Aaron Judge Has Been the Least Clutch Player on Record

A fantastic talent, Aaron Judge has nevertheless had trouble in high-leverage situations.
(Photo: Keith Allison)

Some MVP ballots might have already been submitted, which is a real shame because there’s still a few games to be played and perhaps a few persuasive blog posts to be authored.

On Tuesday, this author examined some other factors that BBWAA members ought to consider when voting, particularly in a close race where voters might need to go beyond the convenience of one catch-all metric like wins above replacement.

The face of this argument is Aaron Judge, who’s had a remarkable rookie season and who leads Jose Altuve in WAR by a thin margin entering play Wednesday: 7.7 to 7.4. Judge also has 50 home runs — a nice, round, loud number that figures to sway some voters on the fence.

But as I noted on Tuesday, Judge has been the least “clutch” hitter in baseball this season. What that means is Judge has performed below his overall performance level in high-leverage situations. His 95 wRC+ under such circumstances is also slightly below league average. Meanwhile, he’s been Barry Bonds in low-leverage situations (192 wRC+).

Like so many others, I’m a big fan of Judge’s talent. Every team in the majors would sign up to add Judge. He’s a Statcast God. And his overall value also includes defense and baserunning, factors for which win-probability numbers don’t account. Clutch is not believed, or proven, to be a repeatable skill. But in a close race, when value is being produced ought to be a consideration if not a separator. Again, awards are about rewarding history.

It’s not just that Judge is the least clutch among all qualified hitters this season. After some additional digging with my curiosity piqued, I found that he’s the least clutch hitter of all-time in a single season (dating back to 1974, at least, the first year for which WPA data is available).

And it’s not just Judge. As Jeff has noted, Kris Bryant has struggled for a second straight season in high-leverage situations and is also having one of the least-clutch seasons of all time. Jose Ramirez, too. Having watched a lot of Ramirez this season, this is a bit surprising to me, but Ramirez is evidence that when you set a really high overall performance standard and your performance is lagging in high-leverage situations, your “clutch” rating will take a hit. Ramirez has a lowly (6 wRC+ in high-leverage spots, but he also has only 46 plate appearances in such situations. (Judge has 58 such plate appearances and has homered in four of them.)

Here’s the complete list of the least clutch players since 1974:

The Most Un-Clutch Hitters on Record
Rank Name Season Clutch
1 Aaron Judge 2017 -3.9
2 Josh Reddick 2012 -3.8
3 Gary Carter 1979 -3.7
4 Alex Rodriguez 2008 -3.1
5 Nelson Cruz 2016 -3.1
6 Michael Saunders 2016 -3.0
7 Bill Mueller 2003 -3.0
8 Delino DeShields 1990 -3.0
9 Chet Lemon 1982 -3.0
10 Cesar Geronimo 1976 -2.9
11 Kris Bryant 2017 -2.9
12 Ryne Sandberg 1989 -2.9
13 Gary Gaetti 1983 -2.9
14 Sammy Sosa 2002 -2.9
15 Cecil Fielder 1990 -2.8
16 Javy Lopez 2004 -2.8
17 Pete O’Brien 1985 -2.8
18 Dwight Evans 1978 -2.8
19 Dave Henderson 1988 -2.7
20 Jose Ramirez 2017 -2.7
WPA data dates back to 1974.

And, again, here’s FanGraphs’ definition of clutch:

“…[H]ow much better or worse a player does in high leverage situations than he would have done in a context neutral environment.” It also compares a player against himself, so a player who hits .300 in high leverage situations when he’s an overall .300 hitter is not considered clutch. Clutch does a good job of describing the past, but it does very little towards predicting the future.”

Why are there so many 2017 players — and, really, 21st century players — on the list? It could be that they’re facing better reliever, being more effectively targeted and neutralized by opponents. It could also just be random. And high-leverage appearances often represent smaller samples of work, lending the results to randomness.

However you choose to weigh the above information, it’s another variable to be considered. It’s also one with which I dealt last season.

I had an NL MVP vote last year and struggled with the top of my ballot, in part because of Bryant’s performance in high-leverage situations (noted by Jeff) amidst an otherwise sterling resume.

I considered not placing Bryant atop my ballot. I ultimately did, however, as the next best NL player by WAR, Corey Seager, also was not much of a clutch performer and Bryant had a two-win edge over Freddie Freeman. I feel Bryant’s overall value, including his defense and versatility, trumped the his clutch performance. This year I don’t have a vote, and this year is a closer MVP race in each league. This year I wouldn’t be placing Bryant atop my ballot, and I wouldn’t put Judge at No. 1, either. Would I rather have Judge than Altuve going forward? That’s a different question. Who had more total value and impact on winning and losing games for his team in 2017? That’s Altuve. Trout leads the league in Win Probability Added. Trout also has a legit MVP argument — beyond his talent.

The races are so close this year that clutch performance and context of performance ought to be considered. “Clutch” is a blemish on the resumes of some of the top candidates. It was the one problem with Bryant’s candidacy last year and it’s again a problem for Bryant, and now, for Judge. And this season, the race are closer.

We hoped you liked reading Aaron Judge Has Been the Least Clutch Player on Record by Travis Sawchik!

