We are 115 games into the 2021 season. Some hitters are struggling, and some are not. It’s nearly impossible to tell whether a hitter’s production to this point is indicative of their true talent.
Take Giancarlo Stanton, for example. We know that he’s been struggling. Do his 398 plate appearances thus far tell us that he’s actually a 126 wRC+ hitter? It’s a trick question really. We don’t know. It’s up to the scout and/or analyst to guesstimate. That leads me into the conversation of leverage splits. Throughout a game, a hitter has a variation of leverage in a given at-bat where the game can be swung in either direction. You can say that a high leverage situation is an opportunity to display how clutch one is or has the opportunity to be.
No hitter ever has enough of these high leverage situations to mathematically say whether they are truly clutch or not. I can’t put enough stress on the mathematics part of that sentence. There are tidbits to be found about what kind of hitter somebody is based on their leverage splits in any given season, even with under 100 plate appearances. There’s a story to everything.
I am about to endeavor on what is not a very mathematically rigorous exercise. Rather, I’m going to give mini-scouting reports at why I think a hitter’s leverage splits can vary. Let’s just have some fun with it. Thanks to FanGraphs, we can do this for every Yankee hitter.
First, we have one of the newest Yankees, Joey Gallo. Obviously, most of these plate appearances come from his time in Texas but let’s dive into them regardless.
Gallo Leverage Splits
In his small 44-plate appearance sample, he has been much worse in higher-leverage situations. With a lot of these coming on an abysmal Texas team, this is not surprising. I have not seen all of these at-bats, but I imagine he was pitched around. His K% increases relative to the other scenarios probably because the weight of the world was on him to do it all in Texas.
Next, we have Gary Sánchez.
Gary Leverage Splits
There is definitely not a lot to go off of on this one but the Yankee backstop has seen plenty of success in these high-leverage moments this year. In the past, Sánchez has simplified his swing with two strikes by removing his leg kick. Perhaps he has invested in a similar approach this year when it has mattered the most. Unlike Gallo, his K% has dropped in these situations.
Now, let’s talk about the Yankee who has fallen off relative to his first two seasons with the club. DJ LeMahieu is exact type of hitter you want up in high-leverage situations and although he has not been great in any capacity this year, he has been the best when it’s mattered the most.
DJ Leverage Splits
This is one of those scenarios where I’d say a 55-plate appearance sample of plate appearances is definitely indicative of a player’s true talent. A contact-first hitter who performs at about his average rate when the lights are on makes a lot of sense. Pitchers don’t exactly consider LeMahieu to be the type of hitter who is easy to face. He does not have any major holes that can be exploited in these situations.
I want it to end it with the two most interesting cases this year. To start, here is Aaron Judge’s leverage line.
Judge Leverage Splits
Judge’s power numbers have fallen off a cliff in these situations. Despite an 11-day COVID-IL hiatus, Judge has played a lot this year. That includes being the bruiser in the lineup through the dismal days of the 2021 season. In high-leverage situations, he has struck out and walked a lot more. This is the definition of being pitched around. Why get beat by Judge when Rougned Odor is up next?
That assessment might be a bit unfair, but there is some truth to it. Judge has still been above average, but not his usual self. It is much easier to pitch to sluggers who are susceptible to strikeouts like Judge when the guy on deck is not at all a similar threat.
Lastly, we have Giancarlo Stanton — a hitter who has confused all Yankee fans this year. While he’s maintained a 126 wRC+, his expectations are much higher. We expect more power and better swing decisions. However, both the power and swing decisions have drastically improved during high-leverage situations this year.
Stanton Leverage Splits
Baseball is such a fun, confusing game. Despite Stanton’s struggles, he has been terrific in high-leverage situations. In his 43 plate appearances, he has locked in and consistently found success when putting the ball in play. On top of that, he has fanned less than normal. Unlike Judge, it seems he is more aggressive and it pays off.
Stanton is a guess hitter. He has been applauded for his pre-game preparation for his entire career. It may be the case that in this sample of at-bats, he has guessed correctly. Or it could be his approach is to do whatever it takes to put the ball in play. It could also be a combination of both. It’s tough to say exactly why, but his approach has been much better in these scenarios. This could be an opportunity for Stanton to learn from himself because the mechanics and approach are clicking when the game is on the line.
These types of exercises can uncover whatever anecdotal stories we have in our head about a player. You may be upset at Stanton for his struggles this year, but he has been excellent when given the opportunity to sway the outcome of a game. The same goes for Sánchez. Baseball is the one game where your name will get called in the ninth inning no matter what. Unless there are good pinch-hitters available, everybody gets their turn late in the game. What you do with it may be skill or luck, but it’s always fun to check out exactly how those outcomes come about and whether they vary from a player’s average performance.