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The Yankees’ clutch trends from last year have reversed themselves

The Yankees under-performed in some ways last season, thanks to poor play in the clutch. That has not been the case in 2018.

MLB: Cleveland Indians at New York Yankees Wendell Cruz-USA TODAY Sports

Every year, there are teams that outperform what their record “should” be based on their underlying numbers. This year, the best example of that kind of team is the Mariners. After losing Robinson Cano to suspension last month, the Mariners looked dead. Instead of rolling over, they surged to 44-24 on the strength of a bundle of one-run wins.

Last year’s Yankees were not one of those teams. Their record was still a very solid 91-71, but they looked to have the potential to be much more. Those Yankees posted a .785 OPS at the plate, and held their opponents to a .680 OPS. They outscored their foes by 198 runs on the year. They also went just 18-26 in one-run games.

Those struggles in close games, and the Yankees’ general failure to push their record to the heights it probably deserved, stemmed from some poor work in the clutch. The best way to look at those struggles is tOPS+, which is a fancy way of comparing a team’s performance in a particular split to its overall performance. For example, the Yankees had a 127 tOPS+ in games they won last year, meaning their team OPS in victories was 27% better than their overall OPS.

In 2017, the Yankees posted a 94 tOPS+ in what Baseball Reference defines as “high leverage” situations. Their pitchers posted a 108 tOPS+ in high leverage situations. So, the Yankees both hit worse and pitched worse at important moments last year.

Baseball Reference also splits out performance when the game is within one run, two runs, and three runs. In each of those splits, the Yankees’ hitters had a tOPS+ below 100, and their pitchers posted one above 100. At times when the Yankees led or trailed by five runs or more, however, they had a 111 tOPS+ at the plate a 99 tOPS+ on the mound. In other words, the Yankees happened to be their best selves when the game was mostly out of reach, and played worse when the score was tight.

This was obviously frustrating. Just looking at the talent on the roster and the level at which said talent was performing, the Yankees looked like one of the league’s best teams. But their under-performance in key moments led to a record that just didn’t match up with that of the Astros, Indians, and Dodgers, even if the Yankees might have profiled as peers.

It’s easy to look at a team that under-performs in such a way and presume they just aren’t cut out for the big moments and the big stage. Such labels are generally spurious, as the ability to elevate one’s play in the clutch mostly looks like a myth, and the same probably goes for the team level.

So it shouldn’t come as a surprise that the Yankees’ clutch trends have actually reversed this year. No longer are they a team that blows out the opposition one night, then falls in a close battle the next. The 2018 Yankees, so far, have been the team that wins both the blowouts and the nail-biters.

This year, the Yankees have hit .262/.360/.483 in high leverage situations, good for a 113 tOPS+. They have a 109 tOPS+ when the score is within one or two runs, and only an 85 tOPS+ when the margin is five runs or more. The Yankees are cashing in during pressure situations in a way they didn’t last year.

Not coincidentally, they have an 11-4 record in one-run games this year. That doesn’t mean they’ve been “lucky”, however. There’s evidence that there is a not insignificant correlation between a team’s performance in close games and the quality of their bullpen. The Yankees, by fWAR, have the league’s best bullpen — though they also had the best bullpen in 2017 as well.

More importantly, though, the Yankees aren’t just winning the close ones: they’re winning the laughers too. They’ve played 17 blowouts, or games decided by five or more runs, and won 77% of them. That winning percentage is second only to the Astros in the AL. Because of this proclivity for blowing the other team out of the water, the Yankees and their great one-run record aren’t actually outperforming the statistical measures of underlying skill.

Baseball Prospectus calculates “third order winning percentage” which strips out the effects of schedule strength and the sequencing of events in estimating a team’s quality. The Yankees’ third order winning percentage is .680, second only to Houston, and a near match for their actual .683 winning percentage. The Yankees have the best winning percentage in baseball, and probably haven’t been lucky to get to that point.

This is because they’ve both straightened out their clutch struggles from last year and maintained their ability to crush teams. This leads to a refreshing dynamic: unlike lasts year’s team, which required caveats to explain why they were better than their record, or the 2016 team, which required caveats to explain why they remained in Wild Card contention with a negative run differential, this year’s squad requires no explanations. They are great, they play great in close games and blowouts, and their record is great. Everything lines up.