Aaron Judge’s rookie year can be defined by one simple mindset: if you’re going to be a cat, be a lion. When he does something, he’s all in. Home runs? He has the rookie record. Strikeouts? He has the rookie record. Walks? He has the rookie record. Size? He’s the biggest position player of all time. The man lives in extremes.
Now, there’s a new one to add to the list. According to FanGraphs, Judge is the least clutch hitter of all time in a single season. FanGraphs uses a formula to determine how much better or worse a player does in high-leverage situations than he would have done in a neutral environment. Judge’s clutch score comes in at -3.9, which is the lowest on record, dating back to 1974 when the data became available.
That’s not great. You definitely don’t want your star player and the cornerstone of your potent offense to earn the title of “least clutch hitter of all time.” Though not flattering, the title is not a death sentence. Kris Bryant frequents the least clutch players list. In 2016, a year which brought him a World Series ring and an MVP award, Bryant had a -2.37 clutch score. A player may not be clutch but can still be overwhelmingly valuable to a team.
Judge will likely be a unanimous pick for American League Rookie of the Year as well as earn enough MVP votes to be considered a top contender. The Yankees’ year has pretty much mimicked Judge’s. Judge started out hot, so did the Yankees. Judge went into a slump and the Yankees let the division slip away. Judge got hot again and the Yanks are back in the race. The big baseball boy’s success is intrinsically tied to his club’s. That’s value.
But, value aside, Judge has consistently come up short in high-pressure situations this year. With the Wild Card game looming, you start to think about who you want with the game on the line. As much faith as Yankee fans have in Judge, he might not be the one you want with two outs and the bases loaded in the bottom of the ninth. However, the clutch score overlooks a crucial question:
History tends to remember the big plays. Every Yankee fan still gets a child-like smile slapped across their face when they hear the words “Aaron Boone.” Alex Rodriguez was the long-standing playoff goat before a ninth inning ALDS home run against the Twins and his ensuing 2009 heroics made him a legend. Of course Derek Jeter practically built his legacy on performing in the clutch. The images that aren’t burned into the memory banks of the sports collective are the moments that led to those moments.
In his first appearance in the playoffs, Judge may very well whiff in some big situations. Statistically, it’s a virtual certainty. This should not taint the perception of his success. In September, the big man has batted .310/.460/.893 with 14 HR, 30 RBI, and a 232 wRC+. If he maintains those numbers into October, he will be the very reason that the Yankees are in the position to win the most important games of the year.
A two-run homer in the second inning of an ALDS game may not qualify as a clutch performance, but it is no less important than a walk off. It’s a similar theory to Terry Francona’s use of closer Andrew Miller in last year’s playoffs. Tito wouldn’t wait for the ninth inning to deploy Miller, but would use him in the most high-impact innings and situations. He broke from tradition because he realized that the ninth inning, while the most dramatic, isn’t necessarily the most important.
The ninth inning has a symbolic weight to it. When the game is on the line, the intensity thickens and the spotlight shines the brightest. That drama is what makes the playoffs so beloved. At the end of the day, drama may be fun, but nothing beats winning. If Judge can continue to get productive at-bats and hit the same towering shots that he has been, that least clutch title will become as meaningless as his strikeout record.
Judge could also redeem himself. Should the situation arise that he steps to the plate with two outs in the bottom of the ninth of the Wild Card game and uncorks a 3-2 pitch 460 feet into the night, that moment will be that much sweeter. The least clutch hitter in history stepping up in the most clutch moment is par for the course for this spectacular rookie season. It’s these extremes that make him stand head-and-shoulders above the pack.
It’s a league full of cats and Aaron Judge is a lion.