The World Series begins tonight, but in Yankee land, we’re still in autopsy mode. The Yankees’ season ended too early, again, and for the fourth-consecutive year we’re left picking up the pieces, sifting through what went right and what went wrong.
It’s probably spicier to fixate on the wrong, but let’s focus on the positives today, and try to determine what the most positive development from this season was. There are a few ways to define something as vague as a “positive development”, but I look at this way: Which player, if I went back in time before the season was played and told you their eventual 2020 line, would you be most thrilled to hear about?
There might not be quite as many candidates for this category as last year, when seemingly half the roster had shocking, expectation-defying seasons. Nonetheless, we have a number of strong options this year, perhaps none more obvious than Luke Voit.
Voit’s bona fides are clear. He led the league in home runs, with 22 in just 56 games. His .277/.338/.610 slash line translated to a 156 OPS+, and he did it all while nursing what appeared to be a nagging foot injury.
Just as important, Voit’s season ranks as a significant development because it has a notable impact on the team’s future. Due to MLB’s free agent structure that suppresses the salaries of productive but inexperienced players, Voit is 29-years-old and still four seasons from hitting the free market. This long-term impact puts Voit’s season ahead of, say, DJ LeMahieu’s season for our purposes here. LeMahieu was better, but he might not even be a Yankee in two months. The fact that the Yankees can easily keep Voit around through 2024 makes his 2020 season one of the most important recorded by a Yankee.
Yet, for a few reasons, I think Voit’s season doesn’t rank as quite as positive as our next candidate, Gio Urshela. As tremendous as Voit was in 2020, he had a longer track record entering this year than someone like Urshela, having raked at times in both 2018 and 2019, to go along with excellent statistics in the high minors in the preceding years.
Conversely, Urshela had literally one season of non-awful play under his belt heading into this campaign. In 167 games in the bigs prior to joining the Yankees, Urshela was below replacement level and compiled an atrocious 57 OPS+. His minor league numbers were nearly as ugly; a .266/.321/.374 line with Triple-A Columbus in 2017, and a .274/.294/.380 line at the same level in 2016.
As good as Urshela looked in 2019, it was hard to feel completely confident that he could repeat, simply because he had a long history of abject failure at the highest levels, juxtaposed with four months of stunning play. Most projections profiled Urshela as an average player ahead of 2020, and if you polled Yankee fans seven months ago, I figure most would have given a modest prediction: Urshela will play well, but not nearly as well as 2019.
Instead, Urshela played almost exactly as well in 2020 as the year prior. He nudged his OPS+ up to 136 from 132, and continued to handle the hot corner with aplomb. Urshela now has 175 games worth of play with New York, and in those games he’s recorded nearly 6 rWAR. Is that Gio Urshela, or Matt Chapman?
That Urshela’s 2020 was a near carbon copy of his 2019 has to rank as one of the best developments of the year, in how it helps erode the notion that Urshela was a fluke, and continues to cement him as a legitimate, dependable stud at third base. Similar to Voit, Urshela has blossomed late, and only just turned 29 despite standing three years from free agency. His season should make the Yankees much more confident that they’ve found a blue-chip starter on the left side for the coming years.
With all that said, if I were forced to choose the most positive Yankee development of 2020, I would select none other than the campaign put forth by Clint Frazier. Frazier’s season has the same long-term impacts as Voit’s and Urshela’s, with Frazier unable to hit free agency until after 2024 at the earliest. But Frazier stands out for how little proof of concept we had for this kind of performance from him.
In 2020, Clint Frazier was a complete baseball player. He walked in about one-sixth of his plate appearances, a 92nd-percentile rate. He hit the ball with authority, ranking above average in all of Statcast’s contact measures, slugging over .500, and running a .244 ISO. Most importantly, he massively improved in the field. Statcast’s Outs Above Average metric put him in the 69th percentile among outfielders, while DRS put him two runs above average, a season after Frazier had cost the Yankees eight runs in the field according to the same metric.
For Frazier to put it all together, one season removed from another bout with injuries and a series of comical defensive errors, was both surprising and significant. Entering 2020, it was unclear what the Yankees’ plans were for Frazier. He was something like sixth on the outfield depth chart, with his trade value at its nadir after three inconsistent years flitting between the majors and Triple-A.
Now, Frazier looks every bit the part of plus starting outfielder. We had never seen that kind of all-around performance from Frazier before, at any level. That he finally broke through, just as it seemed like the Yankees might be etching him out of their long-term plans, ranks as an enormous development.
Maybe you think Voit’s power display was more significant to the team’s fortunes going forward. You can reasonably side with Urshela, whose performance may have silenced the nay-sayers who would call fluke. Perhaps you’d argue for someone not mentioned here, such as Gerrit Cole with his strong debut in pinstripes, Aroldis Chapman with his continued dominance, or Deivi García and his flashes of potential.
For me, the balance of factors makes Frazier’s 2020 the most positive development of the Yankees’ season. Where once there was a ball of uncertainty and defensive incompetence, there is now a prime-age, impact bat with an all-around game. Had you told me that was to come for Frazier a few months ago, I’d have jumped for joy.