Ex-Blue Jay Jeff Frye’s online battle resurfaces baseball’s hitting rift

Jeff Frye singles during his time with the Blue Jays. (Aaron Harris/CP)

TORONTO – The first video, a lark really, something to give some of Jeff Frye’s buddies in the baseball world a laugh, runs all of 12 seconds.

In it, the former big-league utilityman who posted 7.1 WAR over eight big-leagues seasons, the last with the Toronto Blue Jays in 2001, is standing in his backyard wearing blue jeans and a T-Shirt, holding an 18-inch pipe between his hands, mocking his way through an unconventional drill before turning to the camera.

“Holy crap!” he says with a bemused grin. “The lightbulb just went on.”

Frye posted it to Twitter on Feb. 28, the views surged – up at 11,400 as of Wednesday morning – which encouraged him to make more, and suddenly a crusade against the preachers of the new-age swing principles borne out of the launch-angle revolution was born.

There’s been plenty of sometimes acrimonious back-and-forth between him and various swing coaches since, check the discourse on his timeline (@O3jfrye) if you’re so inclined. But what’s most intriguing about the exchanges is the way they’ve resurfaced the rift within the game between traditional hitting fundamentals and new, in-vogue practices.

Finding pro coaches, even current ones, concerned that the push for launch-angle and exit velocity is creating a single type of hitter, one programmed for the kind of three-true-outcome baseball the game has featured over the past couple of years, remains easy.

An ideal exists somewhere in the murky middle between using the knowledge and experience of the past in concert with the tools and advantages of today’s data. That balance largely remains a moving target for a game constantly coming to terms with its own rapid reinvention.

“That’s my problem with it, the cookie-cutter approach. There are so many ways to hit. There are so many ways to do everything in sports,” says Frye, the second of three Blue Jays players to hit for the cycle. “I’m a huge basketball fan. Michael Jordan and Larry Bird didn’t shoot the same way. Kareem-Abdul Jabbar had a hook shot. Everybody has their way of being successful. Now, it’s like this is the way you have to do it to be able to hit.

“If I would have used that swing when I played, I would have hit 500 flyballs to the outfield. Cans of corn. I wasn’t big enough or strong enough. And when you see a lot of the examples they use, they don’t use the average player or the just-good player. They use the superstars. Aaron Judge is 6-7, 280 pounds. He can inside-out a ball out of the park. I couldn’t. Mike Trout is 6-2, 240. Giancarlo Stanton is 6-6, 245. These guys are freaks. They can hit any way and be successful.”

To that end, Frye rails against mimicking their hitting mechanics regardless of what is natural to the individual and differing body types. The goal is often to create an upper-cut swing that drives the ball in the air. Groundballs are often seen as mistakes. Exit velocity offers an objective evaluative tool.

Nothing is necessarily wrong with creative coaching methods, and the game has never been more open to those with good information. The issue is the way some of the current thinking about hitting can be working towards a single goal, in the process eliminating anyone who isn’t hitting homers, like the singles hitter who hacks and slashes the ball around the field.

In part, that’s a by-product of front offices who no longer disdain the strikeout the way those of the past did, tolerating them and low batting averages for power, which is viewed as the most efficient way to score.

The numbers back that up, but why it’s become such an either-or proposition is a bigger issue. Lineup diversity matters for a sport concerned it’s too static and one-dimensional, and it will only become more power-oriented if young players are all taught to hit the same way.

Frye, at five-foot-nine and 165 pounds, figures he wouldn’t be drafted if he was just starting his career now — “I could hit the ball hard for my size and my stature but I’m sure there weren’t many 100-mile-an-hour exit velocities off my bat,” he concedes, adding that “I was trying to hit it in front of the outfielders, not over them.”

At the time, he was far from an outlier, and cutting out that type of player eliminates a fan-friendly style of play that is helpful when the opposing pitcher is shoving and meaty offerings are harder to come by.

“When I was in the minor-leagues, I had a coach that yelled at me every time I hit the ball in the air,” says Frye, a 30th-round pick of the Rangers in 1988 who debuted with Texas in 1992 and also played for Boston and Colorado before joining Toronto. “He wanted me hitting line drives or groundballs, because that was my game. Get on base. I wasn’t a burner but I was pretty fast and I could beat out some balls in the hole, stuff like that. So he would literally yell from the coach’s box at first base every time I hit a fly ball. How would that swing have worked for me? I would have been home in one year.

“To say now you’ve got to hit like this, you’ve got to drop your elbow down, create loft and everybody over the years who taught [to] hit down on the ball didn’t realize they were actually hitting down on the ball … I mean when you have people who didn’t play the game criticizing guys like Tony Gwynn, I just can’t take it.”

A perceived zealotry on the side of some analytical or new-age thinkers who haven’t played in the major-leagues often creates friction points with ex-players like Frye.

Whereas in the early stages of the Moneyball revolution so-called old-school coaches often dismissed data analysts without actually considering what’s often sound advice, the opposite now holds, wasting years of valuable knowledge and experience. People with tenure in the game are discarded with an alarming ease.

When the two are paired together and pool resources respectfully toward the betterment of players, organizations win.

In the interim, Frye intends to continue the crusade on Twitter.

A pleasant surprise has been the way his videos — one of which has more than 70,000 views — have prompted former teammates, opponents and coaches he hasn’t spoken to in a long time to reconnect. They’re telling him to keep going.

“Everybody is liking them so I’m just having fun with it. Maybe it’ll be something cool for people to check out during this crazy time in our world without any sports going on,” says Frye, who is also an agent and does some work with Fox Sports Southwest broadcasts of the Rangers.

“When I played I was known as a guy who was always joking around, lightheartedness, messing with everybody, didn’t care who you were. Nomar (Garciaparra), Mo Vaughn, (Jose) Canseco – everyone. That’s what we did. Goofed around, ragged on each other, just ruthless and then we’d get off the bus and go out to eat. No one took it personal. We play in this serious game with a lot of pressure. You’ve got to have some lighthearted moments to keep your sanity.”

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