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A Cleveland native, FanGraphs writer Travis Sawchik is the author of the New York Times bestselling book, Big Data Baseball. He also contributes to The Athletic Cleveland, and has written for the Pittsburgh Tribune-Review, among other outlets. Follow him on Twitter @Travis_Sawchik.

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tpal
Member
tpal

I get the point of using the player’s baseline as a point of comparison in the Clutch statistic. But isn’t it more accurate to look at the players who literally performed the worst in high leverage situations as the least clutch? Maybe semantics, but part of me thinks it’s silly that Judge, Ramirez and Bryant are on this list when Kevin Pillar is running a 7 wRC+ in high leverage situations or with Martin Maldonado at 0 wRC+. Yes, they aren’t that ilk of player – but they’ve provided the very least production in those situations, period.

High leverage situations are often turning points in games, but sometimes a hit in a low leverage situation can be of equal importance, when considering the grand scheme of things. A home run that makes the score go from 3-0 to 5-0 isn’t important except in the situation when the other team comes back and scores 4 runs – or when it lets the team save their best relief pitcher for another night.

All to say – the Clutch stat is fine for fun and games, but I can’t see using it in an MVP discussion.

Beel418
Member
Beel418

Completely agree, also these guys only have ~50 PA in high leverage situations the entire season, that’s not nearly enough for me to think it should play a deciding factor in an MVP race. A couple of those PA go differently and the numbers look drastically different.

Francis C.
Member
Member
Francis C.

Not to mention Judge has been intentionally walked a good amount more than Altuve, essentially robbing him of opportunity to improve his clutch rating.

johnforthegiants
Member
johnforthegiants

That doesn’t make sense. An intentional walk will always produce a small wpa increase unless it’s done in a really bizarre situation, so it will result in a regression towards the mean.

Cool Lester Smooth
Member
Cool Lester Smooth

Clutch is not the same thing as WPA.

johnforthegiants
Member
johnforthegiants

But it is calculated on the basis of wpa

Cool Lester Smooth
Member
Cool Lester Smooth

Huh. I thought it was wRC+.

If it’s WPA, then it somehow becomes even more useless.

Matt1685
Member
Matt1685

I don’t think intentional walks have had much effect. However, Judge has been very hot for 3 months, then very cold for 2, and then hot for 1. That means there have been contiguous periods of time of doing well and doing poorly that opposing teams have been able to form the strategy around. Also, the difference in performance between when he has been hot and when he has been cold has been extreme. During the times he’s been hot, opposing teams have usually not gone after him in clutch situations. They’ve tried to make perfect pitches on him, so he usually strikes out or walks in those situations and has little opportunity to do damage. I’d be curious to see his walk and strike out rates in “clutch” situations. During the times he’s been swinging the bat poorly, opposing teams were probably more willing to go after him, but since his swing was off, his results were dragged down.

I do think it’s a situation he will adjust to as he matures as a hitter. He will better learn how to be like a coiled snake by taking the walk when given to him, but still remaining quietly vigilant for a mistake pitch.

isavage
Member
isavage

But isn’t that the point when you’re talking about an MVP award, if a couple of those PAs had gone differently, then they would’ve had an outsized positive value for the team.

Cool Lester Smooth
Member
Cool Lester Smooth

Yup. It’s interesting, but it has literally no value as a tool of player evaluation, and should never, ever be used as such.

Neil
Member
Neil

He never said it should be used to evaluate a player. In fact, he implies the opposite when he says that deciding which player he’d rather have ‘going forward’ would yield a different answer. It’s purely a matter of deciding whose performance – past tense – has been more valuable.

Cool Lester Smooth
Member
Cool Lester Smooth

“Whose performance – past tense – has been more valuable” absolutely falls under the banner of evaluation.

Clutch offers absolutely zero insight into the value of a player’s performance. None.

Jon
Member
Jon

I don’t agree at all. The fact that it has no predictive power doesn’t change what happened. Does it make his performance less impressive? Perhaps. But the *value* of his performance is directly tied to the circumstances in which it occurred.

If player A went 200 for 600 with 200 HR, but every one came with his team up or down by 10 runs, those HR had zero value. Is this a guy you’d want for the future? Absolutely.

Contrast with player B who went 50 for 600 with 50 2-run homers, with each of them coming with his team down by 1 run with a runner on and 2 outs in the bottom of the 9th.

Who was more valuable? You’re not really going to say player A, are you?

Cool Lester Smooth
Member
Cool Lester Smooth

Of course, if you actually look at how Clutch is measured:

If Player C went 200 for 600 with 200 3-run HR, and every one of those HRs came in the first inning, he’d have a far worse clutch score than Player D who went 1 for 600 with 1 2-run homer that came in the bottom of the 9th.

Who was more valuable?

Luy
Member
Luy

In what meaningful way is a hitter who normally slashes .280/.320/.475 and also hits .280/.320/.475 in high leverage situation being “clutch”?
At best he’s not choking.
Also, why not just keep stats for low leverage/high leverage an compare that.

If clutch is a thing…the only meaningful definition is ‘rising to the occasion’. Hitting your same slash line isn’t that. It’s being yourself.