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One of the silver linings amid the dark clouds of the 2004 season for the Blue Jays has been the emergence of Jason Frasor as an outstanding big-league reliever. The hard-throwing righty had never pitched above Double-A when Toronto traded for him in March. Despite the reluctance of his manager to apply any labels, the 26-year-old rookie has already become the team’s closer and a fan favourite.

Admittedly, it’s a small sample size, but no matter how you slice his splits, Frasor has been terrific. Righties are hitting .185 off him with a .485 OPS, while lefties haven’t fared much better, batting .218 with a .586 OPS. On the road, his ERA is 1.98; at home it’s 2.16 — overall, he’s given up runs only four times in 26 appearances.

Batter’s Box sat down with Jason last week in those plush “action seats” behind home plate, several hours before an interleague game against the Dodgers. Thanks to Robert Dudek, making his AL media debut, for contributing some of the questions and taking the photos.

SkyDome was hosting the deciding game of the Prentice Cup tournament, for the Ontario high school championship. Jason Frasor doesn’t look much older, or any bigger, than some of the players on the field; his listed 5’10” and 170 pounds are what you might call ballpark figures. In his own high school days, he was named conference MVP, with a 1.02 ERA, playing shortstop (and hitting .507) in between his starts. When we wondered if the event brought back any memories, he surprised us by scowling.

“Yeah, it reminds me of how we choked in the state tournament. We had the fifth- or sixth-ranked team in the state, lost in the second game of the tournament, and that was it.”

Overjoyed members of the winning Birchmount Park Lions celebrated nearby, as Frasor continued to display mock anger.

“I haven’t thought about that for a while, but it kind of makes me mad, watching this.”

We knew he was kidding; the wry grin gave it away.

Playing professional baseball wasn’t even a daydream for the native of Oak Forest, Illinois when he was a teenager.

“It never occurred to me then that I would be doing this. From when I graduated until now, I’ve improved so much. At the time, I wasn’t even a prospect — I was small, I was throwing 81, 82 miles an hour. When I got bigger and got better, that’s when I started thinking about it, but at that time, I had no chance. My dream back then was to play Division I baseball.”

He wasn’t scouted at all, nor was he swamped with scholarship offers.

“I had a few from smaller schools, and some literally said, 'you’re too small,' but finally Southern Illinois University came through, and that’s where I went. No regrets going there, because I had a great time.”

Though Frasor hasn’t met fellow Saluki Dave Stieb yet, he is well aware of the Blue Jay legend.

“In our clubhouse, the weight room — or maybe it was the whole locker room — was the Dave Stieb Room, and you see his name all over the media guide, so we knew who he was. Steve Finley went there, Jerry Hairston of the Orioles, Al Levine, who’s pitching with the Tigers now, Sean Bergman — there’s a strong tradition, and they’re good baseball people.”

Invited to share some of the highlights of his four years at SIU, Frasor begins with a self-deprecating chuckle.

“There weren’t many highlights. As far as wins and losses go, it was a long career; I think we finished over .500 once. It was important to us just to make the conference tournament — when we did that, it was a successful year. We kept trying to get into the regionals, but it never happened for us.”

We were chatting just a couple of days after baseball’s amateur draft, in which one of the local high school kids we’d been watching, Birchmount outfielder Tim Smith, was selected in the 20th round by the New York Mets. Continuing the nostalgia trip, we asked Frasor to recall what was it like for him on draft day in 1999, waiting for the phone to ring.

“When I got drafted, it was total elation, like, 'Wow, I guess I’m good enough.' When I didn’t get the call on the first day, I was kind of upset, but when it came the second day, I thought, 'thank God, I’m going to get a shot.'”

Detroit’s 33rd-round pick adapted well to pro ball, which he admits isn’t for everyone.

“I went to the New York-Penn League with the Tigers, and it’s a very big adjustment — it turns into your life. Hotels, buses and fast-food restaurants. You hang in there, and once you learn to deal with all that stuff, it’s so much fun. Some guys can’t handle the lifestyle, and they get out after that first year. I’m sure some of them regret not sticking around.”

