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Tuesday, February 26, 2013
Which Reds sophomore do you like best?

By Jason Linden

Heading into the 2012 season, the Reds had three rookies lined up to be regular parts of their lineup. Zack Cozart was the everyday shortstop. Devin Mesoraco was, if not the No. 1 catcher, number 1A. Todd Frazier was the super-sub and Scott Rolen injury caddy. We know how it worked out.

Mesoraco seemingly flopped and was sent down near the end of the Triple-A season. When he returned to Cincinnati he was barely allowed to stand up off the bench. Cozart provided excellent defense at short, but his offense, especially his .288 OBP, was less than many Reds fans had hoped for. Frazier was the breakout star. Injuries to Joey Votto and Rolen provided him with nearly a full season's worth of at-bats. He briefly injected his name into the Rookie of the Year race, and his .273/.331/.498 line at the end of the season made a lot of people really happy.

So, coming into the 2013 season, there seems to be a clear hierarchy among those three second-year players. Frazier is the rising star. Cozart is the solid contributor. Mesoraco is looking for a second chance. When we look closely at the numbers, however, flaws in that line of reasoning begin to materialize.

When Batting Average on Balls in Play (BABIP) comes up, it's usually in reference to how lucky a player was (or wasn't), and that's exactly how I'm going to use it here. BABIP tends to hover around .300 (it was .297 in 2012), but can fluctuate for hitters just as it does for pitchers. That is, there's some chance involved in every player's BABIP. We can tell what a player's seasonal BABIP should have been based on the number of line drives, flyballs and ground balls he hit. (Check out this RotoGraphs article for more.) Frazier was very lucky last year. Based on the kind of balls he put in play, his BABIP of .316 was about 20 points too high. That is, he had some dying quails and a few ground balls with eyes, something that's reflected in the fact that he saw zero production dropoff moving from Triple-A to the majors.

Cozart and Mesoraco had the opposite problem. Cozart's BABIP was 35 points too low and Mesoraco's was 40 points too low. It is no surprise then that each player saw his numbers fall more than we would normally expect from a player transitioning from Triple-A to the majors.

Then there is age. Cozart and Frazier are both entering their age-27 seasons this year. Mesoraco is entering his age-25 season (though he's almost three years younger than Cozart). And finally, there's the fact that Mesoraco and Cozart both bring more defensive value than Frazier. According to FanGraphs WAR, Cozart and Frazier provided almost exactly the same value last year because Cozart's defense was so much better than Frazier's.

What it all means is that it would be unsurprising if Frazier had the least impressive 2013 and the least impressive career of these three players. That doesn't mean he's a bad player, it just means we shouldn't judge a player based solely on one season's worth of data (or, in Mesoraco's case, part of a season). Especially when that data is heavily influenced by luck, as it was for these players.

Jason Linden writes for Redleg Nation.