Clint Frazier’s unexpected defensive turnaround

Clint Frazier: reliable defender? It’s hard to believe after prior years, but he’s been impressive this season. Is it a low bar to clear? Maybe. Nonetheless, his glovework was on display again last night to rob Joey Wendle. As you can see in the video above, Frazier basically made a Superman dive to haul it in.

Diving catches (especially that one) often look like incredible plays. It takes impressive timing and athleticism to make a snag like that at full extension. That said, diving catches can be necessitated by mistakes earlier in the play. A poor jump or a bad route to the ball can force an outfielder to lay out rather than make an easier catch while on the run. Watching on TV doesn’t let us see a jump or a route in real time, so it’s something that’s not typically in the front of our minds. Considering some of Frazier’s defensive miscues in the past, it’s fair to wonder if his catch last night (or any of his other defensive work this season) is actually good defense or a cover up for a previous mistake.

Wonder no more: Frazier’s defense has been better this season, statistically speaking. Statcast has all sorts of defensive measures that paint a rosy picture for Clint. Red Thunder has made marked improvements in getting a good jump on batted balls from last year. In fact, he’s been one of the best outfielders at getting a good jump on the ball this season.

Statcast’s Burst vs. Reaction.

Per Statcast’s Burst and Reaction metrics, the difference between Frazier’s jump last year to this year is night and day. I should clarify what those two metrics measure, though. Reaction measures how many feet are covered in the first 1.5 seconds of a batted ball. Burst measures feet covered in the 1.5 seconds thereafter. One caveat: those two metrics don’t care about route efficiency — they account for feet in any direction. Statcast does measure efficiency with Route, a stat that compares the actual feet covered in those 3 seconds vs. the “correct direction”. Burst, Reaction, and Route are all measured in feet vs. average, by the way. The sum of all three stats is Total Feet vs. Avg. With that aside, let’s dig back into Frazier.

Overall, Clint covers three feet more than average in the first three seconds. That doesn’t sound like much ground at first glance, but it’s actually fourth-best in MLB. Take a look:

Now, you’ll probably notice that Frazier’s Route is the worst of this group. There’s no way to sugarcoat it, but -1.3 feet below average puts him in the bottom-10 (peep Mike Tauchman, by the way).

So, are Clint’s jumps actually good? Yes and no. His athleticism is definitely doing the vast majority of the work for him and helps cover up for some not so ideal routes. For now, that’s fine. Maybe Clint doesn’t make the best reads, but his first step speed is important too. This will become more of an issue as he gets older. Yet, allow me to make an argument that the 25 year-old’s route efficiency isn’t a huge deal.

Up until this year, Frazier has taken slightly above-average routes to fly balls. That’s kind of hard to believe after what we’ve seen in prior years, but consider this: perhaps Frazier froze right after a batter made contact, which allowed him to take a more direct route. Maybe this year, at the expense of efficiency, he’s going on instinct (even if it’s not perfect) and taking advantage of his athleticism to track down fly balls. Whatever the case may be, it’s working much better for him this season.

Let’s take last night’s catch as an example of his athleticism over efficiency. Here’s the play chart:

You can see that Clint’s first step appears to be in before he makes a bee line to the landing spot. He also has to turn back in slightly to make the dive, which you can actually notice in the video. So yeah, that’s not necessarily a “good” route, but his speed helps him get the job done. If this was last year, I have no doubt that ball is in the gap for an extra base hit. Instead, he’d have waited a split second after contact and then headed toward the gap. This year, he’s going on instinct (even if it’s not the correct first step) and it’s working out much better.

The same can be said about this catch he made earlier this year:

There appears to be a very slight curve to that route. Once again: a quick first step might in an imperfect direction is better than no first step at all.

Outfield defense isn’t all about tracking down fly balls and line drives. It’s a big part of it, perhaps the most important aspect, but not everything. Arm strength is important too, especially in right field where there are more longer throws to make. This is one of Clint’s strengths. Check out this pea he threw earlier in the season:

One thing I haven’t addressed is concussion Frazier suffered in 2018. As you know, the lingering effects of the concussion chased Frazier for a long time thereafter. There’s a good chance it shook his confidence in the field, especially when making plays near the wall. Perhaps this year, even further removed from it, he’s regained some confidence out there.

Distance from his concussion certainly helps, but there’s no question that Frazier’s worked extremely hard to get better in the field. He’s taken plenty of lumps over the years for lackluster play, and rightly so. His defense was nothing short of abominable. But finally, all that hard work is paying off. I no longer cringe when the ball is hit in his direction, and that says a lot. Is it safe to declare him a good or above average defender yet? Maybe not, but it’s an incredible improvement to say that he’s reliable out there. I mean, how is this the same player that did all of this?

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1 Comment

  1. Steve W.

    Great article. I had been wondering about this lately. Excellent use of data to pinpoint where the change has been.

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