July 23, 2012

If it were up to Reds infielder Todd Frazier, Bryce Harper would be the National League Rookie of the Year. That's strange, because there is one NL rookie who is putting up better numbers than the Washington phenom, and that player happens to be Todd Frazier. Like seemingly everyone else in the league, Frazier has left himself off the ROY podium.

"I like to think I'm on top with my peers," Frazier said, "but when you're 19 years old [like Harper] and putting up those numbers, you can't really overshadow that."

Actually, Frazier has overshadowed Harper, at least in the stat books. Frazier's slash line of .279/.343/.538 stacks up favorably to the .269/.339/.438 season Harper is enjoying. Frazier also has more home runs (10 to Harper's eight) and RBIs (31 to Harper's 26) and a higher OPS (an NL-rookie best .882 to Harper's .776), and he has done so in 92 fewer plate appearances. Advanced metrics also favor Frazier, who has a WAR of 1.6 to Harper's 1.4. And just like Harper, Frazier is putting up these numbers while playing for a first-place team.

So why has Frazier flown below the radar for so long? First, there's his age. Frazier is 26, which makes him a geezer compared to Harper, who won't turn 20 until mid-October. On top of that, Harper, a Sports Illustrated cover boy at 16 and the No. 1 pick in the 2010 draft, was already commanding the nation's attention long before the season even began. Frazier, meanwhile, was a supplemental first round pick in 2007 out of Rutgers and although he made it to Triple-A in 2009 he didn't reach the majors until 2011, when he had a 41-game cameo in Cincinnati and hit just .232.

"Harper is in the spotlight a lot more," said Reds shortstop Zack Cozart, another rookie. "Even if Harper's going 0-for-4, somebody's talking about him going 0-for-4.

"Todd will get his recognition. I think he's starting to, and he's getting to play every day with Joey [Votto] being out. That gives him the opportunity to show that what's been going on so far isn't a fluke."

Votto, Cincinnati's star first baseman, was sidelined July 15 with a knee injury and will likely be out another two to three weeks. Just as Frazier filled in for an injured Scott Rolen at third base earlier in the year, he has now been tabbed to replace Votto.

Losing an MVP candidate like Votto never helps a team, but so far, Cincinnati hasn't been hurt, either. The Reds are 5-2 since he went down, and Frazier, who has vowed he's "up for the challenge," has hit a respectable .280. He has only driven in one run during that time but it was a game-winner -- a two-out, go-ahead single in the seventh inning the that capped off a six-run comeback and gave the Reds a 7-6 win against the Diamondbacks on July 19.

That hit, along with a walk-off home run on May 23 against the Braves, has helped Frazier add to the reputation he built even before he arrived in the majors for hitting with the game on the line.

"He loves being in the clutch, having big hits," Cozart said. "I've played with him pretty much every year coming up through the minor leagues, and he's still the same... He just wants to be up there in clutch situations, and he's come through for us this year."

Frazier is not the lone rookie keeping the Reds, who lead the NL Central by a half-game over Pittsburgh, in playoff contention. Along with Cozart and catcher Devin Mesoraco, Cincinnati is one of the few successful teams in baseball that is relying on a trio of rookies.

"You look around the league and you won't see that," Reds hitting coach Brook Jacoby said. "These kids have done well in the minor leagues, and our minor league staff has done well with them and they've risen to the occasion."

Oddly enough, Frazier was the only one of the three who wasn't on the Reds roster when the season began. His goal was to make the team after spring training, but even though he hit .291 in camp he was sent to Triple-A Louisville. He was called up in mid-April and by May, Rolen's shoulder problems gave Frazier the chance to start at third base.

Frazier moved into the starting lineup for good on May 9 and has since displayed a powerful and impressive hitting stroke.

"He's a guy that can get fooled, but he'll still put the barrel on the ball and hit it hard somewhere," said Reds hitting coach Brook Jacoby. "He'll take some unorthodox swings and still drive the ball with power. It's unbelievable."

The best example of that came when the 6-foot-3, 215-pound Frazier hit a home run against the Rockies on May 27 in Cincinnati even though the bat slipped out of his hands after he made contact. Replays showed that Frazier's right hand wasn't even holding the bat during contact and he let go completely right after hitting the ball, yet Frazier was able to muscle it out of the park.

That kind of power has put Frazier on the map with a very deep rookie class, one he's proud to be a part of.

"It's pretty cool in the cities that have those guys who are starting to shine," Frazier said. "Guys like Harper, myself, Trout, Cozart, to name a few -- it's really great for the future of baseball."

It's great for the Reds' future, too, and their present, especially since Frazier can do more than just hit. He's posted a respectable .980 fielding percentage while playing both infield corners and leftfield. The latter was his primary position in the minors, but he also played at least 39 games at all four infield positions, thus equipping him to play a variety of spots in the majors. Cincinnati's staff has been impressed with the defense he's played at first base since filling in for Votto.

His transition in the clubhouse has been seamless, too. Jacoby described Frazier as the most boisterous of the team's rookies, and his voice can always be heard in the clubhouse. Frazier said he has developed a good relationship with some of the club's elder statesmen.

"I talk to Scott Rolen and Miguel Cairo on a daily basis because I play the same positions," Frazier said. "It's very nice to have guys like that to talk to. When I wasn't starting, I'd talk to Miguel about being a pinch hitter because he's been doing it his whole career. It makes it so much more comfortable for me knowing I have those guys in the background."

The advice from veterans has certainly helped, as Frazier has established himself as one of the best hitting rookies in a loaded class. Harper will continue to grab more headlines than the Reds' unassuming rookie, but with Votto out for the next month, Frazier's name could finally become well-known outside of Cincinnati.

In the meantime, he's got some folks in his clubhouse who are happy to do the talking for him.

"Who would I pick as rookie of the year?" Jacoby said. "Of course it would be Todd Frazier."

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