit to leadoff against southpaws. But It’s interesting that 149 of his 176 leadoff opportunities came against right-handers after posting such shoddy numbers against them.

To be fair, Harrison truly was better as a leadoff hitter last season than in 2014, and maybe his approach is different or more effective in that role, but there’s not exactly a great deal of reliability in his on-base numbers to warrant great expectations.

As far as alternatives are concerned, there isn’t much to dissuade Hurdle from using Harrison. Jaso has the on-base skills, but he’s a horrific baserunner and shouldn’t be a regular starter. Starling Marte could be an incredible leadoff hitter but the team likely prefers his talents as a run producer. This leaves Adam Frazier as a feasible option, and while he isn’t going to be mistaken for Rickey Henderson or even Josh Harrison on the basepaths, he has a modicum of speed and base-running skills. What really suits him for the position, though, is that he’s superb at getting on base. Even if sophomore struggles drop him ten or 20 points of OBP, he’d still a more consistent table setter than Harrison.

Final Thoughts

Frazier has accrued only 160 big-league plate appearances, so even if it’s been an encouraging start to follow up strong minor league numbers, it is far too early to know what to expect from Frazier as a major leaguer. Hurdle and the rest of the coaching staff seem pleased enough with his progress to commit to vastly more playing time this upcoming season as a super-utility player, and had they been able to move Harrison, he could have seen a great deal more.

Regardless, Kang’s continued absence will lead to a heavier dose of playing time for Frazier and David Freese, but if Kang returns from the restricted list early in the season and the team still wants to get Frazier 300-400 plate appearances, they need him to exhibit stronger or at least comparable shortstop skills to Hanson and Gosselin. Of course the greater likelihood is that Frazier will play more like an emergency option at shortstop, but the prospect of cutting down Mercer’s at bats against right-handers is worth exploring if his defense doesn’t rebound significantly. After all, spring is the time to experiment, so why not give the stronger bat a legitimate shot to prove something rather than squandering time at third base when Freese and Harrison already have it covered?