What to make of Jake Fraley heading into the 2023 season

The beginning of Jake Fraley‘s run with the Reds couldn’t have gone much worse. After the Reds acquired him from the Mariners last March, Fraley stepped into a platoon role against right-handed pitchers. He got off to a dreadful start, posting a 20 wRC+ in 48 plate appearances in April before he was placed on the injured list due to right knee inflammation.

Fraley became somewhat of a forgotten man as he spent nearly two months on the IL. There were plenty of questions surrounding him when he came back, though. Just how much was the knee injury holding him back in April? Was his strong 2021 season (109 wRC+ overall, 131 wRC+ vs. RHP) with the Mariners legit? Or was he destined to become nothing more than a bench player?

Apparently, the knee injury was holding Fraley back quite a bit. The 27-year-old was activated on July 30 and provided a spark to a lineup that traded away three key contributors — Brandon Drury, Tommy Pham, and Tyler Naquin — prior to the deadline. Over 199 plate appearances, Fraley hit .295/.377/.537 with 11 home runs after his return. His 145 wRC+ was the 19th-highest among players with at least 190 plate appearances in the same time period, sandwiching him between Astros slugger Yordan Alvarez and Braves rookie of the year Michael Harris II. The hot stretch brought Fraley’s season batting line up to .259/.344/.468, and his wRC+ climbed to 121.

Were those two months a sign of things to come in 2023?

Fraley’s strengths

Fraley is limited at the plate, as he’s struggled throughout his pro career against left-handed pitching (43 wRC+ as a big-leaguer). But he’s an excellent hitter against right-handed pitchers (career 121 wRC+), who fortunately make up about 75% of pitchers in MLB. Fraley lived up to his reputation in 2022, doing almost all of his damage against right-handed pitchers. All but 17 of his plate appearances over the last two months of the season came against righties and he had a fantastic 150 wRC+ against them.

The best fundamental skill Fraley has is his eye at the plate. His ability to get on base has made him a productive hitter at the big-league level (103 wRC+) despite a subpar batting average (.224). He had a 9.7% walk rate in his minor-league career, and his MLB rate is even better (12.7%). Fraley ended the 2022 season with a 10.7% walk rate, which would’ve ranked him in the 78th percentile in baseball if he had enough plate appearances to qualify. His chase rate was 25%, which would put him in approximately the 72nd percentile.

Encouragingly, Fraley also figured out how to put the bat on the ball with more regularity. His whiff rate (24.1%) and strikeout rate (21.9%) fell below the league average for the first time in his short MLB career, leading to a career-best .259 batting average. Fraley is probably not going to be a .300 hitter in his career, but his improved ability to put the bat on the ball raises his floor.

The question mark

Fraley’s power — or, rather, his ability to tap into it consistently — is a bigger question. There’s no doubt that Fraley has home-run pop, and he hit a career-best 12 last season in only 247 plate appearances. Stretch that out to 500 plate appearances and he’d have 24 home runs. Can he maintain that rate, though? In Great American Ball Park, it’s hard to entirely count it out. Fraley has produced some strong top-end exit velocities to back it up. He maxed out at 110.0 mph in 2022 (62nd percentile), and he’s gone as high as 112.2 mph in his MLB career. He had two of the Reds’ six longest home runs last season.

But there are reasons for skepticism about whether Fraley can replicate his 2022 power output. First, 20% of his flyballs went for homers, a ridiculous rate even for a hitter in GABP. The league average HR/FB rate was 11.4%, down from previous years when the baseball was juiced. Focusing just on Cincinnati, the average was higher at 14.4%, but it still didn’t approach 20%. The qualified hitters to do it last year were elite power hitters: Aaron Judge, Yordan Alvarez, Kyle Schwarber, Austin Riley, Julio Rodriguez, Teoscar Hernandez, Shohei Ohtani, and Paul Goldschmidt. Fraley isn’t in that category of power hitter. Of course, if the baseballs are altered or juiced again, all bets are off.

The bigger red flag for Fraley’s power numbers lies in the batted-ball data.

Fraley’s average exit velocity for the season was a dismal 85.1 mph and his hard-hit rate was just 27.6%. If he had enough plate appearances to qualify for the Statcast percentile leaderboard, he would’ve ranked in the bottom 3% in average exit velocity and the bottom 4%. Check out his average exit velocities by zone from last year:

On mistakes over the middle and outer parts of the plate, Fraley did damage. He failed to replicate that success in other areas of the zone, however, particularly on pitches thrown inside.

