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Talking baseball with NL All-Stars

7/16/2014
AP Photo/Al Behrman

MINNEAPOLIS -- What a week it's been for Cincinnati Reds third baseman Todd Frazier! What a season, really. Let's just say few would have guessed that if the Reds were going to have an offensive breakout performer this season, that Frazier, who entered the season with a career .244 batting average along with modest power and little speed, would have been it. Frazier ranks 17th on the overall Player Rater after finishing 17th at his position last season. He's already tied his career best with 19 home runs, and surely more shocking has been the .290 batting average and 14 stolen bases.

Put simply, when compared to what the draft day investment was -- if there was one at all -- the case can easily be made he has been the fantasy MVP at the All-Star break. Los Angeles Angels outfielder Mike Trout and Houston Astros second baseman Jose Altuve top the Rater, but one was a top 2 pick at worst in all leagues and the other was a top 100 player all along. Frazier barely cracked the top 250. Frazier, Cleveland Indians outfielder Michael Brantley and Minnesota Twins second baseman Brian Dozier are excellent fantasy MVP candidates, considering their value based on investment.

I spoke to Frazier, a New Jersey native really soaking up the All-Star week experience on Monday before he advanced to the finals in the Home Run Derby and asked him about his tremendous season, starting with the surprising stolen base total. Frazier, now 28, stole 10 bases in his first three big league seasons combined, but this hidden aspect of his game was actually there in the minor leagues, he just decided to tap into it.

"I got the green light this year, basically," he said. "We have a manager that likes to steal. Bryan Price puts a lot of faith in us to know when to go and when not to, and give first-base coach Billy Hatcher a lot of credit because he helps me out. I used to be really fast back in the day until I started lifting weights and drinking too many beers."

Well, we don't want to get Frazier in trouble, but his base stealing is a reminder to us all that it doesn't take Billy Hamilton-type speed to be a factor. Remember the one season Lance Berkman stole 18 bases? It was 2008 and it wasn't because he suddenly got faster. Frazier has been shuttled back and forth between the Nos. 2 and 5 lineup spots, and he's run a bit more when higher up in the batting order, but really this is just a guy that figured things out. His next home run will be a career best.

This is from someone selected 20th among third basemen on draft day, after the likes of Mike Moustakas and David Freese. Now Frazier ranks as fantasy's No. 1 third baseman on the Rater, outdistancing the still-eligible Miguel Cabrera, not only thanks to the stolen bases but he also has five more home runs. While he discusses adjustments he's made at the plate, his walk and strikeout rates remain fluid, and he's exchanged some ground balls for line drives. His BABIP would seem inflated based on his career, but it's not outrageous. I think this is all legit and it certainly appears that the people that handle our projections agree since they like Frazier to deliver another 11 home runs and six stolen bases, albeit with a .261 batting average. That makes sense to me. Wow, Todd Frazier, could be a 30-homer, 20-steal guy, but he says he's not really shocked.

"I knew I was a home run hitter, but I was trying to figure out my swing," he said. "My pitch selection was awful last year and I was swinging at everything, thinking I'd get a fastball. Now I've made adjustments, I take more pitches. I want the pitch to hit; it's something I'm striving for."

After blogging about American League players on Tuesday, here are quotes and subsequent thoughts on the National Leaguers made available to the media. As always, I could have spoken to the top stars in the game, but don't you know how good Andrew McCutchen and Clayton Kershaw are already? Here are players whose fantasy value is a bit more uncertain:

Colorado Rockies outfielder Charlie Blackmon ranks 12th on the Player Rater, with his best production coming in the opening weeks of the season. Blackmon hit .374 in April with five home runs and seven stolen bases. Since then he's hit .278 with nine home runs and 11 steals. Blackmon is eminently aware of this, though. "Big league players and coaches are really good at making adjustments," he said. "It's only a matter of time before one guy that is really successful that the rest of league analyzes what he's doing or what he can't do. They’ve adjusted to me and it showed a little bit, I had a dip there, but then I had to come right back and make my own adjustments. It's a constant battle back and forth. Hitting is always a moving target. You never get it figured out. It's not linear, not moving in the same direction. You think you've got it figured out and then you have to adjust."

