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Yankees 2021 Season Preview: Clint Frazier

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The Masked Swinger looks to build on his breakout 2020 campaign as the Yankees’ new starting left fielder.

Tampa Bay Rays v New York Yankees Photo by Jim McIsaac/Getty Images

Once upon a time — that is, for a brief period in 2016 — Clint Frazier was the top prospect in the Yankees’ farm system and the most highly-anticipated acquisition of a trade deadline fire sale that looked to power what would turn out to be an incredibly short rebuild for the New York Yankees. For the most part, however, he has had little to do with that resurgence, with homegrown prospect Aaron Judge becoming the team’s top outfielder and infielder Gleyber Torres becoming the crown jewel of that fire sale. 2020, however, marked a turning point, and now, after four years of bouncing between Scranton and the Bronx, Frazier will finally start the season in the big league starting lineup, as manager Aaron Boone has christened The Masked Swinger as the Yankees’ starting left fielder this season.

2020 Statistics: 39 games, 160 PA, .267/.394/.511, 8 HR, 26 RBI, 149 OPS+, 1.5 bWAR, 1.3 fWAR

2021 FanGraphs Depth Chart Projections: 128 games, 553 PA, .244/.324/.456, 24 HR, 78 RBI, 1.2 fWAR

As you may have heard on the Yankees’ broadcast a few days ago, over the course of his four year career, Frazier has so far played exactly 162 games, the equivalent of a full season. In that time, he has posted a .258/.331/.475 slash line (good for a 113 OPS+) with 24 HR, 32 doubles, and 5 triples. So, why are the projections relatively down on him, projecting not only a large drop-off from 2020, but also a minor one from his career stats?

In truth, the answer to that question is rather simple. Projections are based on mathematical formulas, based on a player’s age, playing time, and normal career trajectory, and prior to the 2020 season, Frazier’s career trajectory has not overwhelmed. Going into last season, he had played only 123 games over three seasons, had a career OPS+ of 101, and had never been more than an injury fill-in. As exciting as his 2020 season was, Frazier at this point does not have much of a track record, and projections rely on track records.

Fortunately, there are plenty of other reasons to be optimistic for Frazier this upcoming season — his 2020 Statcast percentile rankings, for instance:

Just as significantly, if not more so, was that Frazier was a lot more disciplined at the plate last season, as Josh talked about last week. In addition to seeing his walk rate jump from 6.5% to 15.6%, Frazier became more selective swinging within the strike zone, taking more on pitches that are harder to drive and waiting for easily-barreled pitches in the middle of the strike zone. Josh talks about it in more detail, with heat maps and images, so if you missed it, I suggest you give it a read, but the point remains: Frazier made adjustments that should help ensure that his offensive breakout was not a one-hit-wonder, but the breakout of a potential star.

Frazier’s bat, however, was not his only story of 2020, or even his main one. Fresh off a catastrophic defensive performance that was worth -12 OAA in only 53 games in the outfield, he put together such a turnaround with the glove that he was named a finalist for the AL Gold Glove Award. While it’s likely that this nomination was the result of the weirdness of the shortened season, he should now be at worst an average defender who won’t be a liability in the field; for a guy with Frazier’s bat, that is more than acceptable.

And even that might not be his biggest story of the past year, as the much-criticized Frazier has shown an immense amount of maturity in that time, first by striving to be a positive role model by wearing a mask on the field and at the plate, then with his very honest and self-reflective comments about the route he’s taken trying to crack the Opening Day roster.

For the first time in his career, Frazier does not find himself on the outside looking in, but firmly entrenched on the roster and in the lineup; expect him to make the most of it.