Commentary

Todd Frazier's wild rookie ride

His New Jersey roots (and power stroke) have been welcomed in Cincinnati.

Originally Published: August 29, 2012
By Jerry Crasnick | ESPN.com

Major league pitchers who have stood face-to-face with Todd Frazier this season will confirm that he's a handful at the plate.

Hungry diners in Ocean County, N.J., can attest that Frazier is a mouthful at the plate, too.

The Driftwood Deli & Sub Shop in the township of Toms River recently paid homage to Frazier, a local boy and standout rookie for the Cincinnati Reds, by adding a sandwich to the menu in his honor. "The Todd," the No. 30 entry in the subs section, is a belt-loosening combination of roast beef, turkey, yellow American cheese, bacon and yellow mustard.

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AP Photo/Tony TribbleTodd Frazier is smiling, and hitting, his way toward the NL Rookie of the Year Award and into the postseason with the Reds.

Sandy Long, the shop's co-owner, remembers Frazier coming into the shop as a teenager and ordering that combination day after day. He was a friendly kid with a big appetite, an outsized personality and an aversion to veggies in any form.

"I thought, 'This is a horrible sandwich. Nobody's going to buy it,'" says Long, whose son played youth basketball with Frazier. "But people actually like it. I tell them, 'If you want the real 'Todd,' you have to get it with no lettuce, onions or tomatoes.'"

Frazier, eternally faithful to his roots, has signed a photograph that's on display in the shop. If he autographs another picture for the deli this winter, he might have to add an "ROY" beneath his name.

Los Angeles Angels outfielder Mike Trout, a Millville, N.J., native, has a clear path to the American League Rookie of the Year Award; and Frazier, who has 18 home runs, 22 doubles, a .909 OPS and a wins above replacement of 3.0 for the Reds, is tooling down the companion turnpike spur in hopes of pulling off a Garden State sweep. Arizona Diamondbacks starter Wade Miley, his main competition among National League rookies, is 14-9 with a 2.85 ERA, a strikeout-to-walk ratio of better than 4-to-1 and a WAR of 4.1.

The two rookies acquitted themselves quite nicely in a head-to-head matchup Tuesday night in Phoenix. Miley threw seven strong innings, and Frazier contributed a single and a two-run triple to lead Cincinnati to a 5-2 victory at Chase Field.

Both have been godsends at a time of need for their respective teams. Miley has helped the Diamondbacks weather a so-so season by Ian Kennedy and the loss of Daniel Hudson to Tommy John surgery. Frazier filled in at third base for five weeks when Scott Rolen went down with a shoulder injury in May, and he's handled first base since Joey Votto suffered a knee injury in mid-July.

According to ESPN Stats & Information, Frazier entered Tuesday's game in Arizona with the ninth best slugging percentage by a right-handed batter against right-handed pitching (.538). The eight players ahead of him: Miguel Cabrera, Trout, Giancarlo Stanton, Adrian Beltre, Jose Bautista, Carlos Ruiz, Mark Trumbo and Paul Konerko.

That's not all. During a trip to Pittsburgh in late May, Frazier sprung into action and performed an emergency Heimlich maneuver to save a fellow diner from choking. All he needs to do now is carve an ice sculpture, learn to play piano from scratch and save a kid falling from a tree, and his season will approximate the Bill Murray-forged perfect ending in "Groundhog Day."

"Put him in the lineup, wind him up, and he's gone," Rolen says. "He's made a case for himself to stick and be a major league player, for sure. His bat is what keeps you tuned in. When you have a guy like that and you can get offense out of him wherever you plug him into the lineup, he's a huge value."

Votto is on a minor league rehab assignment and on track to return shortly -- a welcome development for the Reds, but one that will test manager Dusty Baker's ingenuity. If Frazier is going to play even five days a week, Baker is going to have to squeeze in some off days for Rolen, Votto and left fielder Ryan Ludwick, and maybe consider the possibility of playing right fielder Jay Bruce in center -- where he's made 35 career starts but none since 2008.

Boy for all seasons

Frazier is thriving in the majors through competitiveness, versatility and a knack for getting the bat head to the ball despite some unorthodox mechanics. He swings with a stiff left arm -- known as an "arm bar" -- that can make a hitter vulnerable to hard stuff inside. But he compensates sufficiently with his shoulders and his lower half, and pitchers haven't had much luck exploiting it.

"It may not work well visually when you see all those moving parts, but for him it's a coordinated athletic move," says an NL scout. "We want kids to hit like athletes, not robots. It may not work for Paul Molitor or Tony Gwynn, but it works for Todd Frazier."

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Joe Robbins/Getty ImagesThat stiff left arm might not make for a textbook swing, but it hasn't hurt Frazier much so far.

Frazier produced a classic "Don't try this at home, kids" moment on May 27 when he released the bat in mid-swing against Colorado's Jamie Moyer and still managed to hit a home run. John Brenkus of ESPN "Sport Science" fame could have based an entire episode around it.

"People ask me about it all the time, and I tell them, 'I don't know how I did it,'" Frazier says. "It was a hot day and I was holding on with two fingers when I hit it. There's a rule of thumb, 'Throw the head to the ball,' and that's what I did. It's pretty weird. I can't explain it."

