When the Mariners acquired Mallex Smith, they also acquired Mike Zunino and a few other players. The Mariners most likely mistook it for the Mallex Smith deal. It was most likely referred to as the Mike Zunino trade by the Rays. Jake Fraley, a player who was moved to the Mariners alongside Smith, was the other player. At the time, I felt Fraley may be the trade's crown jewel, but that hasn't proven to be the case.
Fraley reminded me of Mitch Haniger at the time. After making some swing tweaks in the lower leagues, Haniger, like Fraley, began to tap into some power and lift the ball more. They were both labelled as tweeners until they began to question that label. Apart from injuries, Haniger has been an All-Star level outfielder, whereas Fraley has battled and fought with ailments at nearly every turn. But there's a chance he's starting to change his mind.
He hasn't exactly been generating headlines, but he certainly hasn't been ignored. Fraley has been causing a stir for quite some time. Heck, he's currently one of FanGraphs' most-searched players! He walked eight times in his first five games, and then he was gone for two months with a hamstring issue. He's walked 13 times in 14 games since his return. He's just not going to quit. With a 28.8 percent walk rate, he is first among hitters with at least 70 plate appearances. Only Yasmani Grandal is in his immediate vicinity.
It's unclear why he's been walking more. We may, however, look at the tendencies. The six-game rolling zone percentage, swing %, and walk percentage for Fraley are as follows:
Pitchers began to pitch less in the zone, thus Fraley responded by not swinging, and his walk rate increased as a result. Pitchers have begun to pitch to him again, although he still has an absurdly high walk rate. That's because he won't swing outside the strike zone no matter how he's pitched.
Fraley's rolling chase % across six games:
Fraley has been chasing less and less lately, and he's nearly never been given on pitches outside of the zone. We haven't even gotten to the stage where we can declare this is a talent in and of itself; we'll need about twice his current plate appearances to be certain that this isn't just noise. However, statistics show that the more extreme a player is, the more likely it is that the progress or talent is genuine. For the time being, this appears to be reasonable.
Fraley already displays Soto-like plate discipline, with a chase percentage of 14.5 percent, the lowest in MLB. Of course, he lacks Soto's bat-to-ball abilities, as well as Soto's remarkable ability to cause damage with his bat when he hits the ball. The walks, for example, are one thing. They'd provide Fraley with a solid basis on which to develop. However, I believe he's made additional improvements to go along with his possibly outstanding plate discipline.
He's still got his hands down as he gets into his load, but he's also seating into his rear leg more. Dropping his hands has helped him get to balls from more ideal angles and fire straight to the ball from a pretty athletic, highly grounded stance, which has helped his upper and lower body sync up better.
A more efficient path to the ball has resulted in considerably more consistent contact, both in terms of quality and angle of launch. In 2021, six of Fraley's ten hardest-hit balls have occurred. We know Fraley has considerable raw power — he smashed a ball 112.2 mph for a double in 2020 — but he's struggled to make consistent strong contact. That hasn't been resolved in any way. At least for the time being. However, it has becoming less of a concern.
Fraley didn't sabotage any well-placed pitches on either home run. Maton and Bieber both left their pitches unattended. But how frequently does a pitcher make a pitch and the batter smashes it out anyway? Not very frequently, I'd think! Good hitters work their way into advantageous counts, and they exploit pitchers who miss their places. Fraley is accomplishing each of these things for the first time in the major leagues.
Although it is still early, his anticipated slugging percentage is only.435 and his hard-hit rate is a pitiful 22.2 percent. So maybe he's not a slugger in the traditional sense. This is still a work in progress. He has, however, solved a different issue. At least for the time being.
Fraley had the highest pop-up percentage in MLB (minimum 25 batted ball occurrences) from 2019 to 2020, which is ridiculous. For comparison, the league average was 7.3 percent throughout that time period. He's reduced it to 2.8 percent this year. Of course, Fraley was never going to maintain a pop-up percentage above 25% — and the sample size isn't very large — but it's clear that he was failing to square the circle, and that's no longer an issue. That, in my opinion, has a lot to do with the changes he's made to his swing.
Fraley isn't out of the woods just yet. He's taken a lot of walks to increase his floor as a hitter, and he's also ceased popping up. He's been showing a greater proclivity for spoiling pitches, and he's also starting to take advantage of pitches over the plate. Despite this, he still has a lot to prove. He has yet to shown his ability to smash the inside fastball or anything up and in. And, for the most part, Fraley has been dropping balls into the outfield rather than barreling them up. We'll have to wait and watch how the league reacts to Fraley, and then we'll see how he reacts. This is going to take a while.