There’s not much to criticize about the win on Thursday, with Gerrit Cole turning in a solid performance and Aaron Judge and Giancarlo Stanton with multi-hit games, but as a baseball blog writer, it’s my job to try. I thought Gary Sanchez showed demonstrable improvement framing pitches so I will cut him some slack on his 0-for last night. That leaves Brett Gardner as the sole candidate of my scorn.
To be clear, it is only the first game of the season, and Gardner did get Mad Max’d. However, 0-for-3 with three strikeouts batting fifth in the order is borderline unpalatable regardless of the context. As a 36-year-old free agent this past winter, it was easy to see the Yankees bring Gardner back as a veteran presence more than in any substantial role. But when he signed for $10 million to play this season, it wasn’t unlikely to imagine it as a transition deal for the longtime Yankee.
That’s not to say Gardner does not still hold significant value to the team. He is the elder statesman with CC Sabathia retired. He is a great defensive outfielder accumulating 11 Outs Above Average across the last four seasons. He put up career power numbers last year bashing a juiced ball that may or may not be in use for this season. Even with all these merits to his name, he should not be the starting left fielder and certainly should not be batting in the middle of the lineup.
Gardner was completely overmatched in his at-bats against Scherzer. And with the regional schedule, there are even more ace-types to deal with. I can’t be the only one tired of seeing Gardner spin around awkwardly after striking out on a pitch down and away. New York needs a lively bat in the heart of their order who can blow the game open with one swing as well as pass the baton and draw his walks. The Yankees have that man in Clint Frazier.
Red Thunder was one of the most impressive performers in spring training 1.0 as well as summer camp. In the shortened spring, Frazier compiled a 1.055 OPS coupled with an eye-popping 21.2% walk rate. He launched some no-doubters, and that power carried over into summer camp. The Yankees need to ensure there are no soft landing spots for the pitcher in their lineup. They need a guy who can do this:
People forget how much Frazier helped carry the team for most of May and June last year while both Judge and Stanton were hurt. In the first half of 2019, Frazier batted .283/.330/.513, supplying 11 home runs and 34 RBIs with a 111 OPS+ and 117 wRC+. That is legitimate above-average production at the major league level, impressive for a young man who has been given sporadic playing time in his big league career.
Then came the infamous Boston game and the sensationalized media narrative about his maturity issues (a narrative he has repeatedly refuted through his charitable efforts and modeling of appropriate player safety behavior.) After that, Frazier’s race was run before he even had a chance to get back on his horse.
According to all accounts, Frazier has improved his defense in the outfield, a task made easier now that he is no longer suffering from the depth perception issues that lingered after his concussion. All the Yankees need out of him is an average glove. But I’m not here to talk about defense. If Frazier’s bat lives up to its promise, the Yankees will be more than willing to accommodate even below-average fielding.
In this 60-game sprint season, teams need bats that get hot from the start to open up an early-season lead. With his stellar career first-half numbers, Frazier is just the man for the job. Frazier has hit 14 of his 16 career home runs in 75 career first-half games, sporting a .281/.337/.526 line with a 123 OPS+ and 124 wRC+.
It is hard to let go of the glories of yesteryear. We cling to what is familiar, fearing change and uncertainty. The Yankees cannot afford to make this mistake in a season where every regular season game counts for more than double. They cannot keep plugging an aging veteran into the heart of the lineup when they have a budding star ready to go. It’s time to let the next generation shine. It’s time to move on.