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Imperfect Science: The divergent paths of two Yankees top prospects

Clint Frazier was considered the better prospect in 2016, but it’s Gleyber Torres who’s the superstar.

It’s funny how we pin hopes to probability. When Aaron Judge is at the plate with the tying run on base, there’s about a 40% chance he does something positive. Our entire emotional energy, in that moment at least, is tied to that probability - the unlikelihood of a good thing happening. Following a prospect and hoping for a “successful” development is pinning hopes on even more improbable things - the history of baseball is written by the stars, but published on the backs of thousands of players who seemed like they could be major leaguers, but for one reason or another, never quite stuck.

The 2016 Yankee selloff wasn’t just notable for the team’s committing to young talent, it helped bring in crucial parts of the youth movement…or at least one crucial part. Gleyber Torres is seen today as the big haul of the selloff, coming from the Cubs in a package for Aroldis Chapman. It’s funny then to look back at the actual trades and see that Torres wasn’t even the highest-ranked prospect by most prognosticators that the Yankees acquired.

That honor went to Clint Frazier, a mid-20s ranked prospect at the beginning of the season and MLB Pipeline’s 15th best at end of year – Torres was mid-30s and 17th by those same listings. Fast forward to 2020, and we’re watching as Gleyber Torres has blossomed into one of MLB’s biggest stars. Clint Frazier, the guy ranked as a higher prospect, is struggling to find a permanent spot on the Yankees’ roster.

2013 Major League Baseball First-Year Player Draft Photo by Paige Calamari/MLB via Getty Images

At the time of the trade, Frazier was showing his potential at Triple-A Columbus, and he was eminently more projectable, playing for Triple-A Columbus and posting an .825 OPS in 89 games at Double-A Akron earlier in the year at the time he was traded. He was knocked for plate discipline and pitch recognition – more on that later – but a September call-up wasn’t out of the question, while a 2017 stint with the big-league club was almost seen as a certainty. He was closer to the majors and there was more certainty in his tools, which contributed to his higher prospect ranking.

Torres, meanwhile, was an international free agent more than two years younger than Frazier, and at High-A was three and a half years younger than his average teammate. Torres dripped potential more than certainty – the hit tool was always legitimate, but there was hope he would develop more power and better range and decision making, both defensively and on the basepaths. This is the pretty standard outlook for highly-ranked players far from the majors – the talent is obvious, but the delta between High-A and MLB is too great to project very far into the future.

Torres always scored high on one particular scale, though - the one thing that followed Torres throughout his minor league tenure was his attitude and maturity. In his first Yankee spring training, then-manager Joe Girardi compared him to a young Miguel Cabrera in terms of approach and understanding of the game. A year later, on the eve of Torres’ MLB debut, Alex Rodriguez praised the same traits, saying Torres had the makeup of a 30-year-old veteran with the athleticism that comes from being 20. No such accolades were directed at Frazier.

What does maturity and approach even mean? It can scream Jeterian intangibles, a je ne sais quoi that you see in a player that you can’t measure. It could be reflected in a hitter’s ability to adjust to what pitchers are trying to do, unquestionably the most important characteristic of any player who wants to stick in the majors. One way you could look at that is strikeout minus walk rate, a great building block to gauge a hitter’s awareness of the strike zone, and what he can and can’t hit:

Both players showed an improvement moving from their first season in MLB – 2017 for Clint, 2018 for Torres – into their second, only for that progress to regress for Frazier. We don’t know what Torres’ 2020 is going to look like, but he’s projected to improve that K-BB% mark to 12.1% while Frazier is pegged to stagnate at 19.3%. ZiPS three-year projections has Frazier’s rate continually climbing above 21%, while Torres’ holds steady around 11-12%. Is this what maturity is? Is this the tool that Torres has, the tool that Frazier doesn’t, and does it alone explain explaining the different paths their careers have taken?

Should we dig even further and look at how both hitters respond to different pitch locations? What happens if we look at each hitter’s response to different pitch locations - their ability to recognize how pitchers are attacking them.Torres actually swings at more balls out of the zone than Frazier does, and indeed at more pitches overall. The difference is the improvement in contact – Torres was able to connect on 74.4% of swings in 2019, an improvement over his rookie campaign, while Frazier’s contact has declined each of his seasons in the majors.