Those numbers weren’t weighed down by his slow start, either. The contact quality metrics were also unimpressive after his July return:

  • 85.1 mph avg. exit velocity
  • 28.8% hard-hit rate

Those numbers are probably negatively impacted by left-handed pitchers, right? Well, remember he didn’t get many at-bats against lefties. He also didn’t hit the ball especially hard against right-handed pitchers:

  • 85.7 mph avg. EV
  • 29.4% hard-hit rate

It wasn’t just a fluky season, either. While Fraley is capable of hitting the ball hard, he makes a lot of soft contact and has throughout his time in the big leagues (career 85.0 mph avg. EV, 28.6% hard-hit rate).

Here were the percentage of his batted balls hit at various exit velocity benchmarks compared to the league average (again, excluding bunts):

% of Batted Balls Hit Below Given EV
EV Fraley Batted Ball% (2022) League Avg.
90 mph 57.1% 46.5%
85 mph 44.8% 34.4%
80 mph 33.7% 24.7%
75 mph 24.5% 16.8%
70 mph 16.0% 10.7%
65 mph 9.8% 6.5%

In this respect, Fraley is similar to Aristides Aquino, who was capable of destroying the ball but didn’t do it consistently.

The silver lining

In light of the data above, one may hypothesize that his expected metrics were worse than his actual numbers — and that would be correct. The good news is that his expected slash line after his return from injury was still strong:

  • Actual slash line: .295/.377/.537
  • Expected slash line: .258/.346/.443

The expected data points toward regression, especially but nothing that would indicate Fraley’s production should fall off a cliff. In fact, that was essentially his overall slash line for the season. Even with a difference of nearly 100 points between his actual and expected slugging percentages, he had above-average isolated power (ISO).

So, how is Fraley outproducing his poor batted-ball data? One way to make up for weak contact is hitting the ball more often, and he did that by lowering his strikeout and whiff rates. Another way is to regularly hit the ball at an ideal angle. Fraley had a 33.5% sweet-spot percentage in 2022, which is the rate of batted balls with a launch angle between 8 and 32 degrees. That ranked just above league average (33.0%). Why is that important? Because even softly hit line drives are better than popping the ball up or driving it straight into the ground. On batted balls hit within in the launch angle sweet spot, the league batted .584 and had a .465 ISO.

On balls that were not hard hit, Fraley still had an impressive .291 batting average and .264 expected batting average. The league batting average on such batted balls was .221, and the expected batting average was .220. Because he consistently maintained a productive launch angle, when he did hit the ball hard, he often barreled it. His 7.3% barrel rate was far closer to the league average (7.5%) than his average exit velocity or hard-hit rates. When he didn’t hit the ball hard, he was able to lift it over the infield for a hit more often than the average hitter.

All of this is to say Fraley might not be a 30-homer player over an entire season (although hitting in Great American Ball Park in half of his games won’t hurt), but he still has the ingredients to be a productive hitter.

2023 projections

Here are Fraley’s projections for the upcoming season:

Note that THE BAT X projection, which includes batted-ball data from Statcast, is the least optimistic about Fraley, which makes some sense given his batted-ball data. All of the projections also expect his strikeouts to increase toward his career rate (25.8%), which is bringing down his numbers a bit, too. Overall, though, it seems fair to expect another strong season for Fraley.

Fraley has a strong floor because of his outstanding plate discipline. He’ll be the Reds’ starting left fielder on days when a right-handed pitcher is on the mound, and he should be a productive hitter in that role. If Fraley can figure out how to make hard contact more often, especially on inside pitches, he can raise his offensive floor even higher and outproduce the projections above.

Featured photo by Rich von Biberstein/Icon Sportswire

Matt Wilkes

Matt Wilkes got hooked on Reds baseball after attending his first game in Cinergy Field at 6 years old, and he hasn’t looked back. As a kid, he was often found imitating his favorite players — Ken Griffey Jr., Adam Dunn, Sean Casey, and Austin Kearns — in the backyard. When he finally went inside, he was leading the Reds to 162-0 seasons in MVP Baseball 2005 or keeping stats for whatever game was on TV. He started writing about baseball in 2014 and has become fascinated by analytics and all the new data in the game. Matt is also a graduate of The Ohio State University and currently lives in Chicago. Follow him on Twitter at @_MattWilkes.