Tales of Todd Frazier: Reds star emerges as a baseball folk hero
Did you hear about the time Todd Frazier promised a batboy he’d hit a home run, and then went out and did it? Or the time he hit a home run by throwing the bat at the ball? How about the night he saved a man’s life with his bare hands?
Frazier—Reds third baseman, All-Star, baseball folk hero—is a down-home Jersey boy, raised on pork rolls and pepperoni pizza pies from the boardwalk. He's a home-run belting, Sinatra-crooning, friendly galoot of a slugger who has been crafting his legend since he was a freckle-faced–12-year-old Little League star at Williamsport 17 summers ago. He is one of the strongest ballplayers in the game, with hands as large as dinner plates and forearms thick like fire hydrants. But when he’s not wielding his 35-inch, 32-ounce weapon at the plate, he is as menacing as a carnival barker, which was his first job growing up in the coastal New Jersey town of Toms River. With his short-cropped red hair, ruddy face and omnipresent smile, he has a slightly goofy bearing. Even his father, Charlie, says, “If you met him, you wouldn’t think he’s a ballplayer—you’d just think he was a nerd.”
Charlie raised his three boys—all Jersey baseball legends who were drafted by major league teams—to know that baseball is supposed to be fun, and Todd, the youngest of the Frazier boys and the only one left chasing the dream, is still the player having more fun than anyone else in the dugout. At a game at the Great American Ball Park, he a launched a no-doubter high into the sky, only to watch a sudden gale-force wind reel the ball back in. Frazier stormed back to the dugout, red-faced and with veins popping, and yelled, “Goddammit! That would have landed on the hill at Williamsport!”
“After a strikeout, he’ll come back to the dugout cursing,” says Reds shortstop Zack Cozart, “and you’ll see the other guys laughing under their breaths—and then he’ll start laughing, too. He has a way of loosening up every room he’s in.”
When things got a little dull and sleepy at Sean Casey’s Reds Hall of Fame Induction a few summers ago at Great American, then-manager Dusty Baker knew who to turn to: He took the mic and coaxed Frazier to get up and sing, “Fly Me to the Moon.” Frazier sings Sinatra tunes on request, and though no one would mistake his raspy baritone for Ol' Blue Eyes, he brought the house down.
He provides the comic relief and the power to Cincinnati’s punchless lineup. On Wednesday, in the Reds’ 6–4 loss to the Rockies—their 10th in 11 games—Frazier doubled, walked and slugged his seventh home run of May and his 14th of the season; only Bryce Harper and Nelson Cruz have hit more this year. Frazier is hitting a pedestrian .260, but look closer and you’ll see that he is taking his game to another level. One year after bashing 29 homers and racking up 20 stolen bases, making him one of five players to post a 20/20 season in 2014, he is putting up career highs in slugging percentage (.548), weighted on-base average (.395) and isolated power (.308). His strikeout rate is a career-low 17.9%, his walk rate is a career-high 10.8%, and his hard-hit-ball percentage is 40.0%, up from 34.2% from a year ago. His 2.4 Wins Above Replacement, as measured by FanGraphs, is sixth in all of baseball, and his .248 batting average on balls in play suggests that he’s also been a bit unlucky so far.
But because Harper is murdering baseballs and Cubs rookie slugger Kris Bryant is the shiny new thing, and because the Reds (19–27 and sinking fast) are a disaster, a player like Frazier—a star on a bad team—will get overlooked early in the season. As summer rolls along and his team sinks further into irrelevancy, he’ll be even more buried by the stories of the latest surging team and the Next Big Thing. So let’s take a moment to appreciate the excellence of the Toddfather, one of the game’s great characters—and now one of the best all-around players in baseball.
At the ball fields scattered throughout Toms River, they still argue every day about which one of the three Frazier boys was the best player the town has ever raised. There’s Todd, who was the New Jersey high school player of the year at Toms River South and went on to Rutgers, where he set the school's home run record and was drafted by the Reds with the 34th overall pick in the 2007 draft. He was a talented kid, though not necessarily as good as middle brother Jeff, a hot-headed outfielder who was the New Jersey high school player of the year in '01, went on to Rutgers—where he set he the career home run record that Todd broke—and was a third-round pick by the Tigers in '04. And there's Charlie, probably the most naturally gifted athlete of all, a basketball standout who was drafted out of Toms River South by the Marlins in the third round of the 1999 draft. Says Charlie, Sr., himself a former high school ballplayer, “Charlie had the tools: speed and finesse. Jeff was mentally aggressive. Todd? I don’t know—he has fire, but it’s buried deep.”
“We like to say, we broke the doors down, paved the way, and Todd just slid right in,” says Jeff, who along with Charlie called their kid brother Todd the Toad. “We made it easy for him—he’s been charmed. The kid could fall into a ditch and find a gold nugget.”
Still, the kid is alright. Give Todd the Toad this: Not only was he the only Frazier boy to reach the Show, but he also led his Little League team further than any of his brothers. Todd was the star shortstop of the 1998 team from Toms River that became a national story after it took down the mighty team from Kyoto, Japan in the Little League World Series championship game. Frazier had four home runs during the tournament, including one in his first at-bat in the final. What’s often forgotten is that Todd played most of that season with a horrible hand injury. Just a few weeks into the season he was fooling around in the back of his coach’s van on his way to practice when he caught his hand on something sharp and split his palm open like a watermelon.