Asked whether short-season A-ball makes a young man feel like he’s getting close to the Show, or whether those players realize the enormous odds they still face, Frasor showed his optimistic side.

“You’re not that far away. You’re one good, dominating season away from putting yourself on the map. You’re competing with a lot of other guys, even within your own organization, but you’re really not far away.”

Jason did a fine job as a starter for Oneonta in the NYPL, with a 1.69 ERA and 69 strikeouts in 58.2 IP, allowing just 36 hits and 22 walks, then punched out another 33 batters in 24 innings after a late-season promotion to West Michigan in the Midwest League. The following year, what should have been his first full season didn’t go as well.

“I had arm surgery my junior year in college, which kind of set me back, and after that great year in 1999, my elbow started flaring up again. The surgery just wasn’t sticking, so I missed half of 2000, then pitched the second half, trying to battle through it. After the next offseason, I came into spring training with a sore elbow, and had to get Tommy John surgery again.”

Frasor is candid about the letdown, and the recovery process.

“It was a huge disappointment. The disabled list is the most miserable thing. Nobody talks to you, the coaches don’t talk to you, you’re not helping the team — your best friend becomes the trainer.”

It was suggested that the other players probably treat injured teammates like they’re contagious.

“Exactly. That was a long year, but I fought through it, and Dr. Andrews down in Birmingham, Alabama is my saviour. It took three surgeries, but he finally fixed it.”

When he returned in 2002, Jason wasn’t immediately the same pitcher, and got the sense that the Tigers had given up on him. It wasn’t hard for him to understand the club’s perspective.

“I was 24 years old, still in A-ball, three surgeries later and I guess they felt that I was expendable. People don’t realize that when you come back from that surgery, you’re still not 100 percent. You might need another whole year just to get back to where you were. That year after surgery was actually more painful for my arm than trying to pitch through it had been.”

Frasor spent that difficult season with Lakeland in the Florida State League, where his ERA, hits and walks allowed went up, and his strikeout numbers went down. He turned 25 in August, and if he ever really had prospect status, it was rapidly fading away.

“I was just trying to make my starts, trying to condition my arm, but it was hard, it was so painful,” he recalls, shaking his head slowly. “It wasn’t until the next year that my arm was finally strong and ready. That was last year, and I just took off.”

Somebody in the Dodgers organization must have thought Frasor would make a good reliever, or they wouldn’t have traded for him, but the pitcher didn’t see it as a blessing at first.

“When I reported to spring training, they were absolutely loaded with pitching. They’re just stacked with right-handed, power arms. At the time, I actually thought that I was going to get released, because I was a new guy, they didn’t know anything about me, and they have their own people. Then a couple of guys got hurt, and a spot opened up in the bullpen in A ball. I thought, 'Oh my God, I’m 25 years old and I’m going back to A ball,' but I wasn’t going to quit.”

His first 15 appearances for Vero Beach were sensational. Sure, he was old for the league, but 36 strikeouts in 24.1 innings, while walking just four and conceding only 16 hits, is dominating. Jason had found his niche.

“That chance in the bullpen kick-started my career, because I really liked it. It suits the way I pitch better, it’s more me. I had a great first half, then they moved me up to Jacksonville, and I was finally in a league where people were more my age — there are a lot more 24- and 25-year-olds in Double-A than there are in the Florida State League — so I felt more comfortable.”

He was almost as good in the Southern League, fanning 50 batters in 36.2 innings and nailing down 17 saves. Did he notice anything different about his own stuff in the bullpen? There was a thoughtful pause.

“It’s hard to pitch well when your arm always hurts. That’s what it comes down to; I’ve been healthy for the last couple of years.”

It may be that psychological aspects of the role change also contributed to his success.

“There’s just something about the bullpen that’s so exciting — it’s crucial innings, and it gives me a big adrenalin rush. I feel when I get out there that I have a little more giddy-up on the fastball. My velocity has gone up and up and up; thank God they moved me to the bullpen, or I wouldn’t be here.”

This spring, Frasor was assuming he was headed for Triple-A — “Yeah, I had my bags packed for Las Vegas” — when he found out he’d been traded again. Let’s just say he wasn’t thrilled.

