The 1968 Detroit Tigers won 103 games and the American League pennant. However, they had a serious lineup construction problem as they prepared to face the St. Louis Cardinals in the World Series: four of their best players were outfielders (there was no DH yet). Willie Horton (167 wRC+), Al Kaline (146 wRC+), Jim Northrup (131 wRC+), and Mickey Stanley (103 wRC+ and Gold Glove defense in center field) all deserved to be in the lineup.
But that wasn’t the only problem. Their three shortstops were Tom Matchick (57 wRC+), Dick Tracewski (47 wRC+), and Ray Oyler (23 wRC+). None proved competent enough with the bat to face Bob Gibson’s Cardinals. Manager Mayo Smith solved both problems at once in the most simple, inelegant manner. He made Stanley, the best athlete of his outfield quartet, play shortstop. Stanley made two errors in the series but also turned a few double plays, and the Tigers won in seven games.
To a non-baseball fan, this makes complete sense. If you have too many of Thing A and not enough of Thing B, just turn some Thing A into Thing B. It’s as simple as making change for a five dollar bill. Of course, there’s decades of training and muscle memory necessary to succeed at any position in the major leagues. But if the defensive standards are lowered enough to make way for superior offense, maybe the unwritten rules of position changes can bend just a little.
The 2018 Yankees are the 1968 Tigers
Mickey Stanley is relevant because the Yankees have six outfielders and no third baseman. Assuming Gleyber Torres is a) as good as advertised, and b) a second baseman, their options at third are Ronald Torreyes, Miguel Andujar, and Tyler Wade. Perhaps that’s not so bad; Andujar and Wade have prospect pedigree and upside. However, the opportunity cost of playing those three is that one of Aaron Judge, Giancarlo Stanton, Brett Gardner, Jacoby Ellsbury, Aaron Hicks, and Clint Frazier has to sit out. The off season is far from over, but perhaps it’s time to consider the Mayo Smith course of action and make one of the outfielders a third baseman.
Ellsbury and Gardner are immediately ineligible to play third base because they throw left-handed. In the history of baseball, the only two players taller than 6’5 to play more than 100 games at third base are Dave Kingman and Ryan Minor. Kingman spent most of his career as an OF/DH and Minor’s career wasn’t very long or successful. If 6’5 is the tallest a third baseman can be, Judge (6’7) and Stanton (6’6) should be disqualified. That leaves Hicks and Frazier. Hicks is arguably the team’s best center fielder and an established major league veteran. Frazier, who is already the odd man out, therefore becomes our third base lab rat.
Scouting Clint Frazier
59 players spent at least half of their games at third base in 2017. The average size of those players was 6’1, 207 lbs. Clint Frazier is listed at 6’1, 190 lbs. While he’s a little scrawnier than usual for a third baseman, he fits the size profile very well. He’s the same exact size as Cheslor Cuthbert and Josh Rutledge, who aren’t exactly stars but are at least competent major league defenders (0.4 and 0.2 FRAA at 3B). Matt Chapman and Jedd Gyorko were the best defensive third basemen last year by FRAA (12.6 and 12.5). Chapman is 6’0, 210 lbs while Gyorko is 5’10, 215 lbs. If, for some reason, Frazier needs to add 15 pounds to play the hot corner, it’s probably achievable. If not, he already at least looks like a third baseman.
Frazier just barely exhausted his prospect eligibility in 2017, but his MLB career is still almost entirely projection. Upon being called up to the majors in July, Baseball Prospectus’ Jarrett Siedler wrote:
“He has enough arm to play right, but probably won’t see much time there given Judge’s existence. He’s an excellent overall athlete who is presently an above-average runner.”
That’s a very good start! A strong arm is a prerequisite for the left side of the infield. The whole “excellent overall athlete” thing seems important as well. Not every third baseman fits that description (see Miguel Sano and Pablo Sandoval), but for a heretofore uncharted position change athleticism is necessary.
While it’s great that all the physical indicators point to Frazier being a successful infielder, it also poses a problem. If he should physically be able to play on the dirt, how come he never has? With rare exception, the best high school ballplayers are found at one of three positions: catcher, shortstop, and center field. Frazier, who was the fifth overall draft pick out of high school in 2013, was a center fielder. This phenomenal, speedy, ideal-sized athlete with a strong right-handed throwing arm most likely hasn’t played shortstop since at least middle school, maybe even earlier. There has to be some unknown reason!
Perhaps he’s not good at fielding grounders? Maybe he never learned to get a good jump on the ball and doesn’t read it well off the bat? It’s even possible that, one day in Little League, some helplessly uninterested nine-year-old was picking dandelions in right field when the batter smoked a line drive into the gap. Young Clint Frazier raced over from center and made a spectacular, game-saving catch as nearly a dozen parents cheered triumphantly. Was this the moment he decided to be an outfielder? We may never know, but he certainly is out of practice playing anywhere else.
It’s fair to assume Clint Frazier wouldn’t be very good at third base, or at least not in 2018. Even with all the physical attributes working in his favor, it takes a long time to learn a completely new position. But how bad could he possibly be? The lowest FRAA of any third baseman in 2017 belonged to Nick Castellanos, who suffered through a -13.7 FRAA season. The worst FRAA season ever by a third baseman was Chipper Jones’ -30.8 in 1999 (the year he won the NL MVP). Perhaps more applicably, the fourth worst single season FRAA at third base belongs to career outfielder Frank Thomas (not that Frank Thomas, the other one), who posted a -25.7 in 1958. Thomas was the starting center fielder for the Pirates through the 1955 season, but was moved to the hot corner in 1956 to accommodate young stars Roberto Clemente, Bill Virdon, and Lee Walls. He remained at third base for the next few seasons until he was traded to the Reds prior to 1959.
If Frazier is as awful as Thomas, the experiment will be a disaster. Relatively little was known about measuring defense in the 1950s, but in modern times no one would suffer through a defender twice as bad as Castellanos. In fact, Castellanos is only barely tolerable himself.
So how bad can Frazier be while still being successful? The second lowest third base FRAA in 2017 was -10.8 by Jake Lamb. In spite of this, Lamb still posted a solid 3.41 WARP. He slashed .248/.357/.487 with a .293 TAv. Can Frazier match that level of offense? Frazier walked only 7 times in 142 PA in the majors, so he probably won’t reach Lamb’s 13.7% walk rate. But he does have the potential to unleash devastating line drives upon the American League. As per Seidler,
“I’m running out of adjectives to describe his bat speed. Let’s go with “among the best in baseball” this time. He takes amazingly fast, amazingly violent cuts at the ball. Combine that with easy plus raw power and an idea of what to do at the plate, and Frazier has as much hitting potential as you’re going to find in the minors.”
Worth a Try?
Art Blakey was an extraordinary jazz musician playing the wrong instrument. As a teenager, he had a gig playing piano at a Pittsburgh nightclub. One evening, the drummer didn’t show up, so the owner forced Blakey at gunpoint to take over behind the drumset. He stayed at that drum kit for nearly 60 years, creating wonderful music and collecting every possible honor and acclaim.
Clint Frazier is not going to play baseball for 60 more years and he (hopefully) doesn’t have a gun in his face. Rookie manager Aaron Boone probably isn’t brave/reckless/stupid enough to move him to third base. At some point in the relatively near future, general manager Brian Cashman will trade one of his outifielders, or some combination of them will get hurt, or they can just power through the season and wait for Gardner’s contract to expire.
Those are all the realistic things that will happen. But should it be so absurd to let Frazier take a few ground balls in Spring Training? Mayo Smith would think not.
(Photo credit: Kim Klement | USA Today Sports)