What Frazier might lack in style points, he makes up for in leadership and athletic instincts. It has become fashionable in recent years for aspiring big leaguers to focus strictly on baseball in their teen years, and spend much of their adolescence traveling to showcases and working with personal hitting coaches. Frazier took a different route. Like Trout, he chose to expand his athletic horizons with a wide range of pursuits.

As a star player for the Toms River "Beast of the East" team that beat Japan for the 1998 Little League World Series title, Frazier learned to keep his emotions in check while playing in front of 40,000 people in Williamsport, Pa. He also experienced the thrill of appearing on the "Rosie O'Donnell Show," meeting Vice President Al Gore, getting fan mail from foreign countries and riding around Toms River in the back of a fire truck during a parade.

When the youth baseball season ended every summer, though, Frazier put away the spikes and the Big League Chew. He played quarterback for a Pop Warner national championship team and won a national Punt, Pass and Kick title in 1997 at age 11. Frazier scored more than 1,000 points for the Toms River South High basketball team, but he was more interested in crashing the boards than filling the net. As a 6-foot-3 center, he was an avid Charles Barkley fan and routinely guarded players several inches taller.

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AP Photo/Rusty KennedyThat's the Reds' Rookie of the Year candidate being mobbed by his Toms River teammates after a home run in the 1998 Little League World Series.

"I was pretty aggressive on the basketball court," Frazier says. "If guys tried to dunk, I'd throw an elbow in their chest."

In the Frazier household, perseverance was synonymous with survival. Older brother Charlie, now a gym teacher and coach back home in Jersey, spent six years in the minors as an outfielder in the Florida Marlins organization. Jeff, the middle brother, is still playing Triple-A ball for the Cubs at age 30. Charlie always liked to say that he was the fastest Frazier brother, Jeff was the natural hitter and Todd was the elite defender. If you didn't play to win, you ran the risk of getting left behind.

"There were some holes in the wall," Charlie says. "We'd be wrestling and throwing the ball in the house and my dad would say, 'You're going outside and you're not allowed back in for a while.'

"Todd was always a competitor, whether it was pingpong or wiffle ball in the backyard or whatever. We wouldn't let him play because he was the little one. So he'd run home and tell our dad, and my dad would come back and take the ball and bat and say, 'You're not playing unless you let Todd play.' Todd got beat up sometimes, but he always came back."

He's no wallflower

Frazier showed enough potential at Rutgers University to earn an $875,000 bonus as the 34th pick in the 2007 draft, and Baseball America ranked him as the Reds' No. 1 prospect in 2010. The only question was where he would play. At 6-3, 215 pounds, he's a tad oversized for shortstop or second base. He's more a line-drive doubles hitter than the classic slugging first baseman, and his speed in the outfield is average at best. In addition, he has Votto and Brandon Phillips blocking his path on the right side of the infield. At the moment, Frazier's best long-term fit appears to be at third base.

His Cincinnati teammates kid him incessantly about his New Jersey roots. "They tell me, 'It's the armpit of America,' and I go right back at them," he says. But his fellow Reds have to admire the crowds he attracts during East Coast road trips. When the Reds visited Philadelphia last week, Charlie estimates that Todd had about 200 supporters in the stands every night.

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Rich Schultz/Getty ImagesFrazier had plenty of fans to wave to in Philadelphia last week.

"He personifies what that culture is all about," says Reds outfielder Drew Stubbs, a Texas native. "He's got that loud, brash, New York-Philadelphia mentality, where you're outspoken and opinionated but lovable at the same time. He's the same guy every day. You know he's here when he comes in. He's constantly talking and providing humor for everybody. Everybody kind of gets a kick out of him. He keeps everybody loose."

In the old days, rookies were taught to be quiet and inconspicuous and speak only when it was their turn, but that's not Frazier's style. He's chatty on the bus, in the hotel lobby or playing cards in the clubhouse, but he invariably backs it up on the field. "I think Frazier and Ludwick brought an edge to that team that it needed," says a National League scout.

The challenge, for Cincinnati's veterans, is teaching Frazier the importance of being humble in anticipation of the learning curve ahead, while making sure not to stifle his enthusiasm.

"We're working on him," Rolen says, smiling.

Don't expect Frazier to be wintering in Orlando or Scottsdale anytime soon. He's building a house in Toms River and getting married in December to Jackie Verdon, a former Rutgers gymnast who grew up in nearby Freehold. Even when he graduates from his rookie salary to a more lucrative payday, Frazier is likely to continue chowing down on "Todds," along with his other boyhood favorite -- Jersey pork roll (aka Taylor Ham) with egg and cheese on a bagel.

When Frazier reaches for his iPod, he's partial to the classics. His in-game walkup music is Hoboken, N.J., native Frank Sinatra's "Fly Me To The Moon," a personal favorite of his grandfather. At the Reds' Hall of Fame Gala in June, Frazier consented to a request and did a more-than-passable tribute to Old Blue Eyes.

As he closes in on his 500th career plate appearance, Frazier has yet to experience what life is like on Jupiter and Mars. But he's showing that a blue-collar Jersey Boy can make one entertaining transition to the banks of the Ohio River.

Jerry Crasnick | email

ESPN.com MLB Sr. Writer