Much as they did last season, the Yankees entered 2019 with what seemed to be a surplus of outfielders: Aaron Judge, Giancarlo Stanton, Aaron Hicks, Brett Gardner, Mike Tauchman, Clint Frazier, Tyler Wade, and — at least in theory — Jacoby Ellsbury. Yet just like last year, half of those players ended up on the injured list, turning the apparent logjam into a scramble to find healthy bodies. That scramble led the team to pick up journeyman Cameron Maybin, who has been the anti-Shane Robinson thus far, hitting to a 125 wRC+ and playing terrific defense through 12 games in pinstripes.
Of course, every outfielder except Ellsbury should return in the coming months, while only four figure to get regular playing time, assuming Stanton reprises his DH duties. With Judge and Hicks penciled into right and center almost every day, that leaves left field as the lone available starting gig. The recently demoted Tyler Wade doesn’t figure to be in the mix, nor does Mike Tauchman and his 95 wRC+. Maybin might have a stronger case, given his performance to this point, but his career numbers suggest he’s due to cool off. That leaves Gardner, the longest-tenured Yankee, and Frazier, the ultra-confident former top prospect.
Frazier foreshadowed the competition in February when he told the media he was gunning for Gardner’s job. Perhaps things will work themselves out, either via injury setbacks or midseason trades. If they don’t, the Yankees front office will be forced to show their cards by starting one over the other. What factors might Brian Cashman and his staff consider?
Hitting for Contact
Arguably the most fundamental skill in the sport, a hitter’s ability to put bat to ball is no longer as valued as it once was in today’s homer-or-bust era. Still, the Yankees’ replacement squad has won many a game by simply making contact rather than swinging for the fences, led by early-season saviors DJ LeMahieu (.344 average, one home run) and Gio Urshela (.354 average, two home runs).
After striking out in more than 30% of his plate appearances in both 2017 and 2018, Frazier has reduced that rate to 22.5% — about league average. Gardner, meanwhile, has struck out just 11.6% of the time, compared to 18% for his career. His lowly .211 average seems due to rise given his elite speed, above-average exit velocity, great strikeout rate. and a microscopic BABIP that’s bound to improve. On the other hand, Frazier is currently hitting .298 and has an almost identical career average.
Hitting for Power
Frazier is slugging .548; Gardner .422. While both men have six home runs, Gardner has played in 13 more games. Interestingly, they each have roughly the same average exit velocity and launch angle this year, but the eye test and the traditional metrics push Frazier over the top.
No contest here: Gardner is 17th among all qualified hitters in pitches per plate appearance and has walked 17 times, compared to only three walks on the year for Frazier. If the team needs a leadoff man once the big boppers return, Frazier is not the man for the job.
Another category that isn’t much of a competition. Gardner is a former Gold Glove winner and was a finalist for the award last season, boasting an impressive 11.6 career dWAR. Granted, he’s not a good center fielder according to the metrics, but he’s an asset in left, even as he nears his 36th birthday. By contrast, Frazier’s -1.0 career dWAR should not come as a surprise. Though he has a solid arm, his poor routes and inconsistency with routine plays makes Gardner the easy pick here.
Clear winner again: Gardner’s sprint speed of 29 mph is 93rd percentile in baseball. Frazier’s also an aggressive runner, but his 68th percentile speed is no match for the old timer. Thanks to his high baseball IQ as well as his quick feet, Gardner has consistently ranked among the best baserunners in the game, while his 261 career steals are 260 more than Frazier’s ever swiped.
Known for his clutch hitting, Gardner is actually just an average hitter with runners in scoring position for his career, while Frazier has a lofty .987 OPS in 64 plate appearances. Small sample sizes considered, but the 24-year-old does not seem phased by the pressure of big moments. Still, Gardner’s experience and history of walk-off hits make the clutch factor a draw — at least for now.
Whatever other qualities one puts in Gardner’s column, Frazier has something to match. Benching Gardner could hurt morale, but benching Frazier might impede his development. Gardner is the leader, but Frazier is the future.
Verdict: Frazier, but barely
The most obvious solution would be a platoon. Frazier is a far better hitter than Gardner against southpaws; in fact, I see little reason to start Gardner against left-handers at all once Judge, Stanton, and Hicks are back. He needs the rest and would be a great pinch-hitter or pinch-runner off the bench.
Against right-handers, Gardner may be the better all-around player, but it’s close. According to WAR, his superior defense, baserunning, and plate discipline are all outweighed by Frazier’s power — hence why the modern front office has prioritized hitting home runs.
Another consideration is that Frazier has attributed his success in 2019 to regular playing time, and using him primarily against left-handers could cause him to lose his timing. If he can maintain his current level of production, and the Yankees don’t trade him, it’d be hard to bench Frazier against anyone. I’d lean toward mostly playing him if I had to pick now, but fortunately, the decision can wait.
Who should start in left once everyone’s healthy?
This poll is closed
Mostly Frazier, with occasional rest against righties