Clint Frazier’s Patience Pays Off For the Yankees

NEW YORK — Clint Frazier is no longer the future of the Yankees outfield — or, as it has sometimes seemed over the past few years, of somebody else’s — he’s the present. The 26-year-old righty-swinging redhead, who began the season toiling at the Yankees’ alternate training site in Scranton, Pennsylvania, homered for the second straight night on Wednesday, helping the Yankees overtake the Blue Jays for second place in the AL East. During a season in which Aaron Judge and Giancarlo Stanton have played a combined total of 35 games due to injuries, in which age has finally caught up to Brett Gardner, and in which the 2019 magic has worn off of Mike Tauchman, Frazier has shown that both his lightning-quick bat and much-maligned glove are ready for prime time.

On Tuesday and Wednesday night in the Bronx while facing the Blue Jays — who came to town half a game ahead of the Yankees in the AL East standings — the Yankees erupted for 33 runs, winning by lopsided scores of 20-6 and 13-2 while hitting at least six homers in back-to-back games for the first time in franchise history; they added another 10 runs and six homers on Thursday night. While Stanton and Judge went hitless in their respective returns from injuries, and AL wRC+ leader (!) DJ LeMahieu and major-league home run leader (!) Luke Voit produced their share of fireworks on both nights, Frazier was right in the middle of the action, collecting two hits, two walks, and a homer in each game. Using MLB.com’s fantastic new Film Room feature, we can play the hits from those two nights in one clip:

As you can see, Frazier spread his hits around the field. Though his pull percentage through Wednesday (42.0%) is close to his career mark (40.3%), he’s doing a better job of taking advantage of Yankee Stadium’s short right field porch than ever. Three of this year’s seven homers have come that way, though all of them had estimated distances of at least 374 feet. He’s as likely if not more so to go deep to his pull side; three of this year’s homers have gone to left or left center in the Bronx, and from among his 23 career homers, the balance is 12 to the pull side and seven to the opposite side.

And lest you worry too much that Frazier is merely loading up in garbage time — as was admittedly the case on Tuesday given the double-digit margins visible in those clips — it’s worth noting that through Wednesday he ranked fourth on the team in WPA (0.65, behind Giovanny Urshela’s 1.63, Judge’s 0.90, and LeMahieu’s 0.78) while being tied for seventh in plate appearances (121) and hitting .303/.422/.596 for a 174 wRC+. He was 31 PA short of qualifying for the official leaderboards, but among AL players with at least 120 PA, his on-base percentage ranked second, his wRC+ fourth, and his slugging percentage eighth.

That’s been a huge boon to the Yankees in a season where Judge has served two stints on the injured list — separated by a one-game return — due to a right calf strain, and Stanton spent 37 days on the IL due to a left hamstring strain; the latter hasn’t played the outfield this year, but I’ll include him in the snapshot:

Yankees’ 2020 Outfield Production
Player PA HR AVG OBP SLG wRC+ WAR
Clint Frazier 121 7 .303 .422 .596 174 1.7
Aaron Judge 75 9 .275 .324 .696 167 0.9
Aaron Hicks 168 5 .212 .381 .402 120 0.8
Giancarlo Stanton 59 3 .267 .431 .533 163 0.4
Brett Gardner 131 4 .185 .321 .352 89 0.1
Mike Tauchman 104 0 .247 .346 .303 78 -0.2
Miguel Andújar 65 1 .242 .277 .355 70 -0.5
Statistics through September 15, including games at all positions. Stanton played 13 games in outfield in 2019 but has yet to play there in ’20.

Both big sluggers have hit when available, this week’s returns notwithstanding, but the 37-year-old Gardner is showing signs he’s approaching the end of the line as a regular (to be fair, his Statcast numbers suggest he’s getting a raw deal) and the 29-year-old Tauchman, who broke out to hit .277/.361/.504 in 296 PA last year, hasn’t come close to mustering that kind of production in his encore. Frazier has been productive enough, and vital enough, that his WAR exceeds the net total of the other six players.

“There was definitely a moment where I was smiling under my mask in left field,” said Frazier on Wednesday night when asked about getting to play even as Stanton and Judge returned (he’s worn the mask on the field since summer camp “to show that it’s easy to do and it’s the right thing to do,” as he said in July). “I really tried hard to win this job and obviously there’re still a lot of guys on the team that can play that position. To be the one that gets to go out there when the team’s at full strength meant a lot to me. I’ve been here for a while been searching for that that consistent playing time.”

