Over the next six weeks, you’ll hear plenty about how the Pirates are playing meaningless baseball. But, save few for a few select cornerstone players, there’s 2020 playing time and career longevity at stake for most of this roster.
Take, for example, Adam Frazier.
After morphing into a Chase Utley clone following the 2018 All-Star Game — he slugged .533 during the second half of the season, compared to .355 before the break — Frazier earned a daily lineup spot. The Pirates let Josh Harrison walk in free agency, and installed Frazier as the club’s second baseman. At age 27, he seemed poised to establish himself as a regular at one spot, instead of bouncing between three or four different positions on the diamond.
Now, with 2019 winding down, his long-term future as a starter is anything but assured. Ironically, Frazier’s once-panned defense at second base has actually been solid (he has saved +4 runs compared to an average player at the position, according to Fangraphs’ Defensive Runs Saved metric). But his bat has declined. In 2018, Frazier posted a park and league-adjusted OPS that was 16 percent better than the overall MLB average (116 OPS+). That was tied for eighth-best among MLB second basemen with at least 350 plate appearances. This year, his 87 OPS+ (13 percent below the MLB average) ranks 15th out of 21 players at the position with 350+ plate appearances.
Where did Frazier’s 2018 power surge come from, and why has it gone MIA in 2019?
Let’s break it down.
Frazier turned into a slugger last year for three primary reasons: He hit more fly balls, he thrashed breaking and off-speed pitches, and he pulled the ball with unprecedented authority. Frazier is actually putting the ball in the air more often in 2019 (32.5 percent of pitches put in play, up from 31.3 percent in ’18), but the other two reasons for his increased power have fizzled out.
Take a look at Frazier’s slugging percentage by pitch type in 2018, compared to 2019. He has never hit for much power versus fastballs, and his performance against velocity has remained about the same. But curveballs, sliders and changeups that he laced into the gaps or ripped over the fence last year have turned into singles or harmless fly ball outs.
Last season, Frazier boasted the 27th-highest slugging percentage versus breaking balls among 473 players who saw at least 300 of that pitch type, according to MLB Statcast. In 2019, he ranks 226th out of 430 batters meeting the same criteria. Against offspeed stuff, he had the 67th highest slugging percentage out of 350 batters seeing 150 or more offspeed pitches. This year, he’s 188th out of 298 batters. And that slugging decline looks less like bad luck, and more like a dip in Frazier’s quality of contact. His average exit velocity against breaking pitches has declined from 88.3 mph in ’18 to 86.3 mph in ’19. Against offspeed pitches, his exit velocity is also down (83.3 mph in ’18, 81.9 mpg in ’19).
Along with hitting more fly balls, Frazier also pulled the ball more often in 2018. He’s still hitting pitches to right field at a similar rate (37.8 percent in ’18, 37.1 percent in ’19), but they’re doing little damage. When Frazier pulled the ball last year, he hit eight home runs and slugged .713. He was Josh Bell in May, basically. This year? Frazier has five pull-side home runs, but his slugging percentage has dipped to .489. For comparison’s sake, the average MLB hitter has a .663 slugging percentage when pulling the ball in 2019.
Frazier never hit for much power in the minor leagues, with a career .411 slugging percentage on the farm. He was also a singles hitter in the majors before 2018, with a .402 slugging percentage in 2016-17. Given that track record, maybe we shouldn’t be surprised that Frazier hasn’t sustained his 2018 gains in the power department. But he made some fundamental changes to his swing and approach — more fly balls, especially to the pull-side — that gave you reason to think it was more than a second-half mirage. He’s still lofting and pulling pitches this year, but they lack punch.
Thanks to his surprisingly good defense, Frazier hasn’t been a complete zero for the Pirates this season. But the overall body of work hasn’t been very compelling, either. His Wins Above Replacement (WAR) total, which measures a player’s batting, fielding and base running value compared to the kind of player available on the waiver wire, is 1.1 this season. That’s tied for 22nd among MLB second basemen. In other words, the lower tier among regular players at the position. With Kevin Newman and Cole Tucker looking like the team’s potential long-term double-play combo, Frazier could return to a multi-position utility player role in 2020 unless he starts driving pitches again. August and September will be anything but meaningless for Frazier.
• Quality contact: Bryan Reynolds is vying for the NL batting title thanks in large part to the ridiculously hard contact that he’s making. The man once traded for Andrew McCutchen is putting balls in play at a scorching 90 mph this season, according to MLB Statcast, which is more than two mph above the MLB average (87.5 mph) and ranks in the 70th percentile among all major leaguers. On the Pirates, only Josh Bell (92.8 mph) has a higher average exit velocity. Reynolds has been especially impressive on fastballs with an average exit velocity (93.7 mph) that places 15th among major leaguers with at least 100 batted ball events.
• Marte’s quite excellence: For some fans, Starling Marte is a source of frustration — the swing-out-of-his-shoes hitting approach, the occasional lapses in effort and fundamentals. But don’t let those aggravating anecdotes obscure this fact: Marte remains one of the best players on the Pirates. Marte is tied with Bell for second on the team in WAR (2.4), behind only Reynolds (2.7). Among center fielders, Marte’s WAR total ranks eighth in the majors. And, among all Pirates position players through their age 30 season, he ranks 18th all-time in WAR (23.3) — ahead of Andy Van Skyke (22.7) and Willie Stargell (22.4), among others. He may not be the MVP candidate that some think he could be based on pure talent, but he’s still really good.
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