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The Todd Frazier trade was worth doing

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Severe batted-ball tendencies diminished impact of 40 homers, but he ultimately provided what the White Sox should have expected

Tampa Bay Rays v Chicago White Sox Photo by Jonathan Daniel/Getty Images

Todd Frazier led the White Sox in home runs with 40, but despite owning the biggest array of dingers, none of them had a superlative attached. He didn’t hit the longest homer, or even one of the five longest homers. Neither did he hit the cheapest homer, the highest homer or the lowest homer. He would’ve had the highest exit velocity if it weren’t for that meddling Avisail Garcia, but Garcia had the team’s five hardest-hit homers, so it’s not like Frazier finished a close second there.

That’s no knock on Frazier’s power, mind you. It’s akin to somebody buying the most raffle tickets for a drawing and not winning even a door prize.

Lest we think that he didn’t do anything to the extreme, he did set one record with this 40-homer season. It’s just not one you’ll see touted in a White Sox media guide.

During the season’s final week, Joe Sheehan mentioned in a roundtable on The Athletic that Frazier was on the verge of owning the lowest slugging percentage and OPS for any player to hit 40 homers in that season.

Sure enough ...

Slugging OPS
1. Todd Frazier, .464 (2016) Frazier, .767
2. Adam Dunn, .468 (2012) Pujols, .787
3. Albert Pujols, .480 (2015) Dunn, .800

In Frazier’s defense, some of this is a feature of the era. The seven 40-homer seasons with the lowest OPS are all from this century, and while Frazier has the lowest OPS, he doesn’t have the lowest OPS+. That belongs to Tony Batista, who posted a 102 OPS+ while hitting .263/.307/.519 for Toronto in 2000. This only provides so much cover, though, because Frazier is second with an OPS+ of 109.

The good news: While his offensive output might be the least impressive of a 40-homer guy, his defense allowed him to separate himself from the pack, even without a Gold Glove-type campaign. Neither Ultimate Zone Rating (-4.1) nor Defensive Runs Saved (-3) identify Frazier as a defensive wizard at third. I’m comfortable calling him average, splitting the difference between Nolan Arenado and what we saw out of Conor Gillaspie in 2015.

Forty homers from a reliable third baseman? For a team with such a massive difficulty filling that position, they’d take that every time. They’d certainly do the trade over again based on the 2016 returns:

  • Trayce Thompson: Posted the exact same batting average (.225) and OBP (.302) as Frazier, but didn’t match the power (.436). More crucial than the slash particulars, he was limited to 80 games due to multiple fractures in his back. His season ended on July 10.
  • Frankie Montas: Pitched only 16 innings in Double-A and Triple-A due to two rib problems. The start of his season was delayed due to a procedure that removed his first right rib, and then he cracked the second one in June. The Dodgers traded him to Oakland in the Rich Hill/Josh Reddick deal.
  • Micah Johnson: Hit .261/.321/.356 in 120 games at Triple-A Oklahoma city. He earned a couple of brief call-ups, but only received seven plate appearances in the majors. Oddly enough, he’s the one player in this package who avoided serious injury. He only missed time in spring training due to an avocado accident.

The Frazier trade acts a chaser to the burn of the Jeff Samardzija deal. With the latter, Marcus Semien turned into more than the Sox thought, and the secondary players (Josh Phegley, Chris Bassitt) served purposes, too. Samardzija disappointed with the Sox, then hit free agency. There was little short-term benefit, and no long-term benefit unless Zack Burdi turns into somebody, or Michael Ynoa can tame his control problems.

With the Frazier trade, one can concoct a scenario where the White Sox would have benefited from looking elsewhere. Thompson would have been one more line of defense between the lineup card and lethal doses of J.B. Shuck, and maybe some combination of David Freese, Brett Lawrie and Tyler Saladino cover second and third base well enough between them. But based on the circumstances at the time -- Frazier’s good, and the Sox might’ve been selling high on Thompson, and they needed a greater certainty of impact -- that’s overthinking it.

It’s kinda nuts that we can overthink a trade that yielded 40 homers from a third baseman, but Frazier had some extreme tendencies that made that record-low slugging percentage more than a mere fluke. His 24.5 percent strikeout rate was a career high, although that’s not bad for 40-homer power. The problem was that he couldn’t afford an uptick in strikeouts at the same time his infield fly rate surged to a league-leading 18.5 percent, and it’s no coincidence that the guy who led the league in pop-ups also had the league’s lowest BABIP (.236). It’s hard to hit for average when 43 percent of plate appearances end in strikeouts or pop-ups, and when you have a bit of bad luck on top of that, it manifests itself in some gruesome smaller samples.

Most notably, he hit .169/.282/.303 with runners in scoring position, which is the third-worst of anybody with 100 plate appearances in the clutch. Even worse was his performance with two outs and runners in scoring position (.132/.272/.279). There are a lot of good players with sub-Mendoza averages in these situations — the list includes Manny Machado, Bryce Harper, Robinson Cano, Giancarlo Stanton and even Miguel Cabrera — but Frazier separated himself by hitting closer to .100 than .200.

Frazier left a lot of runs on the table, which gets to the heart of why a 40-homer season could be seen as slightly disappointing on the whole. At the same time, if Frazier found a way to reinforce his batting line underneath the career high in homers, allowing him to drive in 115 runs instead of 98, that kind of production would have been an outlier.

Balance out all the extremes, he was fine, and given the risks in the profile the Sox took on — the big second-half dive in 2015 and lack of walks -- the Sox should have expected fine. and sought at least one more significant upgrade. The irregular-shaped production Frazier gave the Sox wasn’t enough to make the Sox winners, but that wasn’t his fault.