The affable Blackmon noted how becoming an everyday player unlocked his potential, and how he was pleased to prove the people who believed in him correct, but when it comes to being a 30-homer, 30-steal option, he was frank. "I've already hit more home runs than in any single season, so I would love 30 but it's not something I've done before!"

• Blackmon's value is also considerably aided, no doubt, by calling Coors Field his home ballpark. I asked him about the home/road splits -- he's hitting .354 at home and .248 on the road -- but he said it was "just the comfort of a home park. You're not in a rush. You have routines. On the road, I feel like you ruffle your feathers a little bit. The atmosphere is not as comfortable to play in. It's not an excuse."

I figured I'd tackle the angle of the comforts of home with a few NL pitchers that perform in pitcher-friendly establishments, Miami Marlins right-hander Henderson Alvarez and San Diego Padres right-hander Tyson Ross. Neither took the bait. Alvarez, through an interpreter, noted how "obviously things haven't been so good away from home, but I try my best wherever I'm pitching." Alvarez boasts a 1.56 ERA at Marlins Park, and a 3.81 road ERA. Ross noted the "biggest advantage of Petco Park is sleeping in my own bed at home, waking up with the ocean two blocks away. The stadium is a pitcher's park, but it doesn’t matter to me, I gotta execute my pitches. I had a pretty strong second half last year and am trying to grow as a pitcher." All true, but it matters to fantasy owners where Ross pitches; his road ERA is 3.73, and it's 2.08 at Petco Park. Fantasy owners should target Alvarez and Ross mainly in home matches.

Chicago Cubs infielders Anthony Rizzo and Starlin Castro are each performing considerably better than last season, but for different reasons. Rizzo has become a really patient hitter while Castro, pretty much the antithesis of the word patient, has bounced back to prior levels of reliability. Rizzo is top 20 in walk percentage, and his 20 home runs are three off what he provided last season. "It's just part of the process I had always been told about," he said. "It's a long process learning pitchers, learning the league, learning the parks, getting comfortable and now it gets better every day. With the walk rate, it's affected a lot. It cuts down your at-bats, that's really what I wanted to do. Whether it's a sac fly, a walk, my main goal is to drive the ball, grind it out, but if you're not feeling it that day and you can go 1-for-3 with a walk or 0-for-2 with a couple walks it's a lot better than 0-for-4 or 0-for-5. It's a by-product of having a better approach and swinging at what I want to swing at and not what pitchers want."

Castro, meanwhile, also possesses a career-best walk rate, but nowhere near the leaders. He's approaching a career mark in home runs and has his batting average back up, and says none of it surprises him. "I think I just got my confidence back," says the No. 10 shortstop on the Rater. "I try to hit the ball hard, that’s all. I never try to hit the homers."

St. Louis Cardinals infielder Matt Carpenter isn't having quite the same season as his monstrous 2013, but he's still an All-Star! Carpenter admitted that pitchers are attacking him a bit differently. "As you get older in the league people figure out scouting reports, and they pitch to you different. Certainly our lineup is different, too, the guys hitting behind me in the two-hole. I've drawn more walks this year (12 percent as opposed to 10 percent in 2013) because pitchers would rather not let me hit a double or be aggressive."

Los Angeles Dodgers second baseman Dee Gordon, sitting next to his father Tom, a former big league hurler, talked about his critical March. Remember, he was no lock to even make the Dodgers out of spring training. Now he has 43 stolen bases and is 10th on the season Player Rater. "I just had confidence in myself. I had [Dodgers teammate Chone] Figgins to tell me I could do it, and I knew I could be the second baseman. I'm just not trying to do too much. That's a big part of it. I knew I wasn't going to hit .380 all year. I wouldn't put that pressure on myself." The risk on Gordon is greater than with Reds speedster Billy Hamilton, because the Dodgers have a second base prospect in Cuban Alex Guerrero ready to take his job. This is a situation to watch closely, because there's plenty of pressure on the Dodgers and manager Don Mattingly. Gordon has to continue to get on base to keep the job.