Indeed. Chosen with the fifth pick by the Indians in 2013, Frazier was one of four players traded to the Yankees in the 2016 deal that sent Andrew Miller to Cleveland. He debuted in the majors 11 months later but hit a lopsided .231/.268/.448 in 39 games (142 PA) while struggling defensively as well, then was limited to just 15 games in the majors and 54 in the minors the following year due to a concussion he suffered while diving for a ball early in spring training; he played just three games after the All-Star break.

Amid last year’s barrage of injuries, he got his longest look to date, and hit a respectable .267/.317/.489 in 69 games (246 PA), but made some high-profile defensive mistakes and was banished to Triple-A Scranton/Wilkes-Barre from mid-June until September while Tauchman and in-season pickup Cameron Maybin got the bulk of the playing time in the wake of injuries to Stanton, Judge, and Aaron Hicks, who combined for just 158 starts in the outfield. Because of his spot on the depth chart, he’s been the frequent subject of trade rumors, even as recently as the days leading up to this year’s August 31 deadline. Now, general manager Brian Cashman’s commitment to keeping him is paying dividends.

One key aspect of Frazier’s improvement has been a jump in his walk rate; he drew walks in 6.5% of his PA last year (also his career mark to that point) but was at 16.5% through Wednesday, that while trimming his strikeout rate from 28.5% to 25.6%. It wasn’t a matter of a free swinger reining in his swing; last year’s 25.0% rate of swinging at pitches outside the zone placed him in the 86th percentile among players with at least 200 PA. This year’s 19.1% rate puts him in the 97th percentile of players with 120 PA, and his overall swing rate of 34.7% is the majors’ second-lowest among that 215-player group, down from last year’s 44.1%.

For Frazier, his patience has something to do with reworked mechanics, with fewer moving parts. “I think for me, it’s just the foundation of limiting movements in the batter’s box that allow me to just think of the pitches coming rather than doing a certain move and getting it out of the way and swinging,” he said on Wednesday. “So, for instance, the way that I have my front leg positioned just allows me to sit on my back leg and… use the right field gap for the approach which I’ve tried a lot this year. I think that just allows me to stay on pitches a little bit longer and just overall make better contact. I’ve always had a decent eye at the plate but didn’t have any walks to back it up, and I think it’s finally coming into play with less movement this year.”

Frazier is setting career highs in average exit velocity (90.9 mph, good for the 75th percentile), barrel rate (14.5%, 88th percentile), hard-hit rate (49.3%, 89th percentile) and xwOBA (.375, 69th percentile), among other things. His defense is much improved as well, thanks not only to his being past the concussion woes that affected his depth perception and reaction time but also the work he’s put in. Granted, his numbers have been put up in small slices of playing time here and there, none of which should be considered definitive, but in 2020 the dismal trends have been reversed:

Clint Frazier’s Defensive Metrics
Year Innings UZR DRS OAA Exp Catch % Actual Catch % Catch % Added
2017 289.0 -4.0 -1 -1 90% 87% -3%
2018 78.0 -0.4 0 -2 83% 75% -8%
2019 395.1 -5.2 -10 -12 85% 72% -13%
2020 198.0 4.1 4 2 88% 92% 4%
SOURCE: Baseball Savant
Combined totals for 500.2 innings in right field, 450.2 in left field, and 9.0 in center field.

Admittedly, Frazier’s big breakout amounts to only five weeks, but it’s not as though he hasn’t flashed this potential at times during the past three seasons. Right now, he’s showing all of the reasons why Cashman acquired him and has held onto him, and it appears that he’ll be in the outfield mix not only for the rest of this year but beyond.

Wednesday marked my first and possibly last trip to a major league ballpark to cover games in 2020. Due to the coronavirus pandemic, the access normally guaranteed by my BBWAA card went out the window in favor of a daily credentialing system that required advance planning to accommodate significant limitations on press box space, particularly given the number of beat writers that follow each New York team. Given that interaction with managers and players is limited to pre- and postgame Zoom sessions, that long stretches on public transportation are necessary for me to get to either New York City ballpark, and that my wife and I have had a tiny, attention-hungry human constantly at home since mid-March, I had enough reasons to continue working from home. Still, with New York City having flattened the curve and the Yankees having avoided any outbreaks, I resolved to cover at least one game in person, and circled this midweek Blue Jays-Yankees series a few weeks back, knowing that it would not be as crowded as some of the other series.

