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No, the Yankees shouldn’t worry about hitting in the clutch

The Yankees have great hitters, and that’s all that matters.

Baltimore Orioles v New York Yankees Photo by Sarah Stier/Getty Images

Losing sucks. Losing to teams that are deliberately punting the year away adds an extra degree of exasperation to the situation. The Baltimore Orioles, deep in the midst of a long rebuild, took two out of three games from the Yankees in the opening series of the season. No team, let alone a World Series aspirant, wants to drop the first matchup of the year — especially at home.

Throughout the series, the Yankees went 6-for-29 with runners in scoring position. That brought the team’s famous struggles with the bases loaded in 2018 back into the forefront. It also revitalized a long-standing complaint that the Yankees can’t hit in the clutch.

Some players receive this criticism more than others. Take Giancarlo Stanton for example. Fans went up in arms after he whiffed on three consecutive changeups from John Means in the fourth inning. His one ugly at-bat got more attention than the three walks he took in the game.

I get it. It’s easy to let the heat of the moment take over. I wrote a piece making the same claims about Stanton during the ALDS last October. These spells happen, and it’s fine to get frustrated when they do. It would be strange if fans enjoyed leaving so many runners on.

That said, it helps to keep perspective. The season remains just three games old. We need more information before making sweeping generalizations about the team’s situational hitting. From a team-wide perspective, the most important thing the Yankees can do is to continue to maximize the number of runners they put on base. The more baserunners they have, the more likely they are to score.

At the individual level, it proves helpful to return to the work of Tom Tango, Mitchel Lichtman, and Andrew Dolphin. In their landmark study The Book, the trio concedes that some players perform marginally better in high-pressure situations than others. That said, the difference isn’t significant enough to take precedence over the talent level of established, elite players. When a clutch situation arises, a team is better off with their best hitter, not their most clutch player.

To drive this point home, it makes sense to evaluate the most and least clutch hitters over the last three seasons. Why use 2016 as a demarcation line? That’s when this iteration of the Yankees began to take shape. Any further back and you start to lose the players who make up this squad’s core.

While there are a number of ways to define clutch, and to examine what goes into being a clutch batter, we’ll opt for simplicity. FanGraphs offers a metric known as Clutch, and it does a fairly good job of describing how well a player performs in high-pressure situations, They offer a helpful primer here for those interested in the formula and breakdown. For now, the important thing to consider is that a Clutch score of zero represents league average. Anything above that and a player does well in the clutch, while a negative mark means a batter struggles in those situations.

First, the highest Clutch scores among qualified batters since the start of the 2016 season:

Highest Clutch scores since 2016

Player Clutch Score
Player Clutch Score
Daniel Descalso 3.75
Yonder Alonso 3.42
Melky Cabrera 3.38
Brett Gardner 2.78
Logan Forsythe 2.34
Freddy Galvis 2.32
Nicholas Castellanos 2.13
Neil Walker 2.11
Dansby Swanson 2.09
Wellington Castillo 2.06

Now compare that to the players with the worst Clutch marks over the same period:

Lowest Clutch score since 2016

Player Clutch Score
Player Clutch Score
Kris Bryant -6.02
Aaron Judge -4.68
Giancarlo Stanton -4.10
Edwin Encarnacion -4.03
Brian Dozier -3.94
Corey Dickerson -3.87
Yasmani Grandal -3.69
Lucas Duda -3.54
Mike Trout -3.52
Martin Maldonado -3.35

Kris Bryant! Mike Trout! Judge! Stanton! That group contains four of the best players in baseball from a pure talent perspective. Who would you rather have at the plate with the game on the line? Brett Gardner and Neil Walker, or Judge and Stanton? I know who I would choose.

Sam Miller recently wrote a story on the subject of clutch batters. He specifically focused on Daniel Descalso and Stanton. For those who remain unconvinced that teams should feel comfortable with the best batters overall when the game’s on the line, I strongly recommend his piece.

The Yankees had a rough first series. They didn’t come up with the big hit despite numerous opportunities. It wasn’t a fun time, but it also wasn’t indicative of the team’s true talent level. The Bombers employ one of the deepest and most powerful lineups in all of baseball, and that is far more important than having nine clutch hitters. The Yankees will be just fine.