“I walked into the Vero Beach clubhouse, and they grabbed me and started walking me toward the coaches’ office. That doesn’t happen every day, so right away, you’re wondering what’s going on. I’d had a good spring and knew I wasn’t going to be released, but when they told me I was traded, I was like, 'Awwwww.' I had gotten comfortable within that organization, I had made good friends with the Dodgers, and I remembered how hard it had been to change organizations the first time. There was five days left in spring training, and I thought, 'Oh, man, I’m going to have to prove myself all over again.' You’ve got to meet new people, it’s really kind of a hassle. So that’s how I felt — I didn’t want to do it.”

His expression and tone of voice were so childlike, we all had to laugh. Needless to say, a ballplayer doesn't have much choice in the matter.

“No choice. When they told me I was going to Toronto, I thought, 'Really? Canada, huh?'”

Another comical grimace made it look like he was contemplating a move to Mars.

“But obviously it’s worked out, and I just love it here now.”

After just a few days of spring training with his new team, then a very brief taste of Triple-A, where he faced only 18 batters in four appearances, his promotion to the majors was completely unexpected.

“They set me up pretty good. We had a rainout in Ottawa, and had all day to sit around in the hotel. At about two o’clock in the afternoon, a coach called me and said the manager needed to see me at seven, but he couldn’t say what it was about. So I had five hours to think about it — had I been traded again, sent down, what was it? When I finally got to his room, he told me I’d been traded to a Mexican League team. That I didn’t believe, so he said 'We’ve traded you back to the Dodgers.' Chad Hermansen had been moved up at the same time, and he went along with it, saying we were both going back to the Dodgers.

“When they finally said no, I was going to Toronto, I was really surprised. Three days earlier, I’d had the worst outing of my life. I walked four guys in one inning, and for the first time in my career, I walked in a run — I had never done that before. Three days later, they’re calling me up? Wow!”

How long does it take for a rookie to feel like he belongs in the American League, we wondered.

“It takes a while before you stop asking yourself, 'Am I good enough to be here?' You watch guys pitch, and you think, 'I have similar stuff to him,' then he does well, and finally you get a chance to go out there, and you get somebody out that you’ve watched on TV. When you get a big-time hitter to pop up, that’s unbelievable. You know, it’s not as hard as it looks on TV — how clean the game is, there’s almost never any mistakes, all the pitches are where they’re supposed to be — then you get out here, and realize you fit in. It did take a while, but now I really believe I can pitch here.”

You might presume it was a big thrill to pitch in Chicago, his home town, but Frasor has had better times.

“I’m glad we don’t go back there this year. That was a mess of a weekend, people coming out of the woodwork wanting tickets; they want to hang out, and how do you hang out with 150 people? I was more nervous in Chicago than I was for my first appearance. Everybody was there — the whole town showed up — they spend their money to come watch you, and you feel obligated to do well. And then I didn’t. That was the hardest game yet.”

It’s understandable that the rookie was nervous that night — after two singles and a wild pitch, he did retire Magglio Ordonez on a foul popup — but for the most part, Frasor has been lights-out. When we asked if Gil Patterson and Bruce Walton had made any changes to his approach at this level, he nodded vigorously.

“I throw a lot of fastballs, so lately we’ve been working on the off-speed stuff. I’m throwing a changeup now, and I’ve always had trouble with the changeup; I’ve pushed it and it would sail on me. Now I’m throwing more of a splitter-type changeup, and over the last two weeks I’ve gotten some guys out with it, so that’s going to help me down the line. I’m throwing a shorter, smaller breaking ball. Those guys have done nothing but help, and I’m very appreciative. They’re great guys, great people.”

Jason also credits his primary catchers, Kevin Cash and Gregg Zaun.

“They’ve taken the pressure off me when I go in there. I don’t have to think about what pitch to throw, because I don’t shake those guys off. All I have to do is recognize what number they put down, concentrate on the glove, and try to hit it. Those guys know a lot more than I do, so whatever they put down, I throw, and that helps a lot.”

