In a small sample during the 2020 season, it looked as if Clint Frazier took some steps forward, both offensively and defensively, that made many think he was finally turning the corner and becoming the player that made him a top-five pick in the 2013 draft, as well as one of the game’s top prospects. Frazier posted an impressive .267/.394/.511 slash line last year, and he also notably saw his defense grade out as positive, and even ending up a finalist for a Gold Glove award, a welcome surprise after a few years of notable defensive miscues and injuries sustained in the field.
The Yankees certainly felt confident enough in Frazier’s ability to hand him the keys to a starting spot from the get-go in 2021, hoping to get more of the same from him in the new year. But, things rarely go as planned in this game. It has not gone so well for Frazier for most of the season as he has just not looked like the same player on both sides of the balls this year, and suddenly, corner outfield perhaps looks like a position of need for the Yankees again this summer.
However, I don’t think Frazier should be counted out entirely. Even inside the bad .185/.305/.318 slash line, it hasn’t been all bad. To this point, Frazier has maintained his newfound plate discipline that took some steps forward last season, as he continues to walk at a high rate–13.6% to be exact, just a tick behind Aaron Judge for the highest rate on the team. Additionally, Frazier set a new career-high in terms of maximum exit velocity which, at 111.5 miles-per-hour, is an improvement of nearly three miles-per-hour from last season, and sits in the 81st percentile of all hitters this season. To go along with that, Frazier has maintained a good barrel rate this season. While down from last season, it does sit a more-than-fine 11.3%, which is still right in line with where it was in 2019, and compares well to the league as a whole, as it sits in the 67th percentile.
What has also been a positive mark for Frazier in the midst of a poor start to the season has been how well he’s hit his fly balls and line drives. One likely wouldn’t guess Frazier has been so good in this area just based on the overall Statcast quality-of-contact metrics, but he has. Frazier has been consistent here going back to 2019 (the three seasons in which he has had the most playing time), and has continued to be a positive so far this year:
Frazier’s actual results may be slightly trailing his expected ones this year, but the expected stats are right in line with prior years, and his average exit velocity on these types of batted balls is well above the league average. There doesn’t look to be anything overly concerning about this profile as it stands right now. The barrel rate is good, the max exit velocity is better than last year, the line drive and fly ball metrics are right in line with his career norms, and the walk rate is well above-average, yet things are not good overall. If you were given just these metrics to describe Frazier this season without knowing his actual slash line, you would most likely think he was doing well. So then, what exactly is going on then with Frazier this season? Well, when things get combined together, it looks to be a few things–all of which can really bring a hitter down.
Let’s start with what looks to be the most obvious. For all of the good that Frazier has done of his line drives and fly balls this season, a lot of it has been given back by what has been a super high rate of pop-ups. A 14.9% pop-up rate speaks for itself–it’s the second-highest in the game this year, and that’s obviously not something a hitter wants to lead the league in. This is something new for Frazier this year, as in the past, he’s never had much of a pop-up issue, with his previous career-high (excluding small samples in 2017 and 2018) coming in 2019 at 7.8%–not much higher than league average.
Where all of these pop-ups show up is in Frazier’s Sweet-Spot rate–essentially the rate at which a hitter hits the ball in the more optimal launch angle intervals. With all of the extra pop-ups from Frazier this season, it’s no surprise that his Sweet Spot rate has dropped from well-above-average to one of the lower rates in baseball, as he just isn’t hitting as many balls in the good range:
Here, we can see just how big of a drop-off it has been for Frazier in this department this season. Keep in mind that last season, Frazier had one of the top-40 highest Sweet Spot rates in the game, and this year, it has reversed to a bottom-40 rate.
This also shows up when looking at the standard deviation of Frazier’s launch angle, or more simply, launch angle tightness, which is similar in some ways to Sweet Spot rate but is more of a measure of how consistently a hitter repeats their launch angle. In 2019 and 2020, Frazier was pretty consistent in terms of launch angle tightness, but this year, it has started to stray in the opposite direction, which corresponds with the higher pop-up rate (remember: lower is better for launch angle tightness):
Looking at things this way, it does make sense. More balls at the extreme end of the launch angle spectrum will cause more spread in a hitter’s launch angle. So, while Frazier’s average launch angle is up this year from last year to 15.5 degrees, it looks to be due mostly to all of those extra pop-ups, as Frazier is hitting fewer line drives and fly balls on a rate basis this year:
Furthermore, we can see just how much the pop-ups have affected Frazier if we take a moment to ignore his pop-ups, and just focus on the other three batted-ball types. We can do this by taking pop-ups out of the equation and just look at the standard deviation of Frazier’s launch angle on his grounders, fly balls, and line drives for the past three years and compare to his overall mark. It’s probably not all that practical of an exercise, but it does help show the point:
Of course, without including pop-ups Frazier improves in terms of launch angle consistency in each time frame. That would be true for every hitter, but the difference between the two periods is that Frazier is actually being more consistent with his launch angle this season when pop-ups are removed from the equation and that all of those extra pop-ups have cost him over six points of spread. Now, we obviously can’t ignore a hitter’s whole body of work when it comes to the overall batted-ball distribution, but the point here is to show just how much Frazier’s high pop-up rate has been hurting him. Besides what’s obvious in that pop-ups are essentially automatic outs, a much higher rate of them suggests that Frazier is maybe mishitting a few too many balls, and when he is able to square up more of his contact, he generally hits the ball well–evidenced by the still-strong line drive and fly ball metrics.
