clock menu more-arrow no yes mobile

Filed under:

Will David Fry Be a Late Bloomer?

Looking at a potentially underrated roster piece for the Guardians

Cleveland Guardians v Chicago Cubs Photo by Nuccio DiNuzzo/Getty Images

In continuing to look for reasons for optimism about the 2024 Guardians, let’s turn our attention to a 28 year-old whose spot on the Guardians’ 26-man is by no means assured. Sound fun? Well, hear me out... David Fry, ladies and gentlemen.

Fry played catcher, first base, third base, and corner outfield for the Guardians in a bench role in 2023. In his first 80 plate appearances, Fry put up a 128 wRC+, with a .203 ISO and 30/6.3 K/BB%. Then, at the end of July, he sustained a hamstring injury which kept him on the IL until November, and he struggled to rediscover his groove upon return. On a Guardians’ team that has struggled with left-handed pitching, Fry made sense as an addition as his 2021-2023 OPS splits in the minors vs. RHP/LHP were: .735/.988, .770/.813, and .812/.883, respectively. As a bench bat, Fry certainly looked like someone who can help against lefties, and he did, indeed, put up a 110 wRC+ against southpaws with the Guardians.

Fry was 27 years old by the time he made his debut, certainly eliminating him from any top prospect conversation. But, still, it was hard to ignore how hard he worked and some of the good at-bats he put up, sometimes in key situations, including the below clip from Independence Day, 2023:

The path to Fry being on the roster, aside from lefty-mashing, was primarily paved by the right-handed hitter’s versatility in the field. He did not grade as a good defensive catcher in his limited time there, but he was either slightly below average in most defensive positions he tried or slightly above average in others. That’s the kind of bench piece Cleveland can feel comfortable playing once or twice a week without costing the team significantly in defense while adding a very useful bat, especially when a lefty is toeing the rubber against the Guardians.

As I think about Fry, I wondered how his numbers compare to one of my favorite late bloomers of 2023, Brent Rooker of the Oakland Athletics, who had his first great season in 2023 while getting extended playing time for the first time at age 28. Below, I have compared the two players so we can see what Fry would have to do to manage something a little closer to Rooker’s 127 wRC+ of 2023.

Fry’s career minor-league numbers: 121 wRC+, 19.9/9.3 K/BB%, .200 ISO. So far in the bigs: 106 wRC+, 26.5/7.1 K/BB%, .178 ISO, O-swing - 39.9%, Z-swing rate - 71.5%, Swing - 56.6%, O-contact - 61.1%, Z-contact - 81%. Fly ball rate - 45%, Pull rate - 50%, Hard hit rate - 36% (51.9% in Columbus) Barrel - 12.7 (6.2 in Columbus), Swinging Strike Rate - 14.4 (8.4% in Columbus).

Rooker’s career minor-league numbers. 141 wRC+, 28.5/11.7 K/BB%, .275 ISO. So far in the bigs: 113 wRC+, 32.4/8.4 K/BB%, .220 ISO, O-swing - 32.3%, Z-swing - 64.8%, Swing - 46.8%, O-contact - 49.5%, Z-contact - 77.8%, Fly ball rate - 43.1%, Pull rate - 38.1%, Hard hit rate - 49%, Barrel rate - 14.3%, Swinging Strike Rate - 15.8% (14.5% in the minors in 2022).

What Rooker does very well is smoke the ball whenever he makes contact. Fry makes contact at a higher rate than Rooker does, but Rooker does more damage with the ball when he makes that contact. However, Fry also displayed in his brief time in the majors in 2023 a useful skill of being able to pull the ball in the air at relatively high rates. This ability helps make up for not always hitting the ball as hard as you’d like. So, while it’d be hard to see Fry getting to Rooker’s almost 50% hard-hit rate, Fry can make the most of the balls he does hit by pulling them in the air and bouncing them off the mini-Green Monster in Progressive Field, or on to the home run porch.

I think we can make a reasonable assumption that, given more opportunity, Fry would probably manage to increase his walk-rate, based on his minor league numbers. He does not have near the swing-and-miss problems that Rooker has, so, if Fry can exercise more patience and avoid making weak contact on some pitches out of the zone he swung at in 2023, he should be able to increase his walk-rate by a percentage point or two, which, also, should result in him seeing more pitches with which he can more easily do damage.

I like the idea of Fry being on the Guardians roster particularly because he pairs nicely with Austin Hedges as the backup catcher. With Fry on the bench, the Guardians can pinch-hit for Hedges late in one of his starts, especially with a lefty-reliever on the mound, without forcing Bo Naylor to enter the game on his day off. With Bo on the team, however, that leaves the team with the third catcher for a Hedges’ start that all managers want in case of an emergency. Conversely, if Fry gets the occasional start at catcher against a left-handed pitcher, Hedges and Bo are available to enter the game late for him for defensive purposes (and hitting purposes in Bo’s case, as well).

Defensive abilities are tough to visualize completely, but Fry held his own in 7 innings at third base, and was only slightly below average in the outfield. Fry’s numbers in limited time at first base weren’t great, but my observations of him at Columbus lead me to believe he’ll be at least competent there. Also, given more time and repetitions in the outfield, Fry should only improve. This would allow the Guardians to have an additional bat to pinch-hit or start against left-handed pitching without eliminating the defensive prowess of either Bo Naylor or Austin Hedges just to get Fry’s lefty-mashing bat in the lineup. He can, thus, give Josh Naylor, Will Brennan, possibly George Valera, or Steven Kwan a break as needed.

The difficulty in pursuing 2024 being the year of “David Fry the Late Bloomer” is fitting Fry on the roster. If we assume that Rule 5 draft pick Deyvison De Los Santos’s full rights are acquired or he is returned to the Diamondbacks before the season starts, the Guardians seem to be set, currently, to carry five outfielders (Kwan, Myles Straw, Ramon Laureano, Estevan Florial and Will Brennan), one utility infielder (Tyler Freeman, Jose Tena or Brayan Rocchio), and Hedges. That fills up your four bench spots. Again, I think I would prefer seeing David Fry on the roster rather than Myles Straw, but it seems unlikely the team will move on from Straw, quite yet. Perhaps Ramon Laureano wins the full-time job in center or right-field, but that seems unwise given his poor splits vs. RHP.

If the team doesn't add a veteran bat and if they want Kyle Manzardo to "work on his defense" in Columbus until mid-June, then Fry could be your 1B/DH partner for Josh Naylor. With Ramirez getting regular DH days, that would allow Fry to still spell at catcher. But, I think Fry's greatest value is as a versatile bench player primarily deployed against LHP.

I’d hope the Guardians recognize that they have an interesting, albeit older, bat in David Fry, and some helpful defensive versatility. Finding a way to work him on to the 26-man roster for the 2024 season, given the current makeup of the roster, would be a good move in my analysis. However, given the current state of things and Fry’s remaining three minor league options, I expect him to split time between Columbus and Cleveland throughout the year (if he isn’t traded to a team in need of his versatility and ability to hit lefties). This will mean some painful Austin Hedges’ at-bats late in games, but don’t blame Hedges when that happens. Blame the Guardians’ likely choice to value the money they have invested in the defense and speed of Straw over the potential late breakout value inherent in David Fry.