Though he’s already mentioned getting guys out who he’s only seen on TV, Frasor isn’t overly conscious of who the opposing hitters are during a game.

“You’re aware of the team, but if you’re paying too much attention to who’s in the box, or the on-deck circle, or the dugout, that’s when you get in trouble. You really have to take it one hitter at a time, especially if it’s the Red Sox, who can throw all-star after all-star at you. I don’t know what pitching against the Yankees will be like, but I’m sure it’s very similar. I don’t look into the dugout, I take it one hitter at a time, see if I can get him out, then deal with the next guy.”

Asked how his approach is different against a tough lefty batter like David Ortiz, Jason’s eyes opened a bit wider, in obvious respect.

“It’s funny you should mention him; I have my toughest read with David Ortiz, he’s one of the hardest outs. It seems like he has everything covered — inside, outside, up, down, off-speed, fastball — he’s right on everything.

“I’ve pitched inside more now than I ever have in my life. I’ve gotten a lot of outs with the fastball up, in on the hands. Lefthanders? Low and away, up and in. That’s basically it.”

Frasor has impeccable command of his fastball, hitting corners, and moving it up and down. We wondered if he always had that ability to throw his bread-and-butter pitch to such precise locations, or if it was a recent development.

“I think that’s part pitching, and part growing up. It’s learning your body — knowing when you’re doing something wrong, or when you’re overthrowing. I used to do that a lot, try to throw it 120 miles an hour when I can only throw it 92, and that’s when you start throwing balls to the backstop. What I’m really learning is how to stay composed and rely on my mechanics. If I’m doing what I’m supposed to do, I can put the ball wherever I want. Some days, you just can’t — it’s not there, the ball feels big, like it’s a softball. I’m 26 years old, but only just recently, in the last couple of years, learned how I feel and how not to overthrow.”

We were also curious about any perceived difference in umpiring between the minors and the big leagues, but Frasor hasn’t noticed much of a change.

“I don’t think the strike zone is that different; it is more consistent, though. They’re not going to miss as many. I thought everything would be different, but it’s really not. It’s the same game, even the strike zone.”

If an ump is squeezing him, Jason just tries to shrug it off and adjust.

“These guys tell me that the umpire knows you’re a rookie, so don’t show any emotion if you don’t get the call, just take the ball and don’t pout, because that’s just going to make it worse, especially if there’s a big-time hitter up. If he’s not giving you the corners, and you can’t go corner-to-corner or side-to-side any more, you should work front-to-back; change speeds. But that’s really not my game. I’ve been coming in late in the game when there’s not a lot of room for error, so I’ve really got to stay on those corners. I haven’t been terribly upset with any of the umpiring, so I don’t know yet how I’d adjust. I’ve been pretty happy with the calls so far.”

As it turned out, he didn’t get in during the L.A. series, but we wondered if he expected to have any special feelings, or be more pumped up than usual, should he face his former team.

“Watching them, in the other bullpen, in those Dodgers uniforms, it’s kind of weird playing against them, but once I get out on that mound, I’ll be so focused that it won’t matter. I was only over there for a month, so I didn’t become great friends with the older players, and none of my young friends are really on the team; it makes it easier that I don’t have to face those guys. I played with some of the Tigers a little longer, but I’m not going to see those guys this season. Maybe next year.”

Because they spend so much time together, the relief corps is often a team within a team. Not surprisingly, that’s where Jason has found his newest buddies.

“All my best friends are in the bullpen; Vinny Chulk, Jason Kershner, Micheal Nakamura — we’re all the oddballs out there.”

When we suggested it must have been weird when the Dome security guards recently escorted a streaker into the bullpen, Frasor laughed heartily.

“We all moved back; we wanted no part of that. Obviously, he was harmless, but it wasn’t a pretty sight, was it?”

The day after we talked, Jason blew a save opportunity for the first time in six chances. Against the Diamondbacks, he gave up a bloop double to the opposite field on a well-placed heater, then another defensive swing on a fastball produced a similar result, before a full-count slider, hit off-balance with one hand, rolled gently up the middle. Carlos Tosca made a pitching change, and when the inherited runner scored, Frasor took the loss.

