PITTSBURGH — Remember the scene from Moneyball? The one where Jonah Hill sits at the conference table and all he says every time Brad Pitt points to him is that whichever player they’re talking about “gets on base.”
Adam Frazier is 5-foot-9. He doesn’t hit with enough power to be a corner outfielder. He doesn’t play good enough defense to play just about anywhere. But none of that matters because he *points* get on base.
That’s especially true if he’s going to continue to have a .402 on-base percentage and a 136 wRC+, which is where he stands after going 3 for 5 in Saturday’s 6-3 Pirates win over the Philadelphia Phillies.
Since coming off the disabled list, he’s hitting .437 (14 for 32) and has had multi-hit games in five consecutive starts. David Freese said after the game that if he can get enough at-bats, Frazier has a chance to win the batting title and if his hot start continues, that’s completely true. His current .358 batting average would have been good enough to win the NL title in every year since 2008. If Frazier qualified, he’d be third in the National League in batting average and 11th in OBP.
But will it continue? Is the start that Frazier has had real or is it luck, smoke and mirrors or something else easily explained away?
First, let’s take a look at the data. Frazier’s OBP is almost completely tied up in his batting average. He’s walking just 6.1 percent of the time, which is below league average. His .469 slugging percentage is only aided by four doubles, one triple and one home run, meaning that he’s mostly a singles hitter.
As I’ve already written, he’s a below-average defender, with -1 Defensive Runs Saved in left field, which has become his new primary position while Starling Marte and Gregory Polanco are out. There is value in his versatility, as well, but he’s only a positive DRS player for his career at second and third.
He’s fast, but doesn’t provide a ton of value as a baserunner. He’s not particularly good at stealing bases and gets picked off a lot, but he does take extra bases well.
It all adds up to player that needs to hit a lot of singles to be valuable. He doesn’t strike out much, sitting at 12.2 percent on the season. So he’s making a lot of contact. What he needs is for them to fall in for hits. On that front, he’s obviously been aided by a .400 batting average on balls in play. That number will certainly not be sustainable. The highest figure in all of baseball last season was D.J. LeMahieu’s .388. League average is around .300.
But how far will it fall and where will it normalize? Over the somewhat larger sample of his major-league career, it’s .364. That’s pretty closely aligned with his minor-league numbers, as well. In 2016 in Indianapolis, he had a .369 BABIP. In 2015 in Altoona, it was .360.
Freese is 34 and in his ninth major-league season. He was obviously using a bit of hyperbole in suggesting that Frazier could win the batting title, but he was completely sincere about what he sees in the Pirates’ young leadoff hitter.
“He’s just a big-league hitter,” Freese said. “He hits the inside part of the ball. That’s huge. That’s how you sleep at night. You hit the inside part of the ball, you give yourself a chance. If you look at the best hitters in the league, that’s what they do. For the most part, they push the ball out, get it up and whack the inside part. I’m sure he did it at Mississippi State. He did it in the minors. He’s doing it here.”
Freese also suggested that Frazier’s ability to hit the ball to all fields is a skill that will help keep his BABIP high. It keeps defenses from shifting too aggressively on him and keeps pitchers from honing in on one side of the plate. His spray chart from this season is pretty telling. Where would you shift against a player like that?
“The way he sprays the ball to the left side, it’s impressive, especially facing guys he really hasn’t seen too much,” Freese said. “He’s so simple. He gets that foot down. A lot of us try to do too much sometimes. He just never does.”
Freese also thinks that Frazier may develop more power as he gets more comfortable at the major-league level.
“You can tell be the way the ball comes off the bat, he has some pop,” Freese said. “Eventually, I think he’ll start to understand that he can pull it into the gap a little bit. He’s a strong kid. Right now, he’s doing what he does best and that’s hitting the inside of the ball. … He’s going to mature and understand how to progress as a big-league hitter. I can promise you that.”
Frazier put to bed any serious talk about him winning a batting title, saying it’s “the second month of the season and we’ve got a long way to go.”
I asked him what he thought he’d been doing well as of late and what he’s focusing on keeping as part of his game.
“Not chasing pitches,” he said. “Staying within the zone. Hitting my pitch, what I’m looking for, and not really getting outside of that until two strikes.”
The data backs that up, as well. Here’s a heat map of all of the pitches Frazier has swung at this season, courtesy of Baseball Savant.
Here’s the same map of all the pitches that he’s hit.
Clearly, Frazier is a hitter that knows where he should be swinging at pitches, makes good contact when he does swing and hits the ball to all fields. Is he a batting champion? Probably not. But it looks like there is some depth to his current hot start.