It may have taken Todd Frazier longer than he cared for to get his first prolonged opportunity to stick with the Reds, but he's made up for lost time. Frazier's slash line of .279/.348/.568 has been a most welcome surprise for a top-heavy offense. It's also made the question of Frazier's playing time a hot topic, so much so that Dusty Baker vowed to stop answering it. No, really: "I told you don't be asking everyday about Rolen and Frazier." Asked or not, how much playing time Baker alots to Frazier and even where he hits in the order will be critical questions for the second half.
Coming into this season, ZiPS projected the 26 year-old to hit .242/.307/.423. He's easily beaten the marks in average and OBP, but it's the number of extra-base hits that's really distinguished this season from his minor league performance. At Louisville, Frazier slugged just .453, giving him an ISO (slugging minus average) of under .200 and about a hundred points less than his current mark. Making harder contact against major league than AAA pitching is rare, but there are a few considerations here. For one, Louisville is tough on offense while GABP is generous, particularly to righties. Secondly, Frazier's at an age where power often blossoms. In 2009, Frazier stroked 45 doubles and 16 HRs (mostly at Zebulon for the AA Mudcats). He continued to poke his share of doubles and triples in Louisville, and hit 21 HRs last season between Louisville and his big league debut. With 18 doubles/triples plus 10 HRs thus far barely 200 plate appearances, Frazier appears to have come into his own as a power hitter.
Frazier's late but promising start is reminiscent of a former Red third-sacker, Chris Sabo, though their similarities are not readily apparent at first blush. Frazier stands a solid 6' 3", a good bit taller and thicker than the 5' 11" Sabo. On the basepaths, Frazier rarely steals (just one steal in two attempts this season) while Sabo swiped 46 bags as a rookie, good for fourth in the league. Sabo drove a Ford Escort. Frazier drives ... I don't know what he drives, but it's probably not an Escort.Those differences aside, their career paths bear an uncanny resemblance.* Both Sabo and Frazier played at big college programs in their home state - Sabo at Michigan, Frazier at Rutgers. Sabo was the 30th overall pick in the ‘83 draft (second round), while Frazier was the 34th overall pick in 2009 (sandwich round). Both hit steadily in the minors but didn't demand an immediate call-up with otherworldly performances, like peers Kal Daniels and Jay Bruce. In two-ish seasons at AAA (246 games for Frazier; 220 for Sabo), each OPS'd in the .750 - .800 range. Even their steals numbers were similar - Frazier actually tallied a few more (36) than Sabo (32). Finally, in their age-26 seasons, both were ready to play a significant role at the major league level.
* It may not be uncanny, but Sabo and Frazier share an unusual interest in music from a bygone era. Sabo listened to Benny Goodman, Frazier to Sintra. Also, I'm gonna steal Joe Posnanski's "posterisks" for this post. Since he co-opted that from the inventor of the footnote, I don't feel so bad.
Like Frazier, an injury helped open the door for Sabo. Aging incumbent Buddy Bell** sprained his knee during sliding drills in Spring Training of 1988. Pete Rose considered using Angel Salazar as the placeholder, who the team obtained from Kansas City that winter in the Danny Jackson trade, but favored Sabo's offensive upside, versatility, and (most likely) haircut over the career futility infielder. It turned out to be a wise move.
** If there are some career similarities between Frazier and Sabo, then Scott Rolen and Buddy Bell are practically twins. Both won several Gold Gloves (6 for Bell, 8 for Rolen), played in multiple All-Star games (5 for Bell, 6 for Rolen), and hit well for the hot corner, though Rolen has hit for more power. Bell totalled 62 WAR in 18 seasons, Rolen 65 through his 17th. Both were traded to the Reds in their mid-30s in homecoming deals. Bell, a Moeller HS graduate whose dad played for the Reds, arrived from Texas in July of 1985 in his age-33 season. The Reds acquired Jasper, Indian's Rolen on the eve of the July 2009 trade deadline as a 34 year-old (we've discussed this one a little bit).
Bell was still the presumptive starter upon his return, and with good reason. Although Bell was 36, he had OPS'd right around .800 in 1986 and 1987, good for a 113 OPS+. He may not have been killing the ball, he wasn't killing the team, either. Bell momentarily reclaimed his starting role when he came off the DL on April 10. But a couple of extra-inning games in San Francisco (on April 12 and 13) foreshadowed the team's hot corner transition. In the first game, Bell led off the 11th inning with a single. Rose replaced Bell with Sabo as a pinchrunner. Sabo proceeded to steal second, steal third, and then score the game's winning run on a sacrifice fly by Barry Larkin. The next day, Bell reinjured the knee while fielding a ground ball. Sabo replaced him in the tenth inning and more or less took back the starting job for good. Disgruntled with the Wally Pipp treatment, Bell was traded to Houston for a PTBNL on June 19. Sabo would go on to play in that year's All-Star Game and win the Rookie of the Year, edging big market pretty boy Mark Grace.
A knee injury limited Sabo to 82 games in his sophomore season. But in 1990 and 1991, Sabo gritted out two of the best post-BRM years for a Reds thirdbaseman. Sabo found his HR stroke in those age 28 and 29 years, parking 25 and 26 while still hitting a healthy number of doubles. He accumulated 9 WAR in 1990-91 and was selected to the All-Star team in each season. His peak ended prematurely when injuries struck again the following season. He rebounded somewhat in 1993 with 21 HRs, but was now making less contact and stealing less often. Though done as a productive player, the Reds received 16 WAR in Sabo's six cost-controlled seasons. Pretty good for a player who came up at 26 without a stellar minor league pedigree.
