Order Up: Todd Frazier

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Todd Frazier steps into the batter’s box with men on second and third, his pant legs playfully hiked up to his knee. He chops a grounder over the pitcher’s head, a 6-4 force out, but still an RBI for Frazier. A boyish grin flashes across his face. When you’re hitting as well as he has, even the groundouts are productive. And in the season’s first week, no one on the Reds was more productive than Frazier.

The Reds third baseman was a supplemental first round draft pick in 2007 out of Rutgers and methodically moved his way through Cincinnati’s farm system. He was a good but not great prospect. Before being called up in May of 2011, ESPN scouting guru Keith Law rated him the team’s ninth best prospect.

He was a bench player in 2011 and started out as such in 2011 before injuries to Scott Rolen and Joey Votto forced Frazier into a starting role. Frazier flourished with consistent playing time, batting .273 with an .829 OPS and finishing third in the National League Rookie of the Year voting.

Heading into 2013, however, there were some concerns as to whether or not he could improve on that production. Some worried about his ability to repeat the same power numbers from last year. Frazier hit 19 homeruns in 2012, tied for the most he hit in any minor league season. His BABIP was also slightly elevated, .022 points higher than his xBABIP. (For more in-depth explanation of these saber stats, check out my piece on Joey Votto from last week.)

Well, early signs point to 2012 being more of a primer for bigger things to come for the Reds third baseman rather than an aberration. Through the first week of the season, Frazier led the NL in hitting at .480, belting three homers and tallying nine RBIs.

Now, I’m not one to overreact to a strong opening week. I grew up with the Pittsburgh Pirates. I am hardened against overexcitement and naturally wary of out-of-whack numbers. (Though it would be really fun to see an 81 home run season!) But that does not stop me from wondering if the No. 6 hole is really the optimum spot in this Reds lineup for Todd Frazier.

Here’s what the top six spots in the Reds’ Opening Day lineup looked like:

1–Choo, 2–Phillips, 3–Votto, 4–Ludwick, 5–Bruce, 6–Frazier

Ryan Ludwick then went down with a shoulder injury on Opening Day and Dusty Baker was forced to maneuver the lineup. Baker decided to move Phillips down to the cleanup spot, where he hit .303 in 73 games in 2012. In Phillips’ slot was Chris Heisey, Ludwick’s replacement in left. The new batting order looked like this:

1–Choo, 2–Heisey (or Xavier Paul), 3–Votto, 4–Phillips, 5–Bruce, 6–Frazier

There are different strategies when constructing a lineup. Aside from a few generally accepted principles—the leadoff man should be able to get on base (cough cough, Stubbs) and the no. 3 hitter is usually your best at the plate—the other spots are open to interpretation. The No. 2 hole is generally reserved for a smart, speedy player, the kind that is able to bunt a player over and possibly eek out a hit himself. There is some evidence, however, to suggest that the two-hole is even more important than most realize. Take the Minnesota Twins and New York Yankees for example. Both teams are using their best hitters in the second spot instead of the third.

With Frazier’s hot hitting, perhaps the Reds should experiment with their lineup a bit. Heisey is a career .256 hitter with decent speed and roughly league average marks in all statistical categories. His 2012 Wins Above Replacement (WAR) was actually -.3, meaning he was slightly below a typical bench player. In essence, he is not going to provide much additional value at any spot in the lineup.

So why bat him in the no. 2 spot at all? Why not try juggling the lineups a bit early, before players get settled into a role, to see if there is a more productive group?

Here’s my proposition: Heisey’s spot is replaced by Phillips, who was originally slated to be the No. 2 hitter. Phillips’ spot is replaced by Frazier, and Frazier’s spot is replaced by Heisey. Here’s what my reworked lineup would look like:

1–Choo, 2–Phillips, 3–Votto, 4–Frazier, 5–Bruce, 6–Heisey

The rationale is simple. The top five spots in the lineup should be comprised of the team’s best five hitters in some order. This lineup gives the Reds perhaps the best top three of any lineup in the NL, especially if Choo continues his stellar hitting. With Bruce providing some protection behind Frazier, it should give the corner infielder more pitches to hit. It also maintains an even distribution of right-handed and left-handed hitters.

The argument against the lineup switcheroo could be that having Frazier behind Votto would make Votto less of a threat, because the former MVP wouldn’t see as many quality pitches. But if Frazier can improve even slightly on his numbers from last year, he won’t be a welcome sight for opposing pitchers. Consider also that Frazier hit .298 in 2012 against lefties, the type of relievers he would typically see being sandwiched between two left-handed hitters.

It may only be a week’s worth of a sample size, but for now, Frazier is producing at an impressive clip. With Ludwick likely out until sometime around the All-Star break, the Reds could use his power more in the middle of the lineup than at the end of it.

 

Closing Numbers

27: The Reds scored 27 total runs in their three-game series against the Nationals. That’s tied for the most runs scored in a three-game series by the team since a 32-run homestand against Arizona in May of 2005. (Cincinnati posted one 27 run three-game series in 2009 and 2006 as well.)

.516: New Reds leadoff hitter Shin-Soo Choo has an impressive .516 OBP in the season’s first week. It’s especially welcome considering…

.254: Reds’ leadoff hitters had a paltry .254 OBP last year (cough cough, Stubbs).

 

Adam Flango is a video producer for CBSSports.com and weirdly enjoys the world of sports statistics. For tips on numbers to look out for, tweet them to @adam_flango or e-mail them to adamflango@gmail.com

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