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The Yankees were a clutch hitting team, until they weren’t

The Yankees’ success with RISP didn’t translate well to the ALCS. What does this mean?

MLB: ALCS-Houston Astros at New York Yankees Brad Penner-USA TODAY Sports

One of the most impressive features of the 2019 Yankees’ regular season was their offensive prowess with runners in scoring position. Their .294 team batting average with RISP led MLB, as did their 129 wRC+. Compared to the Yankees’ struggles in clutch situations in the year before, which were put on full display in their ALDS loss to the Boston Red Sox, the difference was night and day. Indeed, the Yankees’ improved hitting with RISP was chief among the reasons why many fans were confident about their postseason chances.

Against the Astros, however, the Yankees found themselves mired in a RISP funk, which contributed greatly to their 4-2 series loss. In six games, the Yankees went 6-for-35 in such situations, good for a .171 batting average. In total, they left a staggering 42 runners stranded on base. It’s not that the Yankees’ offense were completely shut down, because they got on base at a decent clip. It’s just that they weren’t able to capitalize on their chances, a stark turnaround from their regular season play.

What does this mean? Why did the Yankees, a clutch hitting machine in the regular season, suddenly struggle so much with RISP against the Astros?

For some, this may be a sign of psychological weakness on the Yanks’ part. I really have no data to prove or disprove this argument, and I doubt anyone else does either. However, I will point out that RISP-fail wasn’t confined to the Yankees’ side, as the Astros have gone just 5 for 46 with runners in scoring position entering Game Six. The Astros, too, hit very well with RISP during the regular season (.268/.353/.503, 122 wRC+), so it’s not like choking during chances was a problem for them all year. Would anyone call this ALCS a battle between two weak-minded teams, who struggle to rise to the occasion once the stakes are high? I’d think not.

The much more simpler explanation is that hitting with RISP, especially in a team-wide sense, is less of a repeatable skill than you’d think. Just because a team does well in the regular season in such situations, doesn’t mean you can chalk them up to bring runners home like nothing in the postseason. Hitting with RISP involves so many factors that the players themselves can’t control, such as the sequencing of events, the opposing pitcher screwing up, and so on and so forth. Add that to the small sample size of the postseason, and you have a recipe for randomness.

This is why calls for the Yankees to “field a clutch team” or “have a better approach with RISP”, while understandable given the circumstances, ultimately lack substance to my ears. Sure, clutch hitting is a good thing, but how exactly do you make sure that the Yankees are able to execute it consistently? They did a magnificent job of it during the regular season, with basically the same group of players they’ve been running out here in the ALCS; yet the “clutchness” has left them.

Could it be that the Yankees’ “home run or bust” approach is a bad approach with RISP? Maybe, but it’s not like the Astros with their much lower strikeout rate are putting on a clutch hitting clinic. Hitting with RISP is a fun footnote for fans to celebrate or bicker about at the end of a game, series or season. It’s just simply not actionable information for front offices to take stock in while constructing their rosters. Besides filling their lineups with as many good hitters as possible, there isn’t much that teams can do to ensure their offense performs in the clutch.

The takeaway from this ALCS shouldn’t be that the Yankees failed with RISP. Yes, they did, but so did the Astros, even more than the Yankees. The Astros, to this point, have just made their few breakthroughs count more than the Yankees, and have been able to score without RISP by way of the long ball. That has been the difference so far; not how the Yankees hit with RISP.