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Are We Overvaluing Power Hitters?

Aaron Judge and Jose Altuve were seemingly neck and neck in MVP voting this year (even if they are neck and belly button when standing next to each other). Judge had the edge in FanGraphs WAR, while Altuve held an edge according to Baseball Reference. Altuve had gaudy batting average and stolen-base totals, while Judge reached the coveted 50-home-run plateau to go along with his jaw-dropping Statcast numbers. Heading into awards season, the American League MVP was hyped as a two-man race that could go either way.

But, then the voting happened, and Jose Altuve got 27 first-place votes to Aaron Judge’s two. There were a lot of reasons for this from storyline, to traditional numbers, to team record. One of the most prominent among them for sabermetric voters was Aaron Judge’s clutch performance. According to the Clutch metric found on this site, he was the least clutch player in baseball this year. Actually, he was the least clutch player in baseball this entire millennium. Wait no, actually, he had the single least clutch season in the history of the metric (since 1972).

Up until now, Clutch has not been shown to have predictive value, even if it is important in deciding things like MVP races which are based on things that have already happened. But, as you may have guessed from the article title, I think there may be evidence to suggest otherwise. Here a list of the least clutch players in history for their entire career according to the clutch metric.

Rank Name Games HR BB% K% Clutch WAR
1 Sammy Sosa 2354 609 9.4 % 23.3 % -14.67 60.1
2 Mike Schmidt 2404 548 15.0 % 18.7 % -13.45 106.5
3 Lance Parrish 1988 324 7.8 % 19.6 % -12.90 43.4
4 Jim Thome 2543 612 16.9 % 24.7 % -11.66 69.0
5 Chet Lemon 1988 215 9.5 % 13.0 % -11.03 52.0
6 Jermaine Dye 1763 325 8.3 % 18.1 % -9.67 14.5
7 Alex Rodriguez 2784 696 11.0 % 18.7 % -9.53 112.9
8 Andre Dawson 2627 438 5.5 % 14.0 % -9.49 59.5
9 Gary Carter 2295 324 9.4 % 11.1 % -9.25 69.4
10 Barry Bonds 2986 762 20.3 % 12.2 % -9.13 164.4

This list is populated by a certain type of player: good ones. The difference in WAR between Jermaine Dye and Lance Parrish in 9th place would be a fantastic career for almost anyone. But, more importantly, it is populated by high-strikeout, power-hitting sluggers. Every single player on this list has a double-digit strikeout rate and everyone but Chet Lemon has at least 300 career home runs. The list of the most clutch players in history, on the other hand, is not made up of power hitters.

Rank Name Games HR BB% K% Clutch WAR
1 Tony Gwynn 2440 135 7.7 % 4.2 % 9.49 65.0
2 Pete Rose 2179 57 10.6 % 5.8 % 9.07 43.5
3 Scott Fletcher 1612 34 8.6 % 9.1 % 8.61 24.9
4 Mark McLemore 1832 53 12.1 % 13.6 % 8.51 17.4
5 Ichiro Suzuki 2636 117 6.0 % 10.0 % 8.25 58.2
6 Dave Parker 2466 339 6.7 % 15.1 % 7.64 41.1
7 Omar Vizquel 2968 80 8.6 % 9.0 % 7.54 42.6
8 Ozzie Guillen 1993 28 3.4 % 7.2 % 7.48 13