Is this maturity? Learning what pitches you can and can’t hit, and then showing that you can indeed hit them? Or can we not grade maturity at all using a FanGraphs page?

Are the public attitudes of each player the difference in their career success? Gleyber Torres is the better player of the two, but publicly he’s almost…boring. Gleyber’s largely followed the lead of Aaron Judge and DJ LeMahieu in terms of a public persona.

MiLB: NOV 10 Arizona Fall League Photo by Joshua Sarner/Icon Sportswire via Getty Images

It certainly doesn’t feel like an act though. Even if Judge is advising Gleyber on how to carry himself, Torres has always been a fairly quiet, businesslike personality. As best as we can tell from our vantage point, Gleyber’s being himself, and just has a more muted persona. Contrast that with Clint Frazier, who has been criticized since before even joining the big-league club, largely just for being himself.

The hair, the number choice, the nose ring and the Twitter account, the examples of Frazier just being “too much” for some fans and media members. But again, I don’t think there’s any evidence that Frazier is putting on an act – if nothing else, he’s very much himself. Locker room drama and distractions can be a real thing in sports, of course, but a team with leaders like Judge and formerly CC Sabathia, any actual clubhouse issues would be tamped down, wouldn’t they?

And of course, there’s the injury history. Torres lost most of a full season to Tommy John surgery, the only significant medical setback in his young career. Health is the biggest key to success of all – the Hall of Fame is full of players who were very good, and managed to play every single game, at the expense of guys who may have been more talented but unable to take the field 150 times a year.

Frazier might end up an example of that latter group. He suffered a concussion in 2018 and battled post-concussion symptoms for the entire year, finally being shut down by the team in early September. Clint’s 100-mph style of play was partially to blame for the injury, sustained when he ran into a wall tracking a fly ball in the outfield. It’s entirely reasonable to conclude that Frazier’s been skittish ever since – he got to the majors by playing an all-out style and moving away from that is causing him to regress overall.

The irony of trading, and later keeping, Frazier may become clear from a pure value discussion. The Yankees have kept him in house and given him multiple opportunities to succeed, and dealt away the other major piece in the Andrew Miller deal, left-hander Justus Sheffield.

Sheffield was more productive in the majors than Frazier in 2019, and indeed has more fWAR in one season than Frazier’s accumulated over parts of three, and while the southpaw is projected to take a step forward in his next season, Frazier’s trajectory looks flat. If you could redo the Paxton trade, would you be more comfortable dealing Frazier now than you were 18 months ago?

Of course this is reductive – it may never have been possible to trade Frazier for Paxton, for a variety of reasons. But it does illustrate just how badly teams can misjudge value. Meanwhile, of course, Gleyber Torres isn’t just a star for the Yankees, he’s one of the most valuable trade pieces in baseball, on par with names like Walker Buehler and Vlad Guerrero Jr. Interestingly enough, that article perfectly encapsulates the central question of Torres vs. Frazier: “Torres is still just 22, and his defense and feel for the game bring a lot to the table where his raw tools aren’t plus like you’d prefer to see”.

Evaluators prefer tools. We like Aaron Judge because he has arguably the most raw power of any hitter ever, and we loved Rickey Henderson for his speed and his eye. It’s much harder for teams to make decisions based on approach, makeup, maturity, and potential. Yet the Yankees have hit the jackpot on the prospect that wasn’t as toolsy.

There’s a lot of daylight left in the careers of both Torres and Frazier. Their trajectories could intersect, parallel, or inverse as they get older. Maybe all of Frazier’s setbacks have come from his long recovery from concussion problems, and maybe Torres’ lack of plus plus tools keeps him at Very Good Player status instead of MVP candidate status.

Still, at this point in Yankee history, the two biggest pieces from the 2016 teardown have had remarkably different careers. It’s tough to root against either player, and the ultimate failure of one of them may just be a case of prospects being prospects. In a line of work where we pin our hopes to probabilities, though, one of the two 2016 returns looks like much better odds to contribute in 2020 and beyond.

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