Spring training 2.0 has arrived – or, as Trevor Williams called it, summer camp, much to the ire of Jon Heyman. What that means is that baseball writers across the spectrum – from local to team to national – can return to actual baseball material as it relates to the upcoming season.
Because my brain has been able to shift gears, I’ve been left thinking about one person: Adam Frazier.
In May 2017, I took a trip south to Georgia with my friends for my bachelor party. The Pittsburgh Pirates were in town to battle the Atlanta Braves for a four-game set. The Pirates split the series, 2-2. But there was something else I noted during that series.
It was Frazier’s first full season in Major League Baseball. In the previous year, he had shown signs of being a very productive major league hitter, slashing .301/.356/.411 over 66 games. But on May 24, 2017 – in a game which lasted four hours, saw a seven run 10th inning, and a 12-5 win for the Pirates – I was enamored with Frazier.
By the end of that game, the Georgia native had a .370/.458/.500 slash line. In that particular game, he went 2-for-3 with a single, home run, intentional walk, three runs scored, and a stolen base. My thoughts postgame? “Man, Frazier might be next-in-line for my favorite Pirate.” That’s not something I think about much, but his numbers and performance that night catalyzed him into a position of superiority in my mind – at least for the time being.
Now, going into some semblance of a rebuild under Ben Cherington’s new regime’s first year, there have been names floated that might be on the way out, if necessary. Frazier has been put on that list of names which had been mentioned going into the season before the league shut down.
So, should the Pirates hold onto Frazier or put him on the table for a potential return?
Firstly, some quick background on Frazier: He’s accumulated just over three years of service time, he’s set to become a free agent in 2023, but is arbitration eligible in 2021, and he has two minor league options remaining.
Secondly, his numbers: Offensively, Frazier had his best year in 2018. Over that year (113 games), he held a 116 wRC+ and a wOBA of .343. He also pushed his OPS the closest to .800 that it’s ever been, coming in at .798.
According to FanGraphs, Frazier actually had his best overall season by fWAR in 2019, totaling 2.2 wins versus 1.9 the previous year. This is likely because of his defensive prowess, as he’s a solid defender. While solid, I would be reluctant to place Frazier in “incredible” territory. For example, despite having a UZR of 2.9, his DRS total in 2019 was -1. Further, under the Inside Edge fielding tab on FanGraphs, Frazier has made only one play in his career under the categories “Impossible,” “Remote,” or “Unlikely.”
While it may be true that Frazier can return to form offensively, there are some troubling trends. Firstly, he swung at more pitches last year than he has in his career. On its face, this isn’t necessarily a bad thing, but Frazier’s O-Swing% (percentage of pitches swung at outside of the zone) last year was up three percent from the year prior, according to PITCHf/x Plate Discipline. His Z-Swing% (percentage of pitches swung at inside the zone) was also up, coming in at over four percentage points higher than 2019. These two phenomenon result in a three percent total increase in Swing%. Additionally, his total contact percentage dropped by nearly two percent.
Finally, FanGraphs ZiPS projections have Frazier’s total WAR contributions falling steadily over a three-year period, dropping to 1.7 through the 2022 season, while predicting that his batting average will fall slightly, as well as other metrics like BABIP.
To conclude, the Pirates have some shortstops coming through the pipeline, like Oneil Cruz (assuming he doesn’t begin training for a different position, like corner outfield). If that’s the case, it might make sense for the Pirates to move Frazier at some point during this shortened season (assuming the team isn’t competitive), placing Kevin Newman into the permanent second base position, and filter in one of the younger players for shortstop, or if they aren’t ready yet, bring in a short-term replacement.
It’s possible Frazier will kick it into gear and compete for a batting title, like David Freese thought could be the case. But many of his trends suggest he’s not going to perform much better throughout the rest of his career — if at all. Because of that, the Pirates would be wise to shop Frazier around a little bit in the coming months.