After an amazing run of 16 consecutive scoreless appearances (he was 2-0 in May, with three saves and a 0.00 ERA) a lot of people wondered how he would respond to adversity. Two days later, entering the game down by a run, he was a little shaky, but the following night, again in a non-save situation, he won a memorable confrontation with Barry Bonds. Anyone who roots for David against Goliath had to love it.

Jason started aggressively, with a fastball for a called strike. Barry wasn’t impressed. The game’s greatest hitter wouldn’t chase one low and away, and had a notion about the next high one, but managed to lay off. Faced with a 2-1 count, when almost every other pitcher either nibbles at the corners or concedes the at-bat, Frasor simply blew one by him. After another fastball was fouled away, he retired Bonds on a harmless comebacker. It had to be a thrill, and it can only be beneficial for the young man’s confidence.

Two nights ago in San Diego, he gave up a couple of hits and a run (to dangerous lefty batters Giles and Klesko) before getting a huge strikeout to convert his first save opportunity since that unlucky ninth against Arizona and preserve a great start by Ted Lilly.

That was very encouraging to Jays fans, his teammates and everyone connected with the club, but nobody is expecting Frasor to be perfect. Though it’s unlikely that he’ll become the next Mariano Rivera or Eric Gagne, he’s already established himself as the best arm in the Toronto bullpen, and after a long, uphill battle just to make it this far, his success has been a fantastic story, which we hope has many more exciting chapters.

As always, we’re grateful to the Blue Jays for allowing us such access to the players, and especially to Jason, for being so much fun to talk to and so generous with his time.
A Conversation With Jason Frasor | 13 comments | Create New Account
The following comments are owned by whomever posted them. This site is not responsible for what they say.
_NDG - Sunday, June 20 2004 @ 03:05 PM EDT (#38516) #
Great read, good work fellas.
_Jobu - Sunday, June 20 2004 @ 03:07 PM EDT (#38517) #
Great interview guys. I wish him nothing but continued success in T.O. Seems like a great guy who can helpt the team for a long time.
robertdudek - Sunday, June 20 2004 @ 03:23 PM EDT (#38518) #
Technically, it was my inter-league media debut ;-)
Dave Till - Sunday, June 20 2004 @ 04:01 PM EDT (#38519) #
I enjoyed reading this. Great work!
Pistol - Sunday, June 20 2004 @ 05:36 PM EDT (#38520) #
Nice work. Interesting stuff in there.
_Mark J - Sunday, June 20 2004 @ 09:21 PM EDT (#38521) #
Good questions and nice article!
_Ron - Monday, June 21 2004 @ 02:54 AM EDT (#38522) #
Nice read good job!
_Matt - Monday, June 21 2004 @ 03:19 AM EDT (#38523) #
one of those stories that leaves ya with a smile.. ;)
_Moffatt - Monday, June 21 2004 @ 05:32 AM EDT (#38524) #
Awesome interview. I really like the questions Robert asked. It lead to a lot of insightful answers.
_Mosely - Monday, June 21 2004 @ 09:05 AM EDT (#38525) #
Awesome job as always!

I saw him pitch in Ottawa before that rainout - he certainly didn't belong there. It wasn't a surprise to us (Batter's Box North) that he'd get the callup.
Mike D - Monday, June 21 2004 @ 10:34 AM EDT (#38526) #
Fantastic work as always, gentlemen. Looking forward to our next tete-a-tete.
_S.K. - Monday, June 21 2004 @ 10:10 PM EDT (#38527) #
Great interview! I'm really impressed with Jason's thoughtfulness and his attitude. I hope he sticks around.
_Jeff Arroyo - Tuesday, August 31 2004 @ 05:14 PM EDT (#38528) #
I was on Jay's Little League team and you describe his expressions well, he seems to act the same. His dad was our coach and he wouldn't let him throw a curve but he could put that fastball wherever he wanted and it was unhittable. I hope he has a great career.
A Conversation With Jason Frasor | 13 comments | Create New Account
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