STATE COLLEGE, Pa. -- When the Pirates penciled in Adam Frazier as their everyday second baseman for 2019, he had his strong finish in 2018 to thank.
Frazier's summer might have been a forgettable one, as he was demoted in late June to Triple-A in an attempt to salvage his season. It appeared to work like gangbusters, with Frazier slashing .306/.357/.533 from his return on July 25 through the end of the regular season.
The move clearly worked, and it gave the team's brass something to dream about for 2019. Namely, that Frazier could be a consistent bat at the top of the order while providing steady-enough defense.
The defense has been there -- this past week aside -- but the bat has woefully lagged. Currently posting a line of .258/.319/.371, Frazier has been banished to the bottom of the lineup. Although last year's .456 slugging percentage might be more akin to a mirage, Frazier's discipline at the plate could always be counted on to ensure a solid enough batting line for his hitting profile.
Things haven't turned out that way, and he has launch angle to blame.
Launch angle is one of the hottest analytics in MLB over the past few seasons. For those unaware, this refers to the angle at which the ball leaves a bat. The conventional wisdom is that a higher launch angle equals more home runs and fly balls. This is actually un-wise, as launch angle on its own does not necessarily bring about the desired result. Without squaring up on the ball and hitting it hard enough, you're left with nothing more than a pop-up or lazy fly.
No, to do serious damage, one must consistently hit "the sweet spot." This fairy-tale region comprises of a launch angle of 8 to 32 degrees backed by an average exit velocity of 95 mph (aka a ball that is "hard hit") or greater. The result? A barrel.
Frazier has not been able to barrel the ball. His 1.8 percent barrel rate is in the bottom 4 percent of MLB. This has come about as a result of Frazier, perhaps, artificially trying to induce launch angle.
Let's look at two swings on very similar balls. Both fastballs, both up in the zone.
First, a home run from last season:
Next, a similar pitch in the exact same zone that results in a pop-up:
Note the differences. In the video above, Frazier keeps a compact swing without much uppercut. In the bottom, the swing is a little deeper, with more of a swinging-upward motion.
Swing path is the next big evolution in hitting. It refers to finding the right swing path to achieve maximum useful launch angle. Josh Bell has tapped into this idea brilliantly. Frazier simply does not have enough raw power to utilize this approach. For him, the best path toward productivity might be to keep the swing short and punch toward the gaps. How else can we explain such middling results despite an overall launch angle increase against fastballs? In 2019, he is averaging 14.3 degrees of launch on fastballs as opposed to 12.1 percent from July 25 (his return) through the end of last season. This, despite seeing a 1.5 mph decrease in average exit velocity on fastballs year over year, from 88.9 mph during his final two months last season to 87.4 mph.
Launch angle isn't everything. For Frazier to return to being a productive hitter, this lesson must be learned.
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