While most Yankees fans, for obvious reasons, focus on the team’s starting rotation and middle infield when thinking of holes on the roster, there remains one that has gone largely unheralded so far this winter: a backup center fielder. At the moment, with Brett Gardner still on the free agent market, Estevan Florial represents the only true center fielder on the 40-man roster besides starter Aaron Hicks. Mike Tauchman has also put in 158.2 innings at the position in his career, but to mixed results.
What if another option was staring us right in the face, on the Yankee roster already? When the Yankees acquired Clint Frazier four years ago, most analysts had rightfully tagged him as future corner outfielder, although noting that he had the ability to play the center position in an emergency (for example, see Eric Longenhagen’s article on FanGraphs).
With a shortage of center fielders available in free agency and via trade, I decided to dive into the analytics to see if Frazier had at least some capacity to man the position. To do so, I compiled the defensive metric data of the 30 players who played more than 500 innings in center field in 2019 (for the sake of accumulating the largest sample sizes possible, I opted on the most recent full season), a group that ranged from defensive standouts like Kevin Keirmaier and Victor Robles, to defensive liabilities such as Starling Marte, to Ian “Are you sure there’s not a better alternative on the Rockies?” Desmond.
Then, I converted the counting stats available, Defensive Runs Saved (DRS) and Outs Above Average (OAA) to rate stats per 1000 innings, roughly representing a full season. Next, I averaged the data points out to create an “average” full-time centerfielder to use as a comparative benchmark, before finally graphing the defensive metrics by the “Statcast Outfielder Jump” data to see what matters most for defensive ability.
According to the data, our average center fielder, playing 1000 innings in the field, would have accrued 0.6 DRS, 4.8 OAA, and posted a UZR/150 of 0.3; furthermore, his Statcast jump data would show a 0.2 reaction, 0.8 burst, and -0.1 route, and would have covered 34.4 feet. Perhaps surprisingly, although we don’t have defensive metrics for Frazier for center field directly, his 2020 jump metrics compare rather favorably — 0.6 reaction, 1.0 burst, -0.9 route, and 33.8 feet covered. Not exactly elite-tier, but certainly not the worst that we see among full-time center fielders; in fact, he even covered more ground that Mike Trout did in 2019 (32.4 ft)!*
*Note: I used 2019 metrics for other outfielders to generate the largest sample sizes possible. I am using Frazier’s 2020 because I want to project his performance going forward and account for the positive strides he made this past year; however, I would be remiss not to point out potential concerns about small sample sizes with defensive metrics.
That, however, does not tell us the full story. Below are four graphs detailing the relationship between these jump values and DRS, OAA, and UZR/150 (with the first two being normalized to 1000 innings):
According to these data sets, reaction and route appear to have little to no effect on the defensive metrics, with route, in fact, appearing to have a negative relationship with them. Burst and feet covered, on the other hand, have some correlative relationship with the metrics, although even the highest R2 value that we have — OAA/1000 vs. burst — is less than 50%.
When we plug Frazier’s numbers into these equations, we get the following results:
- Reaction: 1.6 DRS, 0.7 UZR/150, 5.3 OAA
- Burst: 2.2 DRS, 1.8 UZR/150, 6.1 OAA
- Route: 3.7 DRS, 1.3 UZR/150, 5.3 OAA
- Feet Covered: -1.3 DRS, -1.8 UZR/150, 2.7 OAA
Obviously, we have to take these numbers with so many grains of salt we’d be able to ruin the fields of Carthage for a millennium. They do, nonetheless, suggest that the Yankee outfielder may be able to handle the position at least semi-competently on a limited basis, although given his history of defensive woes, he’s not somebody you’d want to be counting on as the starter.