Opinion: Clint Frazier is worth a look in center field

Clint Frazier has mostly played left field and right field but could be worth a look in center field.|Art or Photo Credit: AP

The New York Yankees have confronted a series of offensive dilemmas. After losing center fielder Aaron Hicks to season-ending surgery to repair a torn tendon sheath in his left wrist, the Yankees have been implementing a variety of strategies to fill the void. They have used nine ball players for 15 different outfield combinations in the starting lineup. Even Aaron Judge has played three ball games in center field this season.

Statistically, the Yankees have yet to find the right mix to jumpstart the ball club’s sluggish offense. Judge is once again excelling at an all-star level in right field, but the Yankees are performing below expectations in center and left fields. According to Baseball-Reference’s team position performance by On-Base Plus Slugging (OPS), the seven center fielders who have at least one plate appearance for the Yankees have produced a .604 OPS. This is the lowest in the American League and well below the .730 OPS league average for center field. The last time the Yankees had posted an OPS below .700 from the center field position was the 2005 season.

Through five left fielders with a minimum of one plate appearance, the Yankees are currently producing a .677 OPS with a .696 OPS league average for the position. The last time the Yankees had two outfield positions fail to achieve an OPS of .700 or greater was the 2013 season. According to Baseball-Reference’s calculation of Wins Above Replacement (WAR), the Yankees currently have a 0.0 WAR for center field and -0.6 WAR for left field. Overall, the Yankees’ outfield is producing a 0.4 WAR, the lowest in the American League.

Miguel Andujar’s offensive performance in recent weeks has been uplifting as he is learning to become a left fielder. From May 15 through the recently concluded series against the Minnesota Twins, Andujar has played in 22 ball games with 20 of them being in left field. During this period, Andujar has posted an .848 OPS. Through eight starts in left field over the Yankees’ first nine ball games in June, Andujar has been impressive with a 1.097 OPS highlighted by four home runs in 33 plate appearances. As his confidence builds with each at bat, Andujar is focused on returning to the ball player who in 2018 produced an .855 OPS supported by 47 doubles and 27 home runs over 149 ball games.

The Yankees have regularly turned to veteran Brett Gardner to play center field. The beloved clubhouse leader and former Gold Glove Award winner should not carry the burden of being an everyday outfielder at this phase of his distinguished career. His value to the Yankees aligns perfectly as a reliable fourth outfielder and defensive replacement late in ball games while occasionally bringing his competitive spirit to the starting lineup and pinch-running opportunities.

Through 98 plate appearances while playing center field, Gardner has posted a .635 OPS. However, Gardner has been performing well in the month of June with a 1.072 OPS over nine ball games. His 1.7 ultimate zone rating (UZR) between center and left fields this season is very respectable even with -1 defensive runs saved (DRS).

The Yankees need consistent offensive production out of its center field position instead of trying to catch lightning in a bottle with a variety of ball players. Their pursuit of Hick’s replacement has mostly focused on veteran leadership and defensive aspects of center field: speed, instinct, and athleticism. Besides experimenting with Judge and relying on Gardner’s experience, the Yankees have also called upon utility ball player Tyler Wade and highly regarded prospect Estevan Florial for auditions.

The Yankees have yet to utilize Clint Frazier as an option to play center field. As he has spilt time between left and right fields, Frazier has struggled to find a rhythm on offense like many of his teammates. A ball player who possesses an abundance of talent and charisma, the potential is still evident with Frazier regardless of the inconsistencies. Glimpses of exceptional bat speed and a recent extra inning walk-off home run against the Tampa Bay Rays further demonstrated that Frazier has the fortitude to excel in key situations.

Even though Frazier has made a few highlight-reel catches in the outfield, he has not fared well in terms of the advanced defensive metrics this season according to FanGraphs. A 2020 Gold Glove Award finalist in right field, Frazier is currently producing a combined -7 DRS and -5.5 UZR between left and right fields (398.2 innings). In terms of range-based metrics presented by Statcast such as Outs Above Average (OAA), Frazier’s -6 OAA is the worst among qualified outfielders. In another Statcast metric, Outfield Jump, Frazier has not fared well in terms of reaction (-1.8), burst (-1.7), and route (0.2).

Frazier is not a novice when it comes to playing center field. Even though he has only played the position once at the major league level three years ago, Frazier still has accumulated significant experience in the minor leagues. He has played 293 ball games in center field across multiple levels of minor league competition as well as an additional 16 ball games during his time in the Arizona Fall League.

Analytically speaking, moving Frazier to center field is not an optimum defensive solution. The Yankees’ center fielders currently have a -3 DRS as a ball club but also a favorable 1.4 UZR, fifth best in the American League. Regardless of the advanced defensive metrics, Frazier needs to find a new way to have his name penciled into the starting lineup with Andujar’s emergence in left field and without moving Judge out of right field. Frazier playing center field might be a gamble, but it could also serve as a much-needed spark for the Yankees. If Frazier can find a comfortable rhythm at the plate, both he and Andujar can lengthen the Yankees’ offense while creating problems for opposing pitchers in the bottom third of the batting order.

Clint Frazier has shown tremendous growth over the past four years. He has battled an assortment of challenges but has never lost confidence in himself. The New York Yankees believe in Frazier’s abilities and should go against analytical wisdom by giving him a chance to play center field. The Yankees have already taken multiple calculated risks in searching for Aaron Hicks’ replacement. It is the opinion of this writer that Frazier deserves a look in center field.