Todd Frazier, you may have noticed, is having himself a season. His 12 home runs currently place him in a tie for first in the National League and second in all of baseball. He is on pace to hit 57 homers this year.
I used to write a column that tracked players who were having remarkable seasons in one way or another (on pace for record doubles or strikeouts or whatever), and let me tell you, that column was easy to write from May through about the middle of August. But for the majority of players, reality sets in at some point. Additionally, you may have noticed that 50-homer seasons don’t grow on anabolic trees like they did 10 or 15 years ago. That is, Todd Frazier is very likely to fall back to earth. But that’s no reason not to look a little deeper and see if we can figure out where this power surge is coming from and if it’s likely to continue.
If we want to debunk this power surge, the first place to look is home run distance. That is, if it’s a mirage, we might expect a few cheap fly balls that just sneak over the wall. Frazier, though, hasn’t had those. He’s had a few homers on the short side (as everyone will), but most of his home runs have been of the no-doubt variety. That’s encouraging. Further evidence that the power is legit can be seen in Frazier’s trend in simple fly-ball distance. In 2013, his flys went an average distance of about 287 feet; last year, he was around 296, and now he’s just over 303.
The next place debunking avenue is batted-ball data. There are certain things we know. For instance, about 10 percent of fly balls will go for home runs league-wide. Most players stay in that neighborhood, but there are exceptions. Giancarlo Stanton, for instance, has sent 24.9 percent of his fly balls over the wall during his career. Frazier’s rate for this season is 24.5 percent, but his career rate is 15.4 percent. This news is mixed. What Frazier is doing this year is in the realm of the possible, but the season isn’t that old and his career tells us it might not be real.
Digging a little further down, however, we can see some changes in how Frazier is hitting the ball. In short, he is hitting fewer ground balls than he ever has before. Two-thirds of the time he makes contact, he’s sending the ball into the air. This early in the year, four or five balls can completely alter these percentages, so it’s hard to say if this is a real change in his approach, even if there was a little evidence of change last year.
Further, Frazier’s home run distribution is very different this year. Throughout his career, he’s been a fairly balanced power hitter, with balls going over the wall in all fields. This year, however, 10 of his 12 home runs have gone over the left-field wall. This indicates that Frazier might be trying hard to pull the ball and makes it more likely that this is a conscious choice. Given that, we can be a little more encouraged that Frazier might have tapped into a new power-well that we didn’t know he had.
But even if Frazier does keep up with his home run pace, there’s a trade off. Right now, at least some of that home run binge is coming because he’s hitting fewer line drives and fewer ground balls. Because fly balls rarely fall for hits when they don’t go over the fence, that means his average and OBP are both likely to decline if these trends are real and not just an early-season aberration.
No, I do not think Todd Frazier is going to hit nearly 60 home runs this year. Before I started writing this piece, I would have guessed that we’d see his power numbers return to normal pretty fast. But, you know, there is some encouraging stuff if one digs deep. Now, I’m not so sure that he’ll fall completely back in line with his previous numbers. It might be that Frazier has changed who he is as a hitter. I can suddenly imagine him hitting 35 or 40 or even 45 homers this year. I’ll definitely be watching to see where he is in another month. If he can keep it up into July, I’ll be a full-fledged believer.