Over the next several weeks, members of the Camden Chat staff will be reviewing one 2023 Orioles player each day to see how the season went for each of them.
It’s a tradition like no other. Every year, no matter what the circumstances, no matter how well or poorly the Orioles are playing, their roster always includes that one official Most Polarizing Player.TM
The title changes hands every year, but you know the type. It’s a player who, through no fault of his own, inevitably incites a maelstrom of debate among O’s fans, some of whom are quick to sing his praises and others who view him as a useless waste of a roster spot.
This year — pretty much from the moment he signed with the Orioles — that distinction belonged to Adam Frazier.
When the Birds inked the veteran second baseman to a one-year, $8 million contract last December, the arrival was met with plenty of head-scratching in Baltimore. It’s not that Frazier was a bad player; he was just two years removed from an All-Star campaign in Pittsburgh, though he was coming off the worst season of his career in Seattle. The problem was that Frazier seemed utterly unnecessary on the O’s roster. Their infield was, and still is, stacked with young, talented big leaguers as well as a bevy of prospects knocking down the door at Triple-A. Frazier was essentially a replacement for Rougned Odor, 2022’s Most Polarizing Player TM, with better contact skills but a less effervescent personality. With the likes of Gunnar Henderson, Ramón Urías, Jorge Mateo, Jordan Westburg, Joey Ortiz, and even Terrin Vavra all in the majors or big league-ready, it was hard to see where Frazier fit in.
It turns out the Orioles didn’t have any trouble finding playing time for Frazier. He ended up playing 141 games, by far the most of any infielder besides Henderson. Frazier carved out a clear and distinct role for himself amidst the infield logjam, though how well he performed in that role is a subject of much dispute. Of course it is. It’s what makes him the Most Polarizing Player.TM
Let’s start with the good news from Frazier’s season. The 5-foot-10 lefty showed surprising power, setting a career high with 13 home runs after averaging just six a year for his first eight seasons. He did the bulk of that damage in the first half, swatting 10 dingers before the All-Star break.
Frazier also showed a remarkable knack for hitting in the clutch, delivering one timely hit after another throughout his 2023 campaign. With runners in scoring position, he batted .294/.383/.549. With runners on any base, it was .296/.364/.546. With a runner at third and less than two outs, he slashed .389/.409/.556. You name the run-scoring opportunity, and he almost always got the job done.
His bat-to-ball skills and ability to avoid strikeouts came in quite handy. Most Orioles fans won’t soon forget Frazier’s flick-of-the-wrist, opposite-field RBI double off the Rays’ Pete Fairbanks — with two outs, two strikes, and the O’s trailing in the ninth — that sparked the Birds to a dramatic victory on the day they clinched a playoff spot.
By Baseball Reference’s reckoning, Frazier was worth 1.7 Wins Above Replacement, seventh-best among O’s position players. FanGraphs was far less kind to Frazier, pegging him at just 0.3 WAR, tied for a distant 13th (and behind every other regular O’s infielder).
The disparity in those numbers may lie in Frazier’s defense, which according to FanGraphs was, well, dreadful. His -15 Outs Above Average at second base was easily the worst of any O’s fielder at any position. His -4 Defensive Runs Saved was second-worst only to Aaron Hicks in center field (-5). And Baseball Savant puts Frazier in the first percentile for range — meaning 99% of fielders have more range than him. It’s not pretty.
Frazier also, despite his career high in homers, was one of the worst hitters in the majors at hitting the ball with authority (ranking in the second percentile for Hard Hit %, the sixth for Barrel %, and the third for Average Exit Velocity). He didn’t exactly make up for it by drawing walks, with just a 7.0% walk rate, resulting in a meager .300 OBP. That’s the worst of his career other than the pandemic-shortened 2020 season.
Frazier’s offensive numbers cratered in the final two months, coinciding with a jammed thumb he suffered in Toronto on Aug. 3. After missing three games, he tried to play through the injury and batted just .233 with a .599 OPS in his final 41 games. He didn’t hit a single home run in that stretch. In hindsight, maybe an IL stint would have done him some good. His stretch-drive struggles only added ammunition for his critics, who howled in frustration whenever Frazier started at second base instead of the highly touted youngster Westburg.
His ugly play in August and September soured his season, but Frazier served his purpose. In the clubhouse, he was a veteran mentor for a young team. On the field, his lefty bat matched up against opposing right-handers and helped Brandon Hyde play the percentages with his lineups. And he was clutch! Oh, was he clutch.
Still, there’s no need for Frazier on the 2024 Orioles. Westburg, after debuting in late June, is a full-fledged big leaguer now. Henderson has established himself as a budding superstar. Urías and Mateo are still around. Ortiz has nothing left to prove in the minors, nor does Connor Norby. And, oh yeah, there’s a certain #1 prospect in baseball named Jackson Holliday who is set to debut early in 2024 and also happens to bat left-handed. With that kind of logjam, Frazier is almost certain to depart this offseason, and he likely won’t be the only infielder to do so.
Tomorrow: Jack Flaherty