Baseball players who eschew the typical conventions of major league success hold a special place in my heart. As much as we sit in awe of those gifted with the imposing stature of an Aaron Judge or a Giancarlo Stanton, there’s something particularly appealing about the guys who seemingly have to fight to compete in the same league and manage to find a way to do so. One of the wonders of a sport like baseball is that there are myriad ways to contribute – as fans, it’s fun to marvel at those who get creative.
On a Cincinnati Reds roster full of pleasant surprises, TJ Friedl doesn’t stand out so much as he blends in. At 28 years old, he’s one of the oldest regulars in an exceptionally young lineup, this despite being in his first full season in the big leagues. Depending on how you set the plate appearance threshold, he’s not the Reds’ best hitter by any individual metric, nor is he the fastest runner or the flashiest defender – there’s an ultra-athletic 21-year-old phenom with the league’s fastest sprint speed and strongest infield arm that takes those distinctions. But by making his presence felt at the plate, on the bases, and in the field day in and day out, Friedl has managed to be the most productive player by WAR on a team that sits one game out of a playoff spot on September 21. That’s a generous way to frame his 3.4-WAR season, but it’s also an accurate one – Friedl has been a versatile everyday contributor, and there’s a case to be made that he’s been the Reds’ most important player in what has been a pretty important year for the franchise.
Friedl’s toolkit is such that he’s able to create value most of the time he’s on the field. At the plate, the formula is simple: put the ball in play and let your legs do the rest of the work. He’s quite a selective swinger, offering at just 41.7% of pitches that come his way, which ranks 119th out of 136 qualified hitters. But when he does swing, he rarely misses, ranking 29th in the majors with an 82.8% overall contact rate, which allows him to keep his strikeout rate in the 85th percentile at 16.3%. It’s mostly softer contact – he’s in just the fourth percentile in barrel rate and the third in hard-hit rate – but he’s getting the ball between the foul lines, and that’s a key quality for a player whose best offensive asset is his legs. His Statcast percentile rankings are rather polarized – he’s among the league’s softest-contact hitters, but near the top in plate discipline and swing metrics. In any case, the slap-and-dash approach has yielded a .338 wOBA and a 106 wRC+ despite a .280 xwOBA (more on that later):
TJ Friedl Statcast Batting Percentile Rankings
SOURCE: Baseball Savant
Once the ball’s in play, Friedl is a defender’s nightmare. He’s a speedy runner — his 28.3-mph sprint speed puts him in the 74th percentile — but an even speedier baserunner, with a 4.27 home-to-first time that puts him in the 87th percentile. That makes him a tough out for an infielder as he exits the lefty batter’s box, and it may speak to some portion of the gap between his wOBA and xwOBA. Statcast’s xStats do incorporate speed into some batted ball expectations, but the metrics use sprint speed and not home-to-first speed, which could underestimate Friedl’s ability to quickly get to first. It wouldn’t account for the whole 58-point gap between his wOBA and xwOBA – the largest among qualified hitters in the majors – but there may be other explainable factors at play here.
When the ball makes it to the outfield, Friedl has been one of the best in the game at stretching hits into extra bases. According to Statcast’s new baserunning leaderboards, his four runs above average on advances ranks third in the league, thanks mostly to his aggressive attempt rate. This, too, can contribute to inflating his wOBA compared to what is expected. By their nature, all doubles have a wOBA of 1.243, and the league-wide xwOBA on doubles has been .668 this year, but Friedl’s 20 doubles have come on a group of batted balls with an average xwOBA of .504 – in other words, on these 20 occasions, he’s gotten more (production) for less (quality of contact). Some of this is likely a product of luck, but some may well be the result of his ability to turn balls that project as singles into doubles – other plus baserunners like Nico Hoerner, Brandon Marsh, and Steven Kwan have seen similar results. Here’s a great angle on this in action:
Friedl’s quickness also protects him from the worst-case scenario on a batted ball. He’s less than 10 games away from becoming just the sixth qualified hitter to go a whole 162-game season without grounding into a double play since World War II:
Qualifying Seasons With 0 GIDP Since WWII
It’s no wonder Friedl loves to bunt. As Michael Baumann wrote earlier this month, Friedl is baseball’s most prolific bunter this season, with 17 hits on 32 bunts dropped down. That’s the most bunt hits in a single season in the Statcast era, and all this bunting has done a number on his xwOBA.
tj friedl is a bunt single merchant pic.twitter.com/10QvlOXzdL
— Codify (@CodifyBaseball) August 18, 2023
That’s 32 balls he’s dropped right on the grass in front of him, with an xwOBA of .234 but a wOBA of .625. In general, xwOBA has trouble with bunts – league-wide, bunts have yielded a .449 wOBA compared to a .224 xwOBA. Friedl, being a rather good bunter and the most frequent one, sees a pronounced effect. Without his bunts, the gap between his wOBA and xwOBA would be 41 points instead of the 58 it is now – still a significant gap, but a good 30% smaller. After hard-hit contact, Friedl’s next-best bet for offensive production is laying one down:
As you might imagine, once he’s safely on base, he continues to pester pitchers and defenses. Friedl has 24 stolen bases this season, a statistic made a bit less impressive by the fact that he’s been caught six times. But altogether, he’s generated 7.9 runs above average on the bases, sixth-most in the majors and nearly twice his run production with the bat. This figure is still probably underestimating his impact on the basepaths. As I’ve written about before, BsR doesn’t account for all of his value as a batter-runner – when he beats out an infield hit or takes an extra base on a single like in the video above, for instance, he gets credit in the form of a single or double, but not baserunning value.
And then, of course, there’s the work Friedl has done in the fiedl – excuse me, field. His raw tools – that speed as well as a strong arm – have served him well, and while his route-running could stand to improve, his reaction times are good enough to compensate; he’s generated positive value both from his range and from keeping runners from advancing. He’s been worth 4 OAA in center field, where his speed plays well and his bat stands out as particularly valuable – a significant improvement from a -2 OAA performance at the position in 2022.
Contributing in such a wide variety of ways is pretty unusual. Friedl is one of just 28 hitters who has contributed positive value across the batting, baserunning, and fielding runs above average components of WAR this season; just 14, including Friedl, have been worth as much as 3.0 runs above average in all three categories. Four of them are center fielders – Julio Rodríguez, James Outman, Michael Harris II, and Friedl. Friedl is in the top 30% of players across all three of Statcast’s batting run value, baserunning run value, and fielding run value metrics:
Players With 3+ Bat, BsR, and Fld
All this has combined to make Friedl a pivotal player this season – a key cog on a team that has needed every bit of help it can get as it tries to make it to October. He not only leads the Reds in WAR, but he also leads the team and ranks 11th among National League hitters in WPA. He’s currently ninth in the NL in championship WPA, a measure of how much a player has affected his team’s chances of winning the World Series. That’s pretty remarkable, especially when you consider that WPA and cWPA only measure his impact as a batter, without incorporating his contributions as a baserunner or in the field, which account for most of his value:
National League cWPA Leaders
The aspects of Friedl’s game that make him exceptional are the same ones that make him unpredictable. Short as his major league stints have been in previous years, his xwOBA has always been pretty far off from his actual production. Meanwhile, his growth on the bases and in the field seem to have raised his floor for future seasons, as long as he can keep up his athleticism in those regards. Given the good fortune of good health, Friedl is the type of player who could continue to outperform his expected stats and projections, and that’s worth keeping an eye on down the road. In the meantime, if things go the Reds’ way, we could be seeing Friedl’s exciting brand of baseball on the sport’s biggest stage.
All stats through games on September 19.