Yes, you read the title correctly. Bobby Abreu of the Los Angeles Angeles was Mr. Clutch during the 2011 season. He ended the season with the highest clutch rating in the majors, as measured here at FanGraphs.
I stumbled across this nugget while writing this Thanksgiving-themed post for our friends at Baseball Nation. I was hunting for players who’d accomplished little-noticed feats last season. I revved up the leader boards, sorted for clutch, and found, to my great surprise, Bobby Abreu’s name at the top of the chart.
I’ve always been intrigued by the concept of “clutchness” in sports and otherwise. People who can take their game to the next level in the most pressure-packed situations. Indeed, not just ones who can do it; ones who must do it; ones who thrive doing it.
At FanGraphs, clutch is defined as how well a player performs in high leverage situations in comparison to how well he performs in non-high leverage situations. It’s calculated using WPA, pLI and WPA/LI, as explained here. So if a player is a .330 hitter in non-high leverage situations and a .330 hitter in high leverage situations, then he may be considered a good hitter, but he wouldn’t be considered clutch.
Bobby Abreu’s clutch rating for 2011 was 2.70. link to Abreu’s season stats since he debuted in 15 games with the Astros in 1996. Putting aside his first two seasons in Houston, Abreu posted career lows in 2011 in batting average (.253), wOBA (.325), wRC+ (104), slugging (.365) and ISO (.112). The slugging and ISO numbers, in particular, are so far below Abreu’s career averages before the 2011 season, they suggest a rather ignominious end to very good career.
Yet, Abreu delivered for the Angels time and again in 2011 in the clutch. He had 259 at-bats in low-leverage situations, 195 medium-leverage ones, and 48 high-leverage at-bats. In low-leverage, his wOBA was a measly .288 but in those precious 48 high-leverage at-bats? A wOBA of .454. Bases empty? His wOBA was .300. Men in scoring position? .375.
I know what you’re thinking. The clutch statistic measures how much more effective a batter is in high leverage situations, so it’s not surprising to find a player like Abreu who has an overall down year and just happens to perform exceedingly well in high leverage situations that season.
That’s true, but it’s the exception more than the rule.
There have been 18 players who recorded a clutch number of 2.5 or higher in a season dating back to 1982. Only two of those players ended that season with a wOBA lower than Abreu’s .325 in 2011:
• Kirby Puckett‘s 1985 season with the Minnesota Twins, in which he recorded a wOBA of .319.
• Glenallen Hill‘s 1997 season with the San Francisco Giants, in which he recorded a wOBA of .315.
Troy O’Leary with the Boston Red Sox came close in 1996, when he ended the season with a 3.23 clutch rating but only a .328 wOBA.
The other 14 players with clutch scores at or above 2.5 had wOBA of at least .344 and, in many cases, much higher. Indeed, Albert Pujols‘s wOBA in 2006 was .448 for the entire season, and yet he still recorded a clutch rating of 3.30.
Bobby Abreu has had a very good career. He’s accumulated 62.6 WAR in 2,242 games. The only outfielders to have accumulated more career WAR in the past 30 seasons are Barry Bonds, Rickey Henderson, Ken Griffey, Jr., Andruw Jones, Manny Ramirez, Tony Gwynn, Tim Raines, Gary Sheffield, Kenny Lofton and Sammy Sosa. Pretty good company.
And yet it took his worst year offensively to do something he’d never done before — to be known as Mr. Clutch.