Back when the Mariners traded for Mallex Smith, they dealt Mike Zunino, as well as a few other players. The Mariners probably saw it as the Mallex Smith trade. The Rays probably thought of it as the Mike Zunino trade. Another player got sent along to the Mariners with Smith, though, and that was Jake Fraley. I thought that Fraley might have been the gem of the trade at the time, but that hasn’t borne any fruit.
Back then, I likened Fraley to Mitch Haniger. Like Fraley, Haniger started to tap into some power and lift the ball more after making some swing changes at the minor league level. They were both considered tweeners, and then they started challenging that notion a bit. Aside from injuries, Haniger has been an All-Star caliber outfielder, while Fraley has struggled and dealt with injuries at almost every step of the way. But there’s a chance that he’s finally starting to come around.
It’s not like he’s been making headlines, but I guess he’s not not making headlines. Fraley has been raising eyebrows for a while now. Heck, he’s one of the most-searched players at FanGraphs now! In his first five games, he walked eight times, and then he was out for two months with a hamstring strain. Since he’s been back, he’s walked 13 times in 14 games. He just won’t stop. He ranks the highest of hitters with 70 plate appearances or more with a 28.8% walk percentage. Only Yasmani Grandal is even in his proximity.
It’s not especially clear why he’s walked more. But we can look at the trends. Fraley’s six-game rolling zone percentage, swing percentage, and walk percentage:
Pitchers stopped throwing in the zone so much, so Fraley responded by not swinging, and his walk percentage spiked as a result. Pitchers have started to pitch to him again, but he’s still held an obscene walk percentage. That’s because, regardless of how he’s pitched, he won’t swing outside of the zone.
Fraley’s six-game rolling chase percentage:
Fraley has started to chase less, and less, and...recently he’s almost literally not offered on any pitches outside of the zone. We’ve hardly reached the point where we can say that this is a skill per se; we’re going to need almost double his current amount of plate appearances for us to feel better about this not being noise. But one phenomenon in statistics is that the more extreme a player is, the more believable it is that it’s a legitimate improvement or skill. So for the time being, this feels pretty legitimate.
As is, Fraley has Sotoian plate discipline — he currently holds the lowest chase percentage in MLB at 14.5%. Of course, what he lacks is Soto’s bat-to-ball skills, for one, but also Soto’s elite ability to do damage when he puts his bat on the ball. So the walks are one thing. They would give Fraley quite the foundation to build on. But I think he’s made other gains to pair with potentially elite plate discipline.
Here’s a swing from 2020:
And here’s a hack on a similar pitch, from this year:
Fraley’s pre-pitch setup has changed, just ever so slightly. His stance is maybe a little more open. What’s more apparent is that he’s dropped his hands down. Obviously, that doesn’t necessarily matter so much in a vacuum. What matters is how he fires to the ball and what position he’s in when (or if) he makes contact.
Where I think he’s really changed is in his load. First, from 2020:
And then from this year:
When he gets into his load, he’s still got his hands dropped, but now he’s also sitting into his back leg more too. That’s seemed to help his upper and lower body sync up more, while dropping his hands has helped him get to balls from more optimal angles and fire straight to the ball from a really athletic, really grounded position.
A more efficient route to the ball has created much more consistent contact, both in terms of contact quality and launch angle. Six of Fraley’s 10 hardest-hit balls over his career have come in 2021. We know that Fraley has a little raw power hiding somewhere in there — he hit a ball 112.2 mph for a double in 2020 — but creating consistently hard contact has been an issue for him. That certainly hasn’t been solved. At least yet. But it’s been less of an issue.
Here’s a long home run off of Phil Maton:
And a longer, harder hit home run off of AL Cy Young starting pitcher Shane Bieber:
It’s not like Fraley spoiled well-located pitches on either home run. Both Maton and Bieber left their pitches up. But also, how often is it the case that a pitcher makes their pitch and the hitter hits it out anyways? I’d say not often! Good hitters work themselves into favorable counts, and they take advantage of pitchers when they miss their spots. For the first time at the major league level, Fraley is doing both of these things.
It’s still early, but his expected slugging percentage is just .435 as is, and his hard-hit percentage is a paltry 22.2%. So maybe he’s not exactly a slugger per se. That’s a work in progress. But he’s solved another problem. At least for now.
From 2019 to 2020, Fraley led all of MLB (minimum 25 batted ball events) with a 26.8% pop-up percentage, which is obscene. For reference, the league average over that time span was 7.3%. This year, he’s dropped that down to 2.8%. Of course, Fraley was never going to sustain a pop-up percentage above 25% — and the sample isn’t very big — but it’s obvious that he was failing to square the ball up, and that’s not so much of a problem anymore. As far as I see it, that has a lot to do with the tweaks he’s made to his swing.
Fraley certainly isn’t out of the woods yet. He’s done a ton to raise his floor as a hitter by taking walks like crazy, and he’s stopped popping up. He’s increasingly shown the propensity to spoil pitches, and he’s finally taking advantage of pitches over the plate, too. And yet still, he has plenty left to prove. He still hasn’t shown that he can hit the inside fastball, or anything up and in. And, for the most part, Fraley hasn’t been barreling up balls so much as dumping them into the outfield. We’ll need more time to how the league adjusts to Fraley, and then we’ll need to see how he responds. That’s going to take some time.
Jake Fraley hasn’t had much of an opportunity to prove himself. He’s had a few cups of coffee in the past few years — and he’s looked truly overmatched during both stints — but it shouldn’t be terribly surprising to see Fraley finally having some success. He demolished the competition in Double-A, and then he held his own in Triple-A. Sure it’s still a little early to make any definitive claims. Maybe his eventual output is something like Robbie Grossman. Perhaps it looks more like Mark Canha or Mitch Haniger from the left side. Whatever the end result, Fraley has shown growth as a hitter. Now, all there’s left to do is wait.