It takes 20 years to build a reputation and five minutes to ruin it.
Consider the following: you are a top five pick out of high school, a five-tool outfielder with lightning-fast bat speed. You stay out of trouble, work hard, and play the game as best you can. You accelerate rapidly through the minor leagues, garnering top-50 prospect rankings every year. Along the way, you’re the centerpiece of a major trade for an All-Star reliever. That’s okay; you’re just happy to play ball, getting a little closer to the majors with each swing.
At the age of 22, you get the call! While you’re thrilled to accomplish your lifelong goal, ecstasy gives way to frustration. You manage just a .268 on-base percentage in 142 plate appearances. Despite high draft and prospect pedigree as well as an entirely successful minor league career spanning about 2,000 plate appearances, suddenly you’re a “bust” who “can’t hit in the majors.” That’s okay; you’re still young for your level and you’ll get ‘em next year!
Except next year never happens. You’ve always been lauded for playing hard, but that comes back to bite you. Early in Spring Training, you crash into the outfield wall. The dizziness, light and sound sensitivity, and balance issues ebb and flow over the next few days. Then weeks. Then months. This was supposed to be your breakout season, but before you can truly recover, it’s gone. Now you’re “injury-prone,” even though you’ve never experienced any real injuries in your life other than the damn concussion. All your muscles and joints are just fine. That’s okay; nothing to do but rest and recover.
Now you’re 24-years-old, and it’s time to prove your worth. The depth chart ahead of you is daunting, but one by one, the entire starting outfield succumbs to various maladies, and suddenly— finally!— you’re playing every day in the major leagues. Your lightning bat devastates the AL as you always knew it would, and you post a 117 wRC+.
However, you drop an easy catch with the sun in your eyes. Then you drop another. Then another. Even though you’ve always been a decent outfielder (scouts give you a 50-grade in center field, with the likelihood of being above average in a corner), you “can’t play defense” and “ought to be a DH.” Compounding the problem, you take a day off from speaking to the media— a veritable death sentence in New York. As a result, every pundit in the city is throwing around character accusations.
At present, you’re back in triple-A. Some say the demotion was to work your defense. Really, it’s because Aaron Judge and Aaron Hicks are healthy again, and you wouldn’t get to play very much in the majors. Be that as it may, you’ve collected a career’s worth of reputations in merely 107 MLB games:
- “can’t hit in the majors” based on your first 142 plate appearances
- “injury-prone” due to one substantial concussion
- “terrible defense” thanks to a bunching of a few bad plays with a tough glare
- “can’t handle the New York pressure” because of a few skipped questions
Meanwhile, you’re still blocked by three titans of the sport (once Giancarlo Stanton is healthy again). What’s next for you, Clint Frazier?
The Real Clint Frazier
In our meanderings though life, we all develop reputations. Some good, some bad, some fair, some undeserved. Even as a touted former prospect who has hit well this season, Frazier has accrued several derogatory reps. Let’s turn them over to see if they are valid.
His first reputation, established as a rookie in 2017, has been largely debunked. While he didn’t hit very well that season, he was only 22 at the time. The average triple-A player was 27 that year, and the average major leaguer was 29. Even though he was always young for his level, he posted at least an .800 OPS at the three highest minor league levels. Besides, after his lost 2018 season, he is hitting .283/.330/.513 this year in 209 MLB plate appearances. His 105 DRC+ and Statcast’s x-stats suggest his true talent level is closer to league average, but that’s still valuable as a hitter.
The second reputation he earned was that of an injury-prone player. That’s not really fair.
Concussions can happen to anyone, and recovery is highly unpredictable. While it mostly wiped out his 2018 season, he’s shown no symptoms this year. He did miss two weeks in late April and early May with an ankle sprain, but there’s no history to suggest recurrence.
As for his defense, there’s no way around it: he’s been awful this season. Statcast grades his outfield work at -10 outs above average. He’s made no truly impressive catches, yet he’s misplayed several easy opportunities.
There’s room for optimism, though. In the minors, scouts never questioned Frazier’s defensive ability and his athleticism to improve remains present as well. He’s 58th percentile in outfield jump and 63rd percentile in sprint speed. Defense fluctuates year-to-year more than any other aspect of baseball, and it’s likely he can recover later this year or in the future.
There’s no statistical way to measure a player’s ability to handle the New York media pressure. This is the most nebulous, loosely-defined reputation of all. It’s also the hardest to shake, given that it is largely a construct of the media itself, that is often an echo-chamber of talk-radio and back-page tabloids.
For the purposes of the trade deadline, we’re more interested in what Frazier will potentially become rather than what he has been so far. It appears as though he should be an above-average batter with maybe average defense or slightly below average. That’s a starting-caliber player who’s still only 24. He won’t be arbitration-eligible until 2021 and can’t become a free agent until 2024.
The Yankees have to make a decision to commit to his long-term MLB development or trade him. He has little chance for playing time this year with their stacked outfield. In addition to Aarons Judge and Hicks, Brett Gardner is playing every day. Luke Voit and Edwin Encarnación take up first base and DH most games. Giancarlo Stanton and Cameron Maybin will return from the IL eventually as well.
Should they keep him, there could be more opportunity in 2020. Gardner, Encarnación, and Maybin will most likely depart via free agency. That opens up a left field/DH spot which the Yankees will need to fill. Frazier is the natural fit as things stand currently.
However, these are the Yankees, and the present must always take a higher priority over the future. They need a starting pitcher, and they need one sooner rather than later. Toronto’s Marcus Stroman, Cleveland’s Trevor Bauer, and San Francisco’s Madison Bumgarner have been floated as trade possibilities. Toronto is last in MLB with -1.3 fWAR from their outfield. With 0.8 and 0.6, Cleveland and San Francisco are 25th and 26th out of 30. As a controllable, major league-ready outfielder, Frazier is the most natural starting point for a return package.
Frazier ought to have a long, successful major league career, during which he will accrue even more reputations. Some will be more just than others. Whether or not he accrues them in New York depends on the next few weeks.
Daniel R. Epstein is an elementary special education teacher and president of the Somerset County Education Association. In addition to BtBS, he writes at www.OffTheBenchBaseball.com. Tweets @depstein1983