* * *
None of this is meant to say that Baker has buried Frazier on the bench. Going into the All-Star break, Frazier started in 18 of the team's 25 games. I'd be happy with Frazier starting in three-quarters of the Reds games, but that will mostly depend on whether Rolen is healthy enough to play. In ten of those 25 games, Rolen was either on the DL (with shoulder problems) or out of commission (due to back spasms). When he's available, Baker still starts Rolen in nearly every game. Between June 18 (when Rolen returned from the DL) and June 29 (Rolen's last game before sitting with back spasms), Rolen started in nine of the 11 games at third. He's also started in three of the last four games, since his backed has stopped barking.
Rolen's certainly looked solid in the past two games, but they're just two games. While I've pointed out several times Rolen's unfortunate average on balls in play (.229 this year), a 69 OPS+ over the past two seasons is a tough pill to swallow for the Reds' offense. Giving Frazier the dominant share of the young/old platoon will not only get a better bat in the lineup, but it may also rejuvenate Scott Ballgame's old bones. This year, Rolen has hit well after receiving prolonged rest (in Spring Training, in the few games after returning from the DL, and his recent two starts following the ASB). At this stage in his career, Rolen needs more rest than just day games following night games.
Leftfield is the other option to get Frazier additional playing time. To his credit, Baker started Frazier there in four games in the weeks before the Break. But like thirdbase, it's unclear how much time Frazier will see here in the near future. Ryan Ludwick has heated up in the summer, OPSing .900 in June and July. Chris Heisey has also shaken off his winter rust and has started hitting over the past month. Last night, Dusty started Heisey in CF in place of Drew Stubbs. It's certainly reading too much into one day's lineup card, but giving Heisey a sizable portion of the starts in center would free up some of the logjam at third and left. If Frazier can get 2-3 starts a week at both thirdbase and leftfield, he'll be in the lineup often enough to serve as the team's primary source of right-handed power.
Where to use Frazier's power and on-base skills in the batting order is another issue. Griping about batting order may be small potatoes. After all, it's axiomatic in sabermetric circles that batting order doesn't matter. I generally agree with that. But with a team so dependent on one hitter, it's critical that the Reds optimize their best on-base guys in front of Joey "two outs, bases empty" Votto. Frazier sits a good 50 points above incumbents Zack Cozart and Drew Stubbs in OBP.**** Alternatively, Brandon Phillips (.330 OBP) could move back to the top of the order and Frazier's big right-handed bat could slot between Votto and Bruce. Either way, the Reds could gain an extra 10-20 more runners on base for Votto from here on out with a change at the top.
**** Cozart's .294 OBP is perfectly in line with his minor league numbers, but Stubbs' .283 represents a significant turn for the worse in his career. His K and walk rates are about the same as prior year's. As JinAZ mentioned in the Cardinals series preview, Stubbs is a fair bet to bounce back due to poor batted ball luck.
Looking back at Sabo's rookie year, it's impressive how Rose was not only willing to start an unheralded rookie but also to hit him high in the lineup. After slotting Sabo in the 7th or 8th spot for the first two weeks, Rose hit Sabo in the two-hole on April 19 and kept him there for much of the remainder of the season. He even hit Sabo third for 38 games.***
*** Say what you will about Peter Edward, but he was certainly willing to play the kids. Six of his eight starters in ‘88 were between 24 and 26.
* * *
Giving Frazier more starts and better using his bat in the lineup will depend, of course, on whether he can keep up his current hitting. As discussed, Frazier's destroyed his preseason projection. The computer isn't convinced that the gains have been for real, as the ZiPS rest-of-the-season projection is a modest .248/.315/.450 (which is still above Rolen's). Caveats about the length of Frazier's major league career aside (325 PA), I'm more convinced than the computer. For one, GABP has not enhanced Frazier's production. In fact, he's hit much better on the road versus home (.902 versus .782 OPS). Frazier also hasn't benefited from favorable platoon matchups. He's faced righties over 70% of the time this season, hitting them almost as well as lefties. Finally, I suspect that ZiPS is punishing Frazier for getting a late start. Like Sabo, I'm hopeful that Frazier is simply a late bloomer who developed into a power hitter in his late 20s.
The big concern is strikeouts, which have plagued Frazier throughout his professional career. This year he's striking out 26% of the time, which, believe it or not, is just a tick below Stubbs. A BABIP of .336 has allowed him to take advantage of his non-K ABs, but that's a healthy margin over the league average and may not be sustainable. Frazier's current OBP is likely close to his ceiling.
The other consideration is defense, and that may be the biggest difference between the situations for Spuds and Frazier. Sabo was considered a solid fielder, and was above average during his first several seasons. Frazier's not as natural of a thirdbaseman, and leftfield may in fact be his best position. Further, Rolen (unlike Bell by 1988) still appears smooth in the field.
But the defensive delta between Rolen and Frazier won't matter as long as the two continue to hit like they have. Athough Dusty cautions us on falling for the rookie du jour, there are no better internal options to improve the team's tepid offense other than playing Frazier frequently and better leveraging his bat in the lineup. With a thin margin of error as the team fights off St. Louis and Pittsburgh for the division, the Reds will need to take advantage of every asset at their disposal.