On Wednesday, I asked whether clutch was fact or myth. There is compelling evidence on either side of the debate, and I find myself leaning toward the former. Today I would like to continue that discussion by investigating the most and least clutch Yankees over the last two seasons. This analysis will only concern hitters, as I am much less familiar with the way clutch is calculated for pitchers.
Players’ clutch ability will be evaluated in terms of the FanGraphs Clutch score, about which you can read some preliminary information here. To take a reductive approach, Clutch sums all of the winning probability a player adds in high leverage situations and subtracts the context-neutral winning probability to determine how much better a player performs in the clutch than every other scenario.
Importantly, and in my view improperly, this calculation means that only players who do better in high leverage situations than in medium or low leverage situations are considered clutch. Additionally, clutch only compares a player to himself and not league-wide performance in high leverage situations. In my opinion, this is problematic because it devalues the player who does well regardless of the stress of the situation, or performs considerably better than the rest of the league, even though common sense would tell you that said player is still clutch. With this disclaimer out of the way, let’s see who the two most clutch Yankees of the last two seasons are:
Gleyber Torres - 1.74 Clutch score
The young superstar has proven in his burgeoning career that not only is he a great hitter, he also has the maturity to stand up in the big moments and deliver. One need look no further than his performance in the postseason last year, where it seemed he delivered the big hit every time it was asked of him. His 1.078 OPS and 177 wRC+ are mind-blowing numbers for anyone, let alone a 22-year-old.
Aaron Hicks - 1.26 Clutch score
The switch-hitting center fielder has shown so far in his Yankee tenure that he has a penchant for game-changing moments, and led all of MLB last season with a Clutch score of 1.63 in only 59 games. His extra-innings diving catch against the Twins and go-ahead home run off Justin Verlander in the must-win ALCS Game Five are just two examples of the game-breaking ability Hicks has in his bat and glove.
And now for the two players you would prefer not to see come up in a do-or-die scenario:
Giancarlo Stanton - -2.01 Clutch score
The towering righty has received much undue hate, in large part because of his contract, but he has not done himself any favors in high pressure situations. Stanton sees his walk rate drop from 11.0% in medium and low leverage situations to just 6.4% in high leverage situations. His wOBA also drops from .370 to .287 and wRC+ from 135 to 78. This is primarily due to his hard-hit percentage falling from 44.2% to 26.5% between those scenarios.
Gary Sanchez - -3.04 Clutch score
I hesitate to vilify Sanchez because of how big of a fan of his I am, and how much I know many people love to hate on him, but he has been pretty unreliable in high leverage situations. Between medium and low leverage situations and high leverage situations, Sanchez sees his hard-hit percentage drop by about 8%, his groundball rate jump by about 6% and his isolated power fall from .265 to .217. Contrary to what some fans might believe, his strikeout rate between in both scenarios remains pretty much constant.
Before you go off on your rant about how much of a bum you believe Stanton or Sanchez to be, it is necessary to contextualize these Clutch scores. The most important piece of evidence about the fallibility of FanGraphs’ Clutch score is its complete lack of stability. By that I am referring to how much it varies from year-to-year, and thus it is utterly incapable of predicting any sort of future performance.
Take Torres and Hicks for example. From 2018 to 2019, Torres’ Clutch score actually fell from 2.28 to -0.73 while Hicks had his jump from -0.45 to 1.65. Now look at Stanton. While he may have posted an unsavory -2.16 Clutch score in his first year in pinstripes, he compiled 0.19 Clutch score in only 18 games last season. If this rate had stayed constant for a full healthy season, he would have led MLB in Clutch!
As for Sanchez, just two years ago he was sat right around league-average according to the Clutch score, and when you add in his monster production from the catcher position in medium and low leverage situations, the handful of high pressure at-bats in which he did not deliver become irrelevant.
Take a look at all four players’ variation in clutch from year-to-year and you see that the results are more random than patterned (clutch is under the Win Probability tab for each player).
That’s not to say there is not some merit to FanGraphs’ Clutch scores. At least when it comes to the most clutch Yankees, their findings tend to match the eye test. If you asked me who I wanted at the plate with the game on the line, Torres and Hicks are probably the first two I would name.
We have seen how attempts at defining and quantifying clutch can be a flawed endeavor. The constraints FanGraphs has placed on their Clutch score prevent it being a predictive or legitimate measure of a player’s clutch ability in my opinion. Clutch therefore may always be an immeasurable, intangible aspect of a player, and perhaps it is best it stayed that way.