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Clint Frazier’s defense isn’t great, but it’s not a big concern for the Yankees

The young outfielder has frustrated on defense, but his shortcomings should be more than outweighed by his bat.

New York Yankees v Houston Astros Photo by Bob Levey/Getty Images

Clint Frazier has started to take the league by storm early this season. His 157 OPS+ over 13 games has provided a much-needed boost to a Yankees lineup that is missing five hitters from the middle of the order (Giancarlo Stanton, Aaron Hicks, Gary Sanchez, Didi Gregorius, and Miguel Andujar). His bat has been electric, driving in 12 runs on 15 hits (including four home runs) in his first 49 plate appearances.

Putting a damper on his performance, however, has been his defense, which — despite intense work put in during spring training — has continued to be a sore spot in the former top prospect’s performance. But is his defense really as bad as advertised? And how much does it really matter?

Only 13 games into Frazier’s season — five of which were spent as the designated hitter, which shows that the Yankees have less faith in his defense than they do in Mike Tauchman’s — the sample sizes we have to work with are incredibly, incredibly small. In fact, even the entire workload of Frazier’s major league career, 67 games over three seasons, is a “small sample size” when it comes to defensive statistics; Frazier has only accrued 75 chances (Baseball Reference and FanGraphs define this as putouts + assists + errors; a flawed stat, but useful for comparison here), while in the same period of time, Brett Gardner has accrued 564 chances. For this reason, we’re going to need to take all these metrics with a grain of salt big enough to preserve all the meat needed to feed the army assembled to fight the Night King.

Despite the notable misplays that Frazier has had early this season — including the two missed dives in the Astros game — the FanGraphs metrics actually paint a positive picture of the Frazier’s defense. UZR/150, which prorates UZR values over the course of 150 games, shows an improvement from -19.0 in 2017 and -6.6 last year to a value of 9.2 so far this year; his ARM value likewise shows an improvement from -2.6 to 0.8 in that same span of time. On the flip side, Baseball Reference’s metrics view him much more critically, as his range factor per nine innings is lower than the league average for left fielders. Additionally, both sites view him as worth -0.2 dWAR, and Statcast pegs him at -3 Outs Above Average. All in all, while the results are certainly somewhat mixed and the sample size is small, there clearly is room for Frazier to improve his defense.

That said, so long as he continues to hit, Frazier’s defense should be of little concern. He is most definitely an outfielder, not a DH who masquerades as one (e.g., J.D. Martinez), and even if he proves unable to tap into his athleticism to increase his range, his bat will provide much more value than any defensive shortcomings might. At this moment in time, Frazier is on pace for 200 hits this season, and although expecting him to maintain a .333/.347/.622 pace is unrealistic, he can be expected to continue providing a positive value despite his subpar defense; additionally, the Yankees can use Mike Tauchman as a defensive replacement. Once Aaron Hicks returns from injury, Brett Gardner too could be used in such a fashion should they be inclined to tighten up the defense.

Frazier’s defensive struggles, though not as drastic as they may seem and more likely than not trending in the right direction (the small sample sizes involved make any definitive statements impossible), are certainly real. Nonetheless, so long as he continues to perform at the plate, his defense is not so bad that he is an unplayable liability in the field. Once the team begins to return to health, the Yankees can utilize defensive replacements later in games to maximize his offensive value while minimizing his negative impact with the glove. On the whole, Frazier should be able to continue to contribute to winning games.