Back in August, I reviewed which Yankees hitters were the best in high-leverage situations. At the time, Giancarlo Stanton was still receiving unwarranted criticism despite raking in high-leverage situations. Aaron Judge was not playing as we would normally expect him to, and Gary Sánchez was calm and cool in big situations. By revisiting this topic, we’ll get a good idea at why the clutch gene can be so difficult to predict. Will the best players be the best when it counts simply because they are talented? Or is there a next gear they can lock into that makes it undeniable they are indeed clutch?
Let’s start with the obvious most clutch player on the Yankees this season, Giancarlo Stanton. Midway through August, he had already demonstrated that his best at-bats come with the most pressure. As the season progressed, that trend continued, even doing so in the single playoff game. The last time we looked at these numbers, Stanton had a 158 wRC+ in high-leverage situations. He shot that up to 173 by season’s end. The Yankees relied on him heavily down the stretch as they secured a playoff spot.
Alternatively, Judge significantly flipped the script after August. Like Stanton, he was unbelievable down the stretch in clutch situations. He increased his wRC+ in high-leverage scenarios from 117 to 162. There still wasn’t a lot of power output, but there’s something extremely valuable in keeping the line moving when a menace like Stanton is right behind you. It’s the classic idea of just giving your best hitter a shot. Luckily, Judge did that more often than not by shooting his walk rate up over 20 percent in those situations and simplifying his approach.
Sánchez’s season went a bit in the opposite direction. His 192 wRC+ in high-leverage situations decreased to 150 by the end of the year. That’s still fantastic, but a lot of the production came from pre-August. It’s tough to put up good at-bats at all when you’re in the state of mind that Sánchez was in. Obviously in the grand scheme of the whole season, his best form was in crunch time. That’s phenomenal for him as he reflects on his performance. The hope for Sánchez is that he can improve his at-bats when the lights aren’t so bright. In medium and low-leverage, his wRC+ was 104 and 87, respectively. It’s a bit similar to what we saw with Aroldis Chapman in 2021.
Outside of these three, the Yankees had more production that I initially expected! Aside from DJ LeMahieu’s 89 wRC+ in high-leverage situations, the newly-acquired first baseman, Anthony Rizzo, also succeeded in passing the baton when his name was called on. Despite his lack of power with a .333 slugging percentage, his wRC+ was 125 because of his ability to put together walks. He was very selective and extended at-bats. I imagine the Yankees would prefer the version of Rizzo that is aggressive and putting the ball in play with authority, but a 125 wRC+ is great regardless.
Joey Gallo had a knack for the same in high-leverage situations too! While his reviews for the season are usually negative, he was actually quite a productive player as well in these cases. In only 19 plate appearances, his 184 wRC+ was mostly supported by two home runs and a lot of walks. Similar to other Yankees, Gallo had no problem taking a walk and letting the next guy have a shot.
Perhaps this is why the Yankees were able to win so many close games. They consistently put together productive at-bats in high-leverage situations. That’s how a team without a great run differential makes the playoffs: timely hitting and good pitching. It could also be an issue for the team as well in one aspect. A lot of players take walks, but only Stanton was truly a basher. It’s nice to have these players, but it’s even better to balance them with contact-oriented bats that can put the ball in play and drive runners in when it needs to happen. It’s a lot to think about, but for the most part, it’s a good issue to have.