DENVER — Todd Frazier, almost always loud and often playfully rambunctious, has a calmness to him at the plate, his smile fading and the focus intensifying as he steps into the batter’s box.
It wasn’t always this way for Frazier. The demeanor might have been there, but the poise — the patience — was not. Now, in his age-32 season with his fourth team in two-and-a- half years, Frazier has matured to be one of the most patient hitters in baseball.
Frazier’s rate of 4.42 pitches per plate appearance is the highest of his career and would rank fourth in the majors if he had enough playing time to qualify — a new peak in his steady, years-long improvement.
“I never thought I’d be able to do it,” Frazier said. “I was always a free-swinging guy. Raw power, raw everything. Sometimes when you take a strike or two, it’s like, oh man, maybe I should have swung at that. But now I understand that I’m a good hitter, I can take one or two [pitches] that I wasn’t looking for and trust the process.”
It’s not uncommon for a player’s offensive approach to improve as he gets older, learns the league (and specific pitchers) more thoroughly, and gains a greater understanding of the type of hitter he wants to and is able to be.
Frazier’s ascent in particular is worth appreciating. As recently as 2015, his last year in Cincinnati, he averaged 3.78 pitches per plate appearance, an unremarkable 85th out of 144 qualified hitters in the majors. (Average was 3.82 that year and is 3.92 this year.) Since then, Frazier has trended toward longer and longer at-bats each season, a trend that has coincided with a marked increase in his selectivity and discipline.
That same Cincinnati season, 2015, Frazier swung at 36.7 percent — more than one out of every three pitches — outside the strike zone. This year, he has cut that to 24.9 percent.
The drop is even more significant for pitches in the zone: 76.1 percent three years ago, 56.6 percent this season.
For Frazier, that means fewer swings and misses, fewer 0-and-1 counts, more walks and better contact — and, curiously, a decline in power. Frazier hasn’t quite gotten hot yet in his injury-interrupted first year with the Mets, and his .398 slugging percentage entering play Tuesday was the lowest of his career.
“Truthfully, the last two or three weeks I’ve gotten away from it [being patient] a little bit,” Frazier said.
Frazier’s plate-discipline epiphany came while he was in Chicago in 2016. He was toiling, and White Sox assistant hitting coach Greg Sparks handed him a 34-inch, 31.5-ounce bat — one inch shorter and a half-ounce lighter than what Frazier normally used. Hitters can have a princess-and-the-pea vibe when it comes to their equipment, and Frazier was no different.
“I told him, ‘This feels absolutely terrible,’” Frazier said. “I gave it back. ‘Just try the bat.’ I get up there, of course I go 0-and-2 with this bat and hit a home run the next pitch.”
The lesson: Don’t think so much. Frazier, distracted by the weird feel of the new bat, went deep in the toughest of counts. That lone homer had a lasting effect on Frazier, who still uses the slightly shorter, slightly lighter bat and more regularly begins at-bats by employing a two-strike approach: choked up, with a slightly wider stance.
“Just understanding that you can still hit one out with two strikes,” said Frazier, citing his game-winning, 1-and-2 shot against the Yankees’ Luis Severino on June 10. “Just trying to be a full hitter. Clean and a guy that they can say, ‘He’s an all-around good hitter.’”