What the Toms River players and coaches remember most from that summer is how Frazier not only played through the injury but also never complained about it, even when they could see how much it hurt when he gripped a ball and handled a bat. Frazier was never the same pitcher again—the scar is still there on his right hand—and rarely pitched that season. But with his team needing a pitcher to close out the Japanese team in the final innings, coach Mike Gaynor turned to the toughest kid on the team. The boy with the mangled right hand pitched the final two innings, allowing just one run in what had been a slugfest and striking out the final batter of the game. “That was always more impressive to me than the home runs,” said his teammate Casey Gaynor. “He was a great pitcher before the injury. What people don’t know is that he could have been as good of a pitcher as he is a hitter.”
Some things other things you may not know about Frazier: He won the Punt, Pass, and Kick competition as a 10-year-old. He led his Pee Wee Football team to the national championship. As a power forward on the Toms River South basketball team, he broke the school record for rebounds in a state playoff game. He is as good at ping pong and poker as he is at swinging a bat. At the Reds' fan convention a few years ago, 500 people competed in a poker tournament—Frazier won.
One other thing not enough people know about Frazier: He is not just a dude who hits home runs. He has become one of the best all-around players in the game. For a player his size, Frazier is deceptively fast—once in a high-school game, he tagged up and scored from second base on a fly ball to center. Frazier’s versatility is underrated: Since he was called up in 2011, he’s played every position on the diamond for the Reds except catcher and centerfield. He’s on pace for a second straight 20-steal season (he has six in seven tries) and is underrated defensively as well.
“Todd is not Aroldis Chapman with a 102-mile-per-hour fastball or Billy Hamilton with the world-class speed. In other words, he’s not the kind of guy where if you go to one game, he’s going to knock your eyeballs out,” says Reds scouting director Chris Buckley. “He’s the guy you have to watch multiple times to truly appreciate what he does.”
Yes, it’s true: Todd Frazier once hit a ball by throwing the bat at it.
This happened in a game two years ago against the Rockies at the Great American Ball Park. Colorado’s Jamie Moyer delivered a 72-mph curveball to the plate, and as Frazier lunged forward and swung at the pitch, the bat slipped out of his hands and hurtled toward the pitcher’s mound. Video of the swing, which has been dissected like the Zapruder film on baseball blogs and by physics professors, would confirm the impossible: The moment the bat made contact with the ball, the bat had already been released from Frazier’s hands, as the bat took flight simultaneously with the ball. Frazier’s bat ended up just to the right of the pitcher’s mound. The ball? It landed five rows deep in the leftfield seats, a 400-foot home run.
Because of his large hands, Frazier feels most comfortable gripping the bat in a way you would never teach your six-year old nephew: with the lower three fingers of his left hand dangling off the bat. “I do it because it keeps things loose, and I can react better to pitches,” he explained one afternoon in New York last year. The grip is why Frazier has collected an unusually high number of hits with lunging, one-armed swing, and it’s also why every time he steps up to the plate, there’s a chance the pitcher will be decapitated.
Frazier’s grip is just the beginning of what’s wrong with his swing. When he thrusts his arms forward, rather than bend his lower elbow, Frazier “bars” his arm out, leaving it straight as a pipe. Says Reds scout Lee Seras, “The big knock on Frazier was that when he loaded to hit with his hands, he had that arm bar—his lead arm would straighten out—and I can remember a lot of scouting guys insisting that he’ll never get his hands back against a guy throwing in the mid-90s in the major leagues. What they didn’t know was that his arm strength and his hand-eye coordination were off the charts.”
It’s with that swing that Frazier burned through the Reds' minor league system, hitting everywhere he was and mashing legendary shots into swimming pools, parking lots and roller coasters atop scoreboards. With that swing, he made an instant impact in his rookie season in 2011, hitting .289 with 15 home runs and 49 RBIs. That’s not to say that he hasn’t made tweaks along the way. After struggling in 2013—he hit a career low .234 with a .314 on base percentage and 19 home runs in 531 at-bats—Frazier worked with hitting coach Don Long on lowering his hands so that he could be quicker to the ball.
Even now, though, when Frazier’s at the plate, he can still look like a Little Leaguer trying to figure things out. “It’s never been pretty, and it’ll never be pretty,” says Seras. “And he’s always stepped up there, with this glint in his eye, and kind of this smile. If you’re the pitcher, it still almost looks like a friendly greeting. And then he crushes you.”
On nights he’s not saving the Reds at the ballpark, he is apparently out in the city saving lives like an Avenger. He and teammate Ryan Ludwick were enjoying a leisurely post-game dinner in Pittsburgh one night two summers ago when, in the corner of his eye, Frazier saw a man coughing at a nearby table. Frazier looked on as the situation escalated, to the point where the panicked woman at the man’s side began sobbing. Frazier walked over, calmly told the woman to move aside, and, recalling what he learned from ninth grade health class—“A couple fingers on the sternum, you press, and away you go"—stood behind the man, gave him two thrusts, and then watched as a hunk of meat—“a monster piece, half the goddamn steak,” recalled Frazier—dislodged from the man’s throat and crashed onto the plate.
When Ludwick recounted the latest amazing true Todd Frazier tale to teammates the following day, Cozart said, “We all thought, 'Yeah, that’s crazy.' But then we were like, well, it’s Frazier you’re talking about, it’s not surprising at all. The guy has always been in the middle of something, doing something crazy, saving the day—whether it’s with a home run or the Heimlich.”
This season, though, not even Frazier will be able to save the woebegone Reds. In Cincinnati, there’s uncertainty and unease everywhere, with the loses piling up, with manager Bryan Price on the hot seat, with a potential fire sale on the horizon. No matter how bleak it gets, however, Frazier will keep crushing baseballs, and he’ll continue being one of the best players in the game. Stop and take a long look, because it’s easy to overlook the greatness of Todd Frazier.