It’s still not ideal, as again, Frazier’s groundball rate is still above 40%, so those extra pop-ups haven’t come at the expense of grounders, but more often than not, when Frazier manages to hit a ball in the air that isn’t a pop-up, it’s being hit well. It just gets hidden in the overall profile because the pop-ups have been so impeding. In theory, things should get better if the pop-ups get under control, but it’s probably not just that simple, due to some of the weirdness that is coming from his swing profile.
Frazier’s high walk rate has been one of the positives of his season so far. This part of his game has been developing since last year, and it looks to be the result of a conscious decision by Frazier. After not walking much in his first run of extended playing time back in 2019 at just 6.5%, Frazier has more than doubled that rate in each of the next two seasons, as over the last two years, we have seen Clint become a lot more passive at the plate, evidenced by looking at his plate discipline metrics:
Frazier has cut down on the number of swings the last couple of years, and that mostly has come at the expense of chases, as Frazier has done a very good job of not chasing pitches the last two seasons. However, when you look at these numbers, you wouldn’t peg Frazier as a hitter that would have as high a strikeout rate as he has (28.2% this season–it was a similarly high 27.5% last year). Frazier does whiff more than average (26.4% compared to the 24.5% league average), but a two percent difference from league average wouldn’t be enough to explain it, and that whiff rate is actually much lower than last season’s 31.7% rate. This then leads to the question of whether or not Frazier is maybe being too passive at the plate.
We can maybe see this by looking at his called-strike rate. After having a called-strike rate of 16.2% from his first taste of the Majors in 2017 through 2019, it has risen to a 19.4% rate in the next two seasons–with 2021 right in line with 2020. Frazier has a top-25 called-strike rate this season and sees about 4.26 pitches per plate appearance–one of the 20-highest rates in the game and well above the 3.92 league average. There’s nothing wrong with being passive at the plate on the surface. The thinking would be that a more passive hitter is going to maximize the pitches they do swing at by seeking out the pitches that they like and doing a lot of damage to them.
What that does lead to is a lot of called strikes, of course, but in the case of Frazier, it has lead to a lot of called strike threes in particular. Of those called strike-threes, some of them look to be on pitches that a hitter should be expected to hit well:
Those are pitches that Frazier would probably want back, and for good reason, as those look like good pitches. In terms of strikeouts of the looking variety, with half of his strikeouts being called, Frazier has the second-highest rate in baseball this season:
It does make sense that Frazier would have a much higher rate of strikeouts looking compared to swinging since we saw earlier that he doesn’t have an outlandishly high whiff rate, nor does he chase much at all. Now, I believe that not all strikeout rates are created equal. Meaning, that I probably would rather have a hitter be in Clint’s situation rather than the opposite: one with a much higher rate of strikeouts swinging. A good batting eye is important, and Clint does appear to have a good one. It seems like his passivity problem would be an easier one to solve than if he were whiffing a lot more. Called strikeouts can also be a bit noisy too. Not that it’s entirely to blame, but until automatic strike zones are implemented and catcher framing remains a high priority for teams, bad calls will happen and it seems like an umpire’s zone can change by the day or the inning sometimes. Clint has had his fair share of bad strike three calls, but again, we saw that Frazier has let some good pitches go too. Overall though, it would seem that Frazier would maybe be better off being more aggressive on pitches in the zone so as to make this less of a factor. Other players have been able to cut down their strikeouts by being more aggressive on pitches in the zone, so perhaps Frazier could be another one.
It could also be something mental. Maybe Frazier just isn’t feeling as comfortable in the box for whatever reason, or maybe too overwhelmed by just how good opposing pitchers’ stuff has been this season, or maybe he’s guessing more at what pitch is coming, and simply guessing wrong. It’s perhaps not right to speculate about it, but it just does seem like something is off for Frazier here in this department. He’s also notably swinging less when he’s behind in the count as opposed to when the count is even or he’s ahead (30.9% when behind, 47.1% when ahead) which seems odd to me, but that can also perhaps explain why he’s experiencing a lot more called strikeouts too.
All in all, when everything is added up together, with such a high strikeout rate and a high pop-up rate, it ends up being that Frazier has made a lot of easy outs at the plate this season. Pop-ups turn into outs pretty much every single time barring something weird happening, so you can almost treat those as strikeouts in that they’re both outs nearly 100% of the time. With such high rates in both categories, it’s no surprise that Frazier has largely been unproductive at the plate–even with a good baseline with a good walk rate. By combining a hitter’s strikeout rate with their pop-up rate, we can see how many of their plate appearances end in what are essentially “automatic outs”. It’s not a leaderboard a hitter would want to be at the top of, and it’s not a surprise to see Frazier there knowing what we know:
It’s hard to be successful as a hitter when over 40% of your plate appearances end up as practically automatic outs. We see just how difficult that is in this table–of the top ten highest “Auto-Out” leaders, just three of them have a wRC+ above 100. Even then, Gallo and Báez still haven’t been their usual selves this season, and Upton is somehow making this work due to improvements elsewhere. Frazier could maybe work around a higher pop-up rate if he was striking out less or vice versa, but with both things happening at the same time, it’s definitely a hard profile to make work. Frazier does tend to hit the better batted-ball types well, but there just haven’t been enough of them to pull him out of it. Something has to give in this department going forward for Frazier to snap out of it.
For what it’s worth, Frazier has made some mechanical tweaks already this season, and maybe that does help get his pop-up rate down. He has hit just two pop-ups since May 15th, for instance, so maybe it’s already working. Frazier was able to have success last season while also being super-passive, so it’s not out of line for him to still go back to his old ways. Maybe he could stand to be more aggressive, but as it looks right now, there’s just not a lot going right in his profile. Frazier definitely has the talent and pedigree to snap out of it, but we’ll just have to wait and see what happens.
Photo by Cliff Welch/Icon Sportswire | Adapted by Aaron Polcare