You can make a pretty strong case that Bryce Harper is the most hyped baseball player of all-time. Much like LeBron James, Harper’s bandwagon was already full when he was in the final stages of puberty. While LeBron had “Chosen 1″ on his back, Sports Illustrated spared Harper the cost of ink and proclaimed him such on the front of their magazine when he was just 16 years old. Other players have had similar directives attached to their name but rarely that young and never before in the age of social media.
After starting off on the wrong foot in his life in the public spotlight – dropping out of high school, showing up minor league pitchers, growing that mustache – Harper has regained public support by, dare I say, playing the game the right way. His balls to the wall style is pretty refreshing for someone that was expected to coast his way to success. But while this year has been a success for Harper overall, in terms of production, Harper has been surpassed by other rookies.
Mike Trout has transcended the entire sport with his incredible rookie campaign, creating a natural rivalry between he and Harper, one that was likened to Magic vs Bird at a join all-star game press conference. Without a doubt, watching those two over the next few years will certainly develop something similar, if not a true rivalry because of the way interleague play works. But while the majority of focus amongst rookies is distributed amongst those two, there is another rookie that has surpassed Harper’s productivity level, and this one may keep Harper from capturing the one award he’ll never have a shot at again: National League Rookie of the Year.
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That would be Todd Frazier of the Cincinnati Reds. Frazier is your typical MLB rookie rather than your typical MLB phenom. Harper was 14 when Frazier was drafted in 2007 and it took the former 34th overall pick four years in the minors before he made his debut last May. Thanks to some injuries, Frazier was able to get another shot this season and his initial impact was strong enough to warrant a prolonged stay at the major league level.
Now, despite being managed by the inept, if inscrutable, Dusty Baker, Frazier finds himself in the thick of Cincinnati’s line-ups acting as one of it’s most effective every day contributors. His primary duty was to fill-in for the fast declining Scott Rolen but he’s since spent time filling in at first for the injury Joey Votto and trying his luck in left field in a seemingly far fetched ploy by Baker to get his bat in the line-up.
Frazier’s most impressive contribution to the Reds this season has been the pop he’s added to the line-up. Frazier wasn’t projected as an elite power hitter – his highest homerun total in the minors was 17 in 480 at-bats at AAA Louisville last season – but he has posted an incredible .252 ISO in 278 plate appearances this year. To put that in perspective: Harper, a player with massive raw power whose moonshots are awe inspiring, only has a .167 ISO this year. Superman Mike Trout is sitting pretty at .251, only slightly below Frazier, who ranks second amongst all rookies in isolated slugging behind Wilin Rosario.
With 81 games under his belt Frazier has produced 1.7 WAR. If he were able to match his current pace over the course of a full season then he could would be darn close to a four win third basemen. Even a modest projection places Frazier in the 3.2-3.7 WAR range, which is comfortably in the top-but-not-elite end of third baseman. Last season that meant Kevin Youkilis, Michael Young, Ryan Roberts and Aramis Ramirez. This year Brett Lawrie, Ryan Zimmerman, Adrian Beltre and Mike Moustakas will probably be in that range. Who knows if Frazier will keep this pace in his first full season next year but if he does, he’ll be a very good major league regular; and for him to be producing at a level that projects that is darn impressive for a rookie.
Even though Frazier is has produced an above average .358 wOBA, tied for seventh amongst third basemen with at least 250 PAs and sixth amongst rookies, his defense still leaves a lot to be desired. While he was a decent first baseman during his time filling in for Votto, he’s been a below average defender at the hot corner. This is pretty much the only blemish on Frazier’s rookie season so far, unless you want to nitpick his walk rate and patience at the plate. He’s never had a reputation as a great defender so this may be more of the same going forward. Even still, he’s not a complete disaster and with the once sure-handed Rolen dipping down to the negatives in UZR/150, he’s a solid option at third because of his offensive production.
Harper has been solid this season, too, and because his name carries a ton of weight around the baseball world, I’m sure that he’ll garner his fair share of votes once the ballots are sent out. But even though Harper has an equal WAR (1.7), his .257/.330/.424 slash line is less impressive than Frazier’s .272/.327/.528 line. Frazier also has a decent advantage in wOBA, a higher context neutral wins probability added (Frazier has a 1.23 WPA/LI to Harper’s 0.43) and, as previously noted, a huge advantage in isolated slugging. Harper draws more walks, is a bigger threat on the bases and is a better defender because of his arm (though his overall range stats aren’t great) but Frazier’s offensive contributions are greater as a whole.
Though it is rarely a factor in rookie of the year races, the fact that both the Nationals and Reds are in their respective pennant races makes this a pretty interesting duel between Harper and Frazier, even if the latter is still an anonymous name amongst casual baseball observers.