The emergence of Clint Frazier as a reliable hitter and outfielder raises questions about Brett Gardner’s future with the New York Yankees.
Both of the popular outfielders have a lot in common. For one, they’re both cult heroes. Aside from his excellent play on the field, Frazier has become known for his large collection of custom cleats. Gardner, though not as flashy a ballplayer as Frazier, still wins people over with his willingness to, er, challenge umpires. The bat-banging is also fun, and Gardner is the unquestioned veteran leader of the Bronx Bombers.
And as valuable as both players are to the Yankees, especially in the shortened 2020 season, keeping both could be tough. Gardner just turned 37 and his contract is up at the end of the season. Frazier, meanwhile, just turned 26 and has finally ensconced himself as an everyday player.
The Yankees may not realize it, but they’re about to be at a crossroads. Gardner is still somewhat effective despite his age, but Frazier’s ceiling is too high to ignore. Whatever tough decision general manager Brian Cashman makes, it will affect both players’ futures.
The case for Clint Frazier
On numbers alone, we know how valuable Clint Frazier has been to the Yankees in 2020. He’s batting .296 with eight home runs and 26 RBI, plus a .984 OPS. Frazier’s OBP is also a respectable .410, which can be traced to his BB% jumping to 15.6%. For context, Frazier’s career BB% is just 8.7%.
The good numbers keep coming the further we fall down the analytics hole. Frazier has posted a strong WRC+ of 176, and an astounding wOBA of .421, the latter of which is among the top 5% of baseball. Luck is absolutely a factor, what with his .366 BABIP, but it’s not that much of a fluke. Frazier is that good of a hitter, with his line drive rate (LD%) sitting at 26.6%. Additionally, his chase rate (Chase%) is a career-best 13.9%.
Frazier has also been a factor in the field after some ugly errors sent him back to the minors last year. However, thanks to his concussion issues finally being behind him, he has shown marked improvement. His DRS is up to four from -8 in 2019, and is the first time in his career he has posted a DRS above zero.
Furthermore, looking at Baseball Savant, we can see how Clint Frazier is an above average outfielder, perhaps with even elite potential. His outs above average (OAA) is a modest 2 in 2020, but his catch success rate skyrocketed to 93% from just 72% in 2019.
To say that he has earned a regular spot not just in the lineup, but on next year’s team is a major understatement.
An end to the Gardy party?
And as great as it’s been watching Clint Frazier finally have his moment in the sun, it’s come at a cost to Brett Gardner. Unlike his younger counterpart, he’s having a more frustrating 2020 as his career winds down.
A telling number is his batting average. A .258 career hitter, Gardner is only batting .212 this season, though he has managed an impressive .347 OBP. Gardner has also seen his LD% rise above 20% for the first time since 2017, and his hard contact rate is at a career high 39.8%. His plate discipline is back too, with Gardner posting his lowest O-Swing% since 2010.
That said, what’s eating Brett Gardner if he seems to be doing everything right? Well, it’s simple. A .244 BABIP means though Gardner is having good at-bats and making good contact, he’s often running into worse luck than the kids from “The Blair Witch Project.”
The worst of it all is though Clint Frazier has clearly established himself as a starting outfielder both now and for the future, the transition might be rough. Per Bryan Hoch of MLB.com, Gardner “would love to play in 2021,” despite a “frustrating” 2020.
Granted, this might not be a bad idea. Gardner is still useful in the field and hasn’t lost much at the plate, rough performance this year aside. Moreover, Mike Tauchman’s regression also raises some questions for next season.
And Gardner could prove everyone wrong again. Some might recall that in 2018, amidst another rough season for himself, I penned the Yankees should move on from him. Gardner then hit a career-high 28 home runs in 2019 as Frazier struggled.
Now, without actually saying as much, Gardner sounds like he wants to come back despite being effectively benched this year.
It’s perfectly understandable why Brett Gardner would want to come back to New York for one more year. He loves being a Yankee. This is the only team he has known his entire professional career. Of course he wants to retire in pinstripes.
Unfortunately, the emergence of Clint Frazier makes this harder. If Gardner is destined to spend another year as a Yankee, it’s hard to believe it will be as a starter. Unless Frazier turns out to be a fluke, and all signs imply he isn’t, Gardner is more likely to be a backup outfielder.
Money could also be a factor. Before the pandemic adjusted every professional athlete’s salary this year, Gardner signed a one-year, $12.5 million deal with a $10 million club option for 2021. The team could pick it up but, with all due respect to Gardner, it seems unlikely to happen at this point. Thus, it could come down to Gardner’s willingness to take a hometown discount.
All in all, it’s important to realize this is a good problem for the New York Yankees to have. Clint Frazier is a dynamic young outfielder who has waited literal years for this opportunity. He took his opportunity and didn’t run with it, but sprinted. Brett Gardner, contrastingly, is a more blue collar player whose greatest quality right now is his leadership.
It’s clear Frazier is the better man now and should be treated as such. Hopefully, whatever the Yankees decide to do with Gardner, it will hopefully acknowledge just how much of himself he has given the team for his entire career.