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Why Clint Frazier’s injury comes at the worst possible time for the Yankees

The young outfielder’s injury comes at the worst possible time, as Frazier has played for the first month like the best version of himself.

MLB: Kansas City Royals at New York Yankees Wendell Cruz-USA TODAY Sports

The Yankees have a few names to thank for keeping their season afloat even amidst a historic rash of injuries. They could thank James Paxton, Masahiro Tanaka, and Domingo German for their excellent pitching. They could express their appreciation to the Red Sox for failing to take advantage of their wounded rivals. They could acknowledge the unheralded likes of Mike Tauchman and Gio Urshela for their contributions.

Perhaps more than anyone, however, should they feel gratitude towards Clint Frazier. A season that started in frustration for Frazier quickly turned into jubilation, before, of course, shifting back to frustration after a minor ankle ailment forced him to the IL. Prior to injuring his ankle, Frazier was the Yankees’ best hitter in the season’s first month, slashing .324/.342/.632 with six homers.

Frazier’s injury comes at the worst time for obvious reasons; the Yankees’ injured list had literally no historical precedent before Frazier went down, so the last thing they need is for their flourishing young player to suddenly hit the IL. Yet there’s more to why Frazier’s injury is so unfortunate, as for the the season’s first month, Frazier has played like the best version of himself.

Frazier playing like the optimal version of himself stems from what looks like a new strategy. Now, when we hear about players debuting new strategies, they often come from a few common sources. The launch-angle revolution is obviously all the rage now. Players also often try to scale back on their swings on pitches out of the zone, in an effort to make more and better contact. Some players try to cut down on swings and misses, work counts, and get on base more.

Frazier hasn’t really done any of that. His OBP remains rather low for someone hitting .320, and he’s hardly walking. His contact rate (70%) in this young season is well below average, and actually three points lower than his career rate entering the year. His swinging strike rate has increased to nearly 14%, also much worse than average. Frazier’s approach at the plate hasn’t exactly become more refined in traditional ways, ways that lead to less swing and miss and more walks.

No, Frazier’s approach appears more unconventional, even risky. He’s swinging more at pitches both in and out of the zone than he did last year. That aggressive tact might seem perilous, especially in light of his low walk rate and clear tendency to swing and miss. Yet the way his approach breaks down sheds light on how Frazier has succeeded in 2019.

While his overall contact rate his fallen, where Frazier has made contact is more important. He’s increased his zone contact rate from last year, up above 84%, just about league average. His out of zone contact rate is what has driven his drop in overall contact, falling all the way to a minuscule 37%. That’s miles below the league’s average of 61%.

So, Frazier makes a fair amount of contact in the zone, but is among the league’s absolute worst at making contact out of the zone. “Why is that good?”, you might ask. Well, Frazier might be better suited for a hit-everything-in-the-zone, miss-everything-out-of-it strategy than anyone else in the game.

Frazier has actually derived huge benefits from missing on pitches on the zone, and focusing on crushing the pitches he can hit. Per Baseball Savant, Frazier has posted a pitiful .225 wOBA on pitches out of the zone during his short career. On pitches in the zone? He’s raked to the tune of a .375 wOBA. That split has become even more pronounced in 2019; a .458 wOBA on pitches in the zone, and a .207 figure on pitches out of the zone.

Compare that to the league’s average split, a .333 wOBA on in-zone pitches and a .301 mark on out-of-zone pitches. Also using Baseball Savant, I pulled all hitters that have seen at least ten at-bats end on pitches both in and out of the zone this year. Among those 333 hitters, Frazier’s 251-point difference in wOBA on pitches in and out of the zone is 14th-highest. There are scarcely any players that benefit more than Frazier does from this approach.

This gets to the heart of Frazier’s big start. Thanks to the fact that he’s making more contact than ever on the pitches he can hit, and making less contact than ever on pitches he can do nothing with, Frazier’s quality of contact has spiked. Both his exit velocity and launch angle have increased. His groundball rate has plummeted, in favor of a spate of air balls; his 43% fly ball rate more than doubles his 2018 figure.

Perhaps Frazier won’t be able to sustain this. Perhaps this new strategy, one that involves a whole lot of whiffs, will eventually come back to bite him. Maybe his new injury will throw him off track. Up to this point, though, it’s been perfect. Frazier is the exact kind of player that stands to flourish when driving pitches in the zone, and simply missing everything else.

It’s certainly not an elegant approach, but I think it goes to show just how many ways there are to succeed in baseball. One can spit on pitches off the edge, and draw walks for days. One can try to hit everything in the air in search of doubles and homers, or try to slap hard grounders and beat out heaps of singles. One can make contact with everything, or swing and miss with impunity and still do damage. Frazier’s current strategy may not win any awards for its subtlety, but it’s helping him be the best player he can possibly be. Here's hoping he's back within the fortnight, because the Yankees simply need healthy bodies right now.