After breakout '21, Fraizer hungry for more

February 27th, 2022

BRADENTON, Fla. -- It began with a foul ball.

At some point during the early stages of last season, Matt Fraizer, as he tells the story, crushed a foul ball. He forgets the opponent. He forgets the date. But he remembers that, based on distance, it would’ve been a home run. More importantly, he remembers everything clicked.

“I just felt like, ‘Oh, that felt really good,'” said Fraizer, who was ranked the club's No. 23 prospect last season. “From there, it just kind of took off.”

Fraizer’s revelation at that moment was to catch the ball out in front. The simplicity of his discovery was matched by its effectiveness. What ensued was one of the better seasons by a Pirates prospect in recent memory.

The 24-year-old led all Pittsburgh Minor Leaguers (minimum 350 plate appearances) in batting average (.306), on-base percentage (.388), runs (84) and hits (133) and finished second in slugging percentage (.552). Fraizer was named the High-A East League’s Most Valuable Player. He was also named the Pirates' Honus Wagner Player of the Year. After spending much of the season with High-A Greensboro, Fraizer earned an August promotion to Double-A Altoona.

Now Fraizer is faced with proving legitimacy. When asked how to curate his 2022 sequel, Fraizer answered with a logical line of reasoning.

"Treat it as if nothing ever happened last year,” he said

Consistent with that rationale, Fraizer’s day-to-day approach remains the same from last year. To reinforce the idea of catching the ball in front of the plate, he not only does standard hitting drills, but he visualizes where bat must meet ball. The work habits remain firmly in place, but Fraizer revealed that psychologically there will be a positive carryover into his third Minor League campaign.

His performance yielded confidence. Lots of it. In previous seasons, Fraizer provided himself with words of affirmation to instill self-belief. “I’m the best. I’m the best.” But, as he admitted, saying those words is one thing. Believing it, feeling it, breathing it, is another thing. The better he played, the more that the former began to coexist with the latter.

“After the days go on, you start looking up and you think, ‘Oh, I actually am the best on the field,’” Fraizer said.

The Pirates, of course, hope that Fraizer can continue being one of the best players on any field. Should Fraizer continue to grow, the state of Pittsburgh’s outfield prospect depth would begin to look much more enticing.

Down on the farm, there are several position groupings that have noted depth. Up the middle, there’s Top-5 prospects Oneil Cruz, Nick Gonzales, and Liover Peguero, among others. Behind the plate, there’s the tandem of top prospect Henry Davis and Endy Rodriguez. On the mound, there are plenty of names that inspire excitement. In contrast to that trinity of positions, the outfield is not evaluated in the same breath.

Pittsburgh’s farm system does not lack intriguing outfield talent -- Lonnie White, Hudson Head and Cal Mitchell, to name a few. Nor is it the area that needs the most replenishing; that belongs to the corner infield positions. But the outfield prospect pool does stand to benefit with some additional oompf. Should Fraizer build on last year, the future of the Pirates' outfield is all the more promising.

Fraizer, who will likely start the season with Altoona, acknowledged that the competition will improve as he progresses. Pitchers will feature more velocity, more bite. Yet he isn’t fazed. In his mind, it’s the same game he’s been playing since his youth, regardless of level.

Success this season won’t just come down to Fraizer’s bat, although he is gunning for a 20-20 season after “only” stealing 15 bases to compliment 23 home runs last year. Fraizer has room to grow defensively, professing that his performance on that end, “wasn’t up to where I think I can play.” If he didn’t have the best offensive day, he’d try to make it up on defense. The healthy medium is having equal emphasis, regardless of outcome.

Fraizer announced his presence last year. Sparked by a foul ball, he'll likely find himself headlining an Altoona squad beaming with talent. The introduction was great. The follow-up will be just as important.