[This post was written by Jux Berg, who has his own website at Bergonsports.com and @bergonsports on Twitter. Thanks, Jux. -- spm]
They call it the “Sophomore Slump.”
2012 was the first year Todd Frazier received regular playing time at the big league level, and he virtually carried the Reds in July and August when he batted .320/.371/.567 with eleven homers and 40 runs driven in. In 2013 however, Frazier suffered through several prolonged slumps, finishing with .234/.314/.407 — a fall of almost 40 points below his 2012 mark in batting average and 90 points in slugging percentage. Todd had a 10-game hitless stretch in 2013, a 4-game 0-for and five 3-game knockless streaks.
Translation: Major league pitching coaches and pitchers, as they tend to do, figured Todd Frazier out in 2013. Pitchers began using Todd’s power (and the time it was taking to generate that power) against him.
In response, Todd made noticeable adjustments in the offseason and thus far, 2014 has been a different story. The former Little League World Series stud has had two 3-game hitless stretches this season — and that’s been the extent of his struggles. Through August 6, Frazier is hitting .281/.339/.463.
Frazier discussed his offseason adjustments with MLB.com’s Mark Sheldon back in March. He spoke about consistency: “I can be unorthodox, but is my path to the ball the same?” Frazier said. “Are my eyes the same? Am I in a good position to hit? I have to be in a good position. For the first couple of years of playing, sometimes I got away from that…That’s going to be a big word for me this season – consistency.”
The result: Frazier has become a consistent spray hitter while putting good wood on more pitches. Not only do the statistics tell the story, but so does watching “The Toddfather” hit on a daily basis through the first 4+ months of the ’14 campaign.
In Frazier’s breakout 2012, he finished hitting .273/.331/.498 as he played a major role in Cincinnati’s NL Central crown. In 2013, he clubbed 19 home runs in 150 games. According to FanGraphs, twelve of those 19 HRs were pulled and 54 of his 124 hits (43.5 percent) were to the left side. So far in 2014, Frazier has cracked 20 taters, only five of which have flown over the left field fence. 45 of Todd’s 57 RBI have come on base hits up the middle or to the opposite field. Frazier’s spray charts for 2013 (left) and 2014 are shown here. The black dots are his home runs and red dots his line drives. You can see he’s hitting much more to all fields this year.
Frazier’s monthly numbers have, as a whole, improved dramatically from 2013 to 2014. Last season, his best average was .261 in September/October, and he suffered through a .220 May and a .180 August. In 2014, Frazier shook off a .247 April to post a .291 May and a .316 June, by far and away his two best months since his mammoth .330/.393/.587 August back in 2012. In short, that magic word, consistency, has been Todd’s theme this year.
Adjustments in the Batter’s Box
If you’re like me, and you pay close attention to each Red’s stance, load and swing path, you’ve probably noticed three major changes in Frazier from 2013 to 2014.
In his batting stance this season, Todd has lowered his hands significantly from up around his head to down around his chest. He shaved precious time off of his load-to-contact by starting his hands in the loaded position instead of having to bring them all the way down to that zone. This allows him an extra tick or two to identify the pitch and to let it travel a touch longer before starting his swing. That adjustment cuts down on the number of times he’s been out in front of a pitch, which in the past caused him to hit grounders to the left side on good pitches and whiff on pitches moving down and away.
Frazier has also modified his stride from a significant toe-tap/twist stride timing mechanism to more of a simple ‘step and stride’ approach this season. He still generates rapid hip rotation but in much less time. That, coupled with his lowered hands, has made Number 21 much quicker and shorter to the baseball without sacrificing any of his power. And, since Frazier has decreased the time it takes to get to impact, he can use that extra time to be a bit more selective. According to Pitch f/x, his swing percentage on pitches outside of the strike zone has dropped from 35 percent in ’13 down to 32.5 percent in ’14.
Here’s a gif from 2013 when Todd flails and misses at a curveball in the dirt. Notice his high hands, his prolonged stride and generally just how much movement there is in his swing and how long it takes him to get to follow through.
In contrast, here’s a gif of a 2014 Frazier blast to dead center field. Notice where his hands are before the swing and his modified stride. Also note that he hit a middle-in fastball to dead center. That’s an improved swing path.
Most hitting instructors harp on “keeping your hands inside the baseball” and “putting the sweet spot on the inside part of the baseball.” This is something Yankee legend Derek Jeter has made a living doing over the years; it’s an area in which most of the great hitters have excelled. I believe it’s a huge reason Todd Frazier has avoided slumps this season.
What does keeping your hands inside the baseball mean? There’s a drill a lot of hitters do where they stand about a foot away from a net and take practice swings. The goal: Don’t hit the net with the bat. The only way to do that? Keep your hands tucked tight into your chest as you power through your swing. It keeps the fat part of the bat on the inner half of the baseball, which prevents coming around the baseball and being out in front on pitches down the middle or on the outer half. Essentially, when you come around the baseball, you’re early. There’s an old saying: “If you’re early, you’re out.”
Think about it like this. You’re at the plate. You’re a right-handed hitter. The pitcher makes a mistake and leaves a fastball belt-high, right down Broadway. If you’re not keeping your hands inside the baseball, there’s a pretty good chance you’ll “roll over” and ground out to third or short (or directly into the shift, like a certain Reds right-fielder). And occasionally (but not frequently) this season, that’s what we’ve seen Frazier do on pitches down the middle. But when you are focused on keeping your front shoulder closed and your hands inside the baseball, you’ll oftentimes blast that heater to straightaway center or right center, which allows you to get your arms fully extended and maximize your power.
That’s why 15 of Todd Frazier’s 20 dingers have been to center or right field this season. That’s why he’s avoided slumps. And that’s why he was selected to his first All-Star game.