What Yankees Have Come Up Clutch This Season?
By Chris O’Connor
May 25, 2022
I have always been fascinated by the debate over whether clutch is a real skill for a Major League Baseball player.
Numerous studies have shown that it is not a repeatable skill as good hitters tend to hit better than lesser hitters in clutch situations because they tend to hit better in all situations. Whether or not a player is clutch one season does not correlate to the next. One of the best examples of this is Kris Bryant. Bryant was one of the top clutch players in the league in his rookie season in 2015, bottomed out to be one of the worst in both 2016 and 2017, and has since settled into league average over the past few seasons.
Having said that, even if the ability to consistently over-perform in big spots may not repeatable on the whole, I do believe that some players are more fitted to perform in pressure situations than others. So while context-neutral statistics like WAR and WRC+ are extremely valuable, and clutch is not necessarily predictive, I do think that a player’s value in a given season has to take into account the situational aspect of hitting. Let’s take a look at this from a Yankees perspective.
Fangraphs Clutch score measures how much better or worse a player does in high leverage situations than he would have done in a context neutral environment. Aaron Judge, for example, has been absurdly good all season with a .318/.389/.676 slash line and 2.7 fWAR in 39 games. His performance is so high that a lesser clutch score could mean that, while still worse than his overall line, his performance in big spots is still excellent. So while his -0.92 clutch score is last on the Yankees and seventh-worst among all qualified hitters, he still leads the Yankees and ranks fifth among all hitters in Win Probability Added. He has not necessarily been bad in big spots, but his .211/.318/.421 slash line and 121 WRC+ in high-leverage situations are a far cry from his overall numbers. There are different ways, however, to measure clutchness, and Judge’s .290/.395/.645 and 193 WRC+ with runners in scoring position tells a far more favorable tale, as does his .444/.458/1.022 slash line and 322 WRC+ in the seventh inning or later.
Another noteworthy player is D.J. LeMahieu. His 0.75 clutch score is second on the Yankees, which plays a big role in why he ranks eleventh in all of baseball in Win Probability Added. In high-leverage spots, LeMahieu is slashing .286/.500/.571 with a 220 WRC+. His bread-and-butter with the Yankees has always been hitting with runners in scoring position, and he has indeed delivered this year to a tune of .304/.484/.478 and a 195 WRC+ in those situations.. As a whole, while an improvement relative to the league over his difficult 2021, LeMahieu’s overall stats are down from past seasons. He is hitting .252/.331/.378 for a 114 WRC+ and 3 homers in 38 games. His performance in big spots, however, has really helped the team get some victories and has dramatically increased his value on the season.
As for who leads the Yankees in clutch score? It is none other than Isiah Kiner-Falefa. His 1.43 clutch score is second-best in all of baseball, and a major reason that he is 43rd overall in Win Probability Added. That top-50 ranking in WPA puts him just ahead of names like Xander Bogaerts, Vladmir Guerrero Jr., and Bryce Harper. IKF’s overall numbers are middling. He has slashed .264/.317/.312 with an 88 WRC+, which is right around his career averages and what should be expected moving forward. In high leverage spots, however, he is hitting .412/.474/.471 for a 187 WRC+. The interesting thing is that he has actually been downright terrible with runners in scoring position, hitting just .269/.241/.308 for a 49 WRC+. His numbers in the seventh inning or later, hitting with 2 outs, and with the bases loaded are, on the whole, down as well. It appears that he has really just managed to come through in the few big spots that he has found himself in with 19 total appearances in high leverage spots.
As one would expect by watching the Yankees, the numbers support the common thought that Gleyber Torres has been very good in clutch spots while Joey Gallo has been very poor. The last player I wanted to discuss, however, is Aaron Hicks. Like with Torres and Gallo, the stats confirm the eye test when it comes to Hicks in big spots. Hicks has not been a good hitter overall this year, with a .212/.341/.250 slash line and an 86 WRC+. Since his overall production is poor, it stands to reason that it would be difficult for him to be dramatically worse in high-leverage spots than he is overall. That is not the case with Hicks. His -0.70 clutch score is last on the Yankees and 16th-worst overall. In 20 plate appearances in high leverage spots, Hicks has a negative 36 WRC+. He does not have a hit in any of those plate appearances. With runners in scoring position, he has a bad but not atrocious 70 WRC+, but that is inflated by a walk rate of 19.4% in those spots. Getting on base and passing the baton is never a bad thing, but that only helps so much when he is hitting just .125 in those spots. On the whole, this all contributes to him being second-worst in the majors in Win Probability Added. Will this continue moving forward? Well, as explained in the introduction, clutch performance is mostly just random. And Hicks’ WRC+ in high leverage situations, from 2017-2021 going year-by-year, was as follows: 109, 121, 180, 194, and 96. So it is not like Hicks has a history of under performing in big spots, and I would expect a fairly dramatic improvement from the showing thus far. But he has really hurt the team in the first quarter of the season, and the criticism that he has garnered has been well-deserved.