A lot of wild things happened during a 60-game season, but Clint Frazier’s stunning development from defensive liability into a Gold Glove nominee in right field ranks among the most unexpected. It’s not that Frazier wasn’t capable of the turnaround, but more so how quickly he pulled it off, and how much it has saved his future as a Yankee.
Frazier is a corner outfielder who has historically been a better defender in left field than right. However, he had to play a significant amount of time in right this year after injuries to Aaron Judge and Giancarlo Stanton, and he did it with aplomb. Following a disastrous 263 innings in right last year, Frazier represented a net positive in right field in 216 innings this year. He went from a -6 in defensive runs saved in 2019 to a +4 DRS in 2020.
How did he pull it off? Statcast says it’s all in Frazier’s jump. Relative to all outfielders, Frazier’s jump is only mildly above average in terms of reaction time and burst. Individually, however, it was a quantum leap. He had been a net negative in each of these categories for all three of his prior seasons, but turned things around this year, covering more feet in a quicker time right off the crack of the bat.
Some of this has to do with experience. Frazier is no longer new to Yankee Stadium, or reading hits at MLB-level exit velocities. Smarter instincts make up a key component of a faster jump, and although the eye test can be deceiving when looking at defensive performance in baseball, Frazier did seem noticeably more comfortable this year in the field.
Other metrics back this up. A better jump helps a fielder cover more ground, and Frazier delivered on that end. Last year, Frazier’s expected catch percentage was 85%, while his actual catch percentage was 72%. That’s a -13 catch probability added. That had been the worst of his career, but even his first two years weren’t much better, seeing catch probabilities added of -3 and -8. This year, however, Frazier’s expected catch percentage was the highest it had ever been (90%), and his actual catch percentage was not only a career-best as well, but also better than expected (93%). That +3 catch probability added is a big part of how Frazier saved the Yankees runs this year.
Frazier improved at both routine plays and difficult ones. A player’s Revised Zone Rating (RZR) is one way to measure this. In 2019, Frazier had 45 balls hit into his “zone,” and he only made plays on 35 of them. That manifested in an RZR of .778, which scores between “below-average” and “poor.” This year, Frazier saw 29 batted balls in his “zone” and he made plays on all of them. While it would be silly to expect him to maintain this 1.000 RZR for an entire year (remember, this was only a 28-game sample size), there are indicators that this performance is here to stay.
In 2019, Frazier also struggled with difficult plays. He made 14 out-of-zone plays in 263 innings. In 2020, Frazier made 22 out-of-zone plays in just 216 innings. These numbers factor into Frazier’s Ultimate Zone Rating, which in 2019 was an unsightly -6.4, but in 2020 was 3.8. That’s an improvement from “below-average” to “above-average.”
His Statcast analytics show that Frazier struggled in 2019 mainly on balls hit in front of him. If Frazier’s starting point is the small circle in the center, this is how he graded out (in terms of outs above-average) on balls hit in the following directions in 2019:
It was a negative everywhere, but particularly on balls hit in. Below is his chart from 2020:
Boring, yes, but it tells us two things. First of all, Frazier has improved as a fielder to an average to slightly above-average level – he’s not a negative going in any direction. However, it’s probably not reasonable (barring further improvement) to expect Frazier to be a perennial Gold Glove finalist. The nod was nice this year, but I don’t suspect he’ll actually win the award over Joey Gallo or Anthony Santander, or even his teammate Aaron Judge in a full season. Most of these numbers were also from his time in right field, whereas he is expected to spend most of his time in 2020 and beyond in left.
Frazier has saved his Yankees career with these marked defensive improvements. He could always hit, and he’s even showing signs of improvement at the plate at age 26. But now that Frazier can field at a capable level, the Yankees no longer need to stage phony competitions with the likes of Brett Gardner or Mike Tauchman anymore. If they’re still on the roster next season, it should be as the clear backups, the fourth or fifth outfielders behind a starting core of Frazier, Judge and Aaron Hicks. It may have taken longer than fans had hoped, but Clint Frazier has arrived for the Yankees.