The subway — which I avoided for a full five months, from March 1 to August 1, and could probably still count on one hand the number of times I had used since — proved to be the most daunting aspect of the experience. I live in downtown Brooklyn, a good 45-60 minute ride from Yankee Stadium, and while the mode of transportation has turned out to be relatively safe thanks to reduced ridership, near-ubiquitous mask usage, and a robust ventilation system that, according to the New York Times, replaces the air in each car at least 18 times an hour, my 4 train became too crowded for my tastes once we got to Grand Central Station, the busiest stop along the line. Not overcrowded, mind you, but after six months of heightened sensitivity, having masked people within six feet of me for longer than it takes to pass on a sidewalk sets off my internal alarm.

I survived the ride, and by the time I arrived at Yankee Stadium at about 5:10 pm — ten minutes after it was opened to the media — I was the only person in line. I answered a handful of questions from the first screening, where I had my temperature taken, went through a metal detector, then picked up my credential at a ticket window at the end of the ballpark’s otherwise-deserted Great Hall, where I had to sign a waiver form. After following what felt like 100 directional arrows that led me to the elevator to the 200 level, through the backdoor of the Sheppard’s Place media dining room, I entered an open-air press box filled to about 25% capacity. Recognizing several media members, some of them friends, even through their masks, I found my assigned seat just to the third base side of home plate, noting the three empty seats to my right and four to my left, and that what few conversations there were in the press box were being conducted at a distance instead of the familiar huddles. I logged onto the pregame Zoom pressers, not because I had question for Boone, Stanton, or Masahiro Tanaka (the day’s guests) but to make sure the technology all worked. With Sheppard’s Place and all the concession stands closed, I brown-bagged my dinner, ate an Italian hero the size of Judge’s bat, and sheepishly sopped up my seltzer when it sprayed all over the floor next to me.

Despite the Yankees’ offensive outburst, the game itself was eerily quiet save for a lonely-sounding PA announcer and the occasional interjection by the official scorer; if I was buried in my laptop writing, instead of watching the action (the state of most writers in the press box) I often had to look up on the monitor — showing the TV feed on a delay, sans volume — to figure out what just happened, a necessity as I tried to follow along with Gerrit Cole‘s hitless five innings and Kyle Higashioka’s three home runs even though they were secondary to the story ideas I’d come up with (a no-hitter or four home runs would have demanded my attention, don’t worry). Generally unaccustomed to wearing a mask while working (I wear them in public all the time) and dealing with a backup pair of glasses with an outdated prescription since my good ones broke last week, I was a fogged-up mess even in the 65-degree evening.

The most surreal aspect of the game at an empty stadium, besides the total lack of fans, vendors, and other support staff, is the artificial noise. I barely notice it while watching games at home now (the CGI fans on Fox broadcasts are another matter), but even the baseline noise level at Yankee Stadium sounded like an industrial ventilation system:

Still, everything went off without a hitch; the Yankee Stadium staff and my fellow denizens of the press box had the protocols down pat. I did ask LeMahieu a question during the postgame Zoom, then left the park about an hour after the game ended, as the stadium lights were shutting off, with only about half a dozen other writers still lingering in the press box — all of them typing at furious paces as they tried to meet deadlines. As I do every time I leave a postseason game at Yankee Stadium, knowing it could be a full winter before I return, I took final looks at the field, the scoreboard, the dugouts, the press box, the elevator, and everything else in my path as I exited the disquietingly silent stadium. I’m glad I got to go to a ballpark in 2020, and I know fans would love to have been in my shoes, but I hope that the next time I sit in that press box, I’m shoulder to shoulder with other writers with not a mask in sight, trying to collect my thoughts over the sound of a cheering crowd instead of a blaring white noise machine.





Brooklyn-based Jay Jaffe is a senior writer for FanGraphs, the author of The Cooperstown Casebook (Thomas Dunne Books, 2017) and the creator of the JAWS (Jaffe WAR Score) metric for Hall of Fame analysis. He founded the Futility Infielder website (2001), was a columnist for Baseball Prospectus (2005-2012) and a contributing writer for Sports Illustrated (2012-2018). He has been a recurring guest on MLB Network and a member of the BBWAA since 2011. Follow him on Twitter @jay_jaffe.

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shanethecrane
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shanethecrane

Yankees fans have been talking about his “legendary bat speed” for years as both a joke and a cause for excitement. Glad to see the playing time that’s been made available to him is not going to be taken away with Judge and Stanton returning.

Also! His fielding is much better this year