It wasn’t so long ago Brett Gardner was a young player trying to work his way into a starting position in the Yankees outfield. Fast forward a decade and now it’s Clint Frazier trying to take Gardner’s role in the outfield. Frazier has been quite plain with the media regarding his desire to take left field this season, and even though Gardner understands the competition, Frazier likely won’t be cracking the Yankee outfield on a full-time basis until he works out a few more kinks in his game.
Frazier hasn’t spent much time in the majors, but he has apparent holes in his game. Perhaps the most glaring has been Frazier’s presence at the plate. By the numbers, Frazier has seen a more than average amount of pitches per plate appearance. However, he swings and misses abundantly, and also tends to chase pitches out of the zone. Frazier’s swinging strike without contact percentage is 23.5%. The league average rate is 18.1%. Possibly compounding this issue, Frazier swings at the first pitch more often than league average.
These statistics certainly inform his 6.6 BB% and a 30.6 K% in the bigs thus far. Right now, Frazier hasn’t made enough contact to justify his high swing rates, but his MLB numbers don’t necessarily reflect how good he’s been in the minors, where he’s sported around a 11% walk rate and 25% strikeout rate. Ideally, both his walk and strikeout numbers return to those averages, but he won’t be a successful major-leaguer without improvements to at least one of those rates.
Frazier also needs to utilize his speed in a more efficient way. According to Statcast’s measurement of sprint speed, not only is Frazier a better than league average sprinter, but he’s one of the faster players on the Yankees. Still, judging by his baserunning and defensive statistics, Frazier isn’t using his speed to his advantage. FanGraphs’ Base Running (BsR) statistic encompasses all plays that occur on the basepaths. Right now, Frazier’s BsR statistics from 2017 and 2018 indicate he’s a below-average baserunner.
Given that he does run well, Frazier’s improvements in this category are going to be more on the mental side -- knowing when to take an extra base, when and when not to attempt a steal -- that sort of thing. Hopefully, these improvements come along with age and experience.
Frazier also does need to improve in the outfield. Per Statcast, his expected catch percentage last season was 82%, but his actual catch percentage was only 74%, meaning he wasn’t catching balls he should have. Granted, this is from a very small sample size, but Frazier is really going to need to utilize his speed in the outfield more efficiently to round out his development.
What holds Frazier back here is Brett Gardner excels in the all the areas Frazier doesn’t. Last season, only Aaron Hicks and Didi Gregorius put up better BB/K numbers than Gardner, so we know Gardy can work a count and puts the ball in play. Additionally, no one on the Yankees comes close to Gardner on the bases. His 8.9 BsR last season was second-best in the league last year. Finally, Gardner’s a great defensive player. He had more defensive WAR than any other Yankee, and his expected and actual catch percentage was 88% last year, meaning he caught all the balls he should have.
For all of Frazier’s deficiencies, he could still be a fantastic player. He was atop several top-100 prospect lists not too long ago, and although his development was stalled last season, he didn’t lose the things that made him great. It’s still reasonable to expect Frazier is the heir apparent to Brett Gardner in left field, but if the Yankees hesitate to give the job over to Frazier, it won’t be difficult to understand why. Gardner’s not in his prime anymore, but he still does several things well -- things Frazier struggles with. If Frazier wants Gardner’s job, he should start trying to emulate aspects of Gardner’s game, particularly working counts and utilizing his speed efficiently.
Editor’s Note: An earlier version of this story misinterpreted a quote from Clint Frazier regarding his concussion and defensive performance last season.