Weekly Mailbag: Frazier vs. Hicks Re-Visited, A Batting Average Quest, and Sanchez's OBP!

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In this week’s mailbag, we’ll re-visit the Frazier vs. Hicks conversation, look at DJ LeMahieu’s ever-ascending batting average, and fret over Gary Sanchez’s OBP. Let’s get at it:

Mike says: Hicks is by far the better centerfielder but he’ll be 30 years old compared to Frazier’s 25. Hicks is a lifetime .235 hitter and Frazier has a much bigger offensive upside than Hicks. I personally think Frazier has a much brighter future and maybe that’s why Cashman has held on to him. Hopefully he’ll be given a real shot to be a starter next year!!

I wanted to re-visit this topic mostly because I think that there are a lot of people out there who share Mike’s opinion.  Everyone here knows my oft-stated belief in Frazier’s ability, but I also think that over the course of this crazy season, many have begun to underrate just how good Hicks is, and will likely continue to be.

Hicks has had a down year when compared to his most recent Yankee campaigns, but to use just his lifetime batting average to assess his offensive capabilities going forward misses a lot.  Hicks struggled upon entering the big leagues, and the Twins exacerbated those issues by giving him inconsistent playing time until they ultimately gave up on him.  While Hicks’ first season in pinstripes was a year meant to finish his development, each of Hicks’ last two seasons were near-all-star level performances.  His defensive metrics are universally above-average (and the eye test says he may be even better than that) and as a total package, Hicks’ peak seasons can produce nearly 5 WAR no matter what flavor of the metric you prefer.

If we look closer at what he’s done this year, in his age-29 season, Hicks has still managed to produce .325 OBP and .208 ISO with 12 HR in just 221 AB around some injuries.  Those contributions, despite the fact that those numbers are down from their previous levels, still represent roughly average to above-average offensive performance, and in that small sample, Hicks has still been worth 1.2 bWAR/1.0 fWAR this season.

Assuming Hicks can rebound from this year’s injury struggles, based on standard aging curves, Hicks is likely to still be an above-average CF through his age-33 season.  Guys like that do not fall off of trees, and Frazier would not ever be able to replace Hicks in that spot.

Frazier performed admirably with the bat this year.  In 209 PA, Frazier produced similarly to Hicks at the plate from a value perspective, albeit using a much different combination of attributes. Whereas Hicks does a little bit of everything at the plate and on the bases, Frazier’s value comes almost entirely from his ability to make contact and hit for power.  To be fair, Frazier did this quite well in this year’s relatively small sample!

However, there is a ton of volatility in Frazier’s profile due to his relative lack of plate discipline.  Frazier’s walk and strikeout rates leave a lot to be desired (6.2% BB% and 28.2% K%), and he will be prone to long slumps if he is unable to improve in this area.  The likelihood of this happening is decreasing due to two factors: Frazier has missed a ton of precious development time due to injuries and he is already 25 years old.  If Frazier is going to improve in that facet of the game, he needs to start getting big league at-bats soon, and there may not be room for that on a healthy Yankee roster.

Based on Frazier’s defensive profile and plate discipline shortcomings, I think peak-Frazier could be a 3-4 WAR player if everything breaks perfectly.  More likely, I think Frazier settles in as an average everyday option with tons of pop, but whose value is limited by defense and plate discipline.  I hope I’m wrong and that Frazier is a late bloomer, but the missed development time the last couple of years really hurt him.

At Frazier’s likely best, he is still likely a lesser player than Hicks for the next 2-3 seasons.  That’s not a knock!  Hicks is just really good, and his peak happens to coincide with the Yankees’ championship aspirations better.  This doesn’t mean that Cashman needed to trade Frazier at the deadline – I respect the fact that the Yankees value Frazier’s talent such that they will not trade him for less value than they feel he’s worth.  Maybe Frazier sticks around and carves out a role, but I think that possibility is getting less likely by the day.

Mark asks: What’s the over under on LeMahieu batting .350. Who was the last Yank to bat .350 or even .340?

LeMahieu has been incredible this year.  I liked the signing in the off-season, but I never expected LeMahieu to go on the tear he’s been on all year.  As much as I love the modern metrics we use to evaluate player value, and believe in their ability to tell us about a player’s production accurately, it is fun to see a guy who puts the ball in play as successfully as LeMahieu does.  A .350 batting average would be a lot of fun.

That said, baseball is hard.  LeMahieu is at .338 right now, so he’d have to maintain a .365ish batting average the rest of the way to get there.  The way he’s been hitting, he could do it!  I just don’t think it’s likely.  He’s been so good, I’ll even give him a 25% chance of making it happen.  The Yankees would not have the best record in baseball without LeMahieu this year.

I really hope LeMahieu gets there.  Based on my quick research (feel free to check me on this one, guys), I think that the last Yankee to hit even .330+ was Bernie Williams in 2002 (.333).  Bern babie Bern.

Mark also asks: What is the average catcher’s OBP? Should the Yankees be concerned if Sanchez starts dipping below .300?

I love Sanchez, and I think he’s starting to get hot again, so hopefully this topic becomes a moot point.  That said, I have been surprised all year by Sanchez’s relatively weak walk numbers compared to his previous years.  Sanchez came into Friday with a .306 OBP, and I would say that is low enough to have an eyebrow raised.

Two quick observations here.  One, while I don’t know what the average catcher OBP is, catcher offense as a whole is not strong this year, so by comparison, Sanchez looks great due to his power production.  Secondly, even with his 2nd half slump, Sanchez rates in the top-10 in catcher WAR and wRC+.  So, even with the subpar OBP and a slump, Sanchez is pretty darn good.

If he heats up over the next month, I think it is very likely that Sanchez finishes the year as a top-5 catcher.  I’d be pretty happy with that!

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That’s all for this week! Let’s hope the Yanks show something more against Cleveland this weekend, and see you next week with another mailbag! As always, send in your questions to sstnreadermail@gmail.com.