The baseball gods must really hate Clint Frazier, huh? Coming into the season, the former top prospect looked to show that his performance in the shortened 2020 season was no aberration, ready to build on a 39-game campaign in which he posted a 149 OPS+ and was a finalist for the Gold Glove Award in right field. Things were finally looking up for the guy that Aaron Boone dubbed “The Masked Swinger” last year.
And then the 2021 season happened, and it’s hard to imagine how it could have gone worse.
2021 Statistics (MLB): 66 games, 218 PA, .186/.317/.317, 5 HR, 15 RBI, 14.7 BB%, 29.8 K%, 76 OPS+, 82 wRC+, -8 OAA, -0.9 fWAR, -1.4 bWAR
2022 Contract Status: Likely free agency following 11/19 DFA
Let’s get this out of the way: Frazier was one of the worst players in baseball this year, finding himself among the league’s worst hitters and fielders (and his baserunning was mediocre, too). Had he simply been the starting left fielder, was relegated to the bench for his performance, and ultimately sent to Triple-A Scranton to finish off the season, his grade would have been a resounding F-, and I doubt even Frazier himself would have argued against it.
Complicating the issue, and the reason why the staff decisively voted to give him an “Incomplete” for the year, were the head injuries. Frazier hit the injured list on July 1st with what was at the time called “vertigo” but has since been described as neurological issues, vision problems, and some combination thereof — and although he attempted to make a comeback mid-August, he was ultimately shut down for the season. He is still dealing with these symptoms more than three months after they became public knowledge, and at this point, it’s fair to wonder whether or not he’ll even be able to play baseball again.
Given the seriousness of the issue, it’s fair to wonder whether or not Frazier’s lackluster performance to start the season was, at least to some degree, the result of whatever ailment has caused these symptoms to manifest. But does the data back up that theory? It turns out the answer is a little more complicated than a simple yes or no.
From this data — which is drawn from both FanGraphs and Baseball Savant — I see two trends with Frazier this year. First and foremost is a physical decline. Every single bit of data recorded by Statcast that measures a player’s physical attributes saw a decline from 2020. Frazier’s average exit velocity was down. He was generating more than 50 percent more soft contact than last year. He struggled to barrel the ball, or even just to hit on the sweet spot of the bat.
Defensively, his range shrunk greatly, going from a player who we discussed as a potential backup/emergency center fielder to one who was as bad as a first baseman forced into the outfield by necessity (his feet covered is roughly equivalent to that of Dominic Smith and Ryan Mountcastle). This was not a return to career norms after a breakout year either, as his 29.1 feet covered is the worst of his career by almost three feet. (His previous worst was 31.9 in 2018, which would have put him in the Austin Hays tier of “outfielders who can fake it in center.”)
Coupled with this decline in physical attributes was a prime example of why more contact isn’t always good: although Frazier chased roughly as many pitches outside the zone as he did last year, he made contact on significantly more of those. Those pitches, however, rarely result in productive balls in play.
For the most part, pitchers want hitters to make contact on balls outside the strike zone, and while his increased batted ball rate on those pitches does not even come close to accounting for the 67-point decline in wRC+, it certainly did not help. In fact, it may be emblematic of a change in approach at the plate that prioritized contact over driving the ball.
Ultimately, however, does it really matter? With Joey Gallo and Aaron Judge manning the corners and Giancarlo Stanton serving as the primary designated hitter in 2022, there’s no room for Frazier in the starting lineup. Hypothetically he could be a valuable depth piece, but given his injury-plagued 2021, the team would be foolish to roll with him as a primary backup — moreover, because of that season, his trade value is so low as to be basically worthless.
I would love nothing more than for Frazier to still be in a Yankee uniform come the spring and for him to tear the cover off the ball at the plate to the point that the Yankees are forced to run out a starting outfield of Gallo/Judge/Frazier left to right on a daily basis and accept having three corner outfielders out there. Unfortunately, at this point in time, I just hope that No. 77 finds his health so that he can live a normal life, even if he can’t return to the big leagues. Head injuries are scary things.