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A Friendly Reminder About A-Rod and October

In the first two games against Baltimore, Alex Rodriguez is 1 for 9 with a walk and five strikeouts. Last night, he came to the plate five times and made five outs, though his first inning double play was a line drive that could have easily been a base hit had it gone a foot further to the left. Still, with his game-ending strikeout that followed a seventh inning whiff with the tying run on first base, the “Alex Rodriguez is Not Clutch” narrative is popping up again. And, after just two games, some are calling for A-Rod to be dropped in the batting order due to his regular October slumps.

The problem, as always, is that the evidence just doesn’t support the storyline.

Including the first two games of this series, Alex Rodriguez has come to bat 309 times in the playoffs. In those 309 plate appearances, he’s hit .271/.380/.484, good for a 127 wRC+. That’s a little worse than his 147 mark for his career, but of course the pitchers one faces are better in October, and sustaining a 127 wRC+ against high quality opposition is nothing to sneeze at.

For comparison, Derek Jeter — regarded as one of the most clutch players to play the game — has hit .309/.374/.465 in his postseason career, which works out to a 122 wRC+. Though you’d never know it based on the portrayals of their postseason careers, Alex Rodriguez has hit better in the playoffs than Derek Jeter.

Perception, of course, has a lot to do with expectations, and we expect Rodriguez to hit better than Jeter, because he’s simply been a better hitter over his career. And Jeter’s 122 wRC+ in the playoffs is basically a dead-on match to his 124 wRC+ during the regular season, so he’s done a better job of matching the expectations he’s set with his own regular season performance. Relative to his own baseline, Jeter has performed in October than Rodriguez, so there is some merit to the idea that Rodriguez’s October performances have been more disappointing relative to his own established performances. But that doesn’t change the fact that his October performance has overall been pretty good.

Of course, part of the criticism against A-Rod isn’t that his overall performance is poor, but that he comes up short in big situations. By grouping all of his 309 playoff plate appearances together, we’re not addressing the idea that he could be hitting home runs in games that are already decided while striking out with the bases loaded when his team’s have been down by a run. So, let’s go beyond just overall postseason batting lines and look at the Win Probability data, which takes the situation into account.

For his regular season career, Rodriguez has created +53.29 WPA in 11,163 plate appearances. If we simply scale that ratio back to 309 plate appearances, we would have expected regular season A-Rod to produce +1.47 WPA during his postseason run. He’s actually produced +1.72 WPA, meaning that his context-specific offensive performance in the playoffs has been better than his own level of production during the regular season. But, we already know he’s hit a bit worse during October over his career as a whole, so how is that possible?

Because A-Rod has actually been far more clutch in October than he has in the regular season. Our clutch measure here on the site essentially measures the amount of wins that were added or lost through your performance in high leverage situations relative to low leverage ones. During his postseason career, Rodriguez has a clutch score of +0.72. Essentially, 40% of his postseason offensive WPA in October has come from performing better in important situations than he has when the situation isn’t as critical.

The data is pretty clear on this point – there’s no real evidence that Rodriguez continually comes up short in critical situations in the playoffs. In the regular season, that has been true – he’s got a -8.22 clutch score for his career during the regular season, so you could make a pretty decent case that he earned the reputation with his own struggles in big moments. But, that simply hasn’t carried over to his postseason performance, where he’s performed well both from a context-neutral perspective and from a context-specific perspective.

By the way, just for fun, you know what Derek Jeter’s postseason Clutch score is? -1.38. Because of when his distribution of hits have come, Jeter’s actually been an offensive negative during his playoff career even with that 122 wRC+. If you’re looking for a Yankee whose postseason context-specific performance is significantly worse than his overall line would suggest, the evidence points towards Jeter, not Rodriguez.

Now, we shouldn’t actually believe that Derek Jeter is not a clutch player. He wasn’t used as the foil for this example because I’m trying to make any kind of point about him as a player. Jeter’s a great player who has had a great career, including a lot of success in the postseason. He deserves most of the accolades that come his way. He’s a first ballot Hall of Famer and one of the very best shortstops in the history of baseball.

But, the actual evidence from Jeter and Rodriguez’s postseason performances simply don’t match the storylines that have been created about them. While Jeter is lauded for his postseason play, Rodriguez is vilified. The evidence simply doesn’t support those ideas. Both are great players. Have have hit well in October. Rodriguez has just hit a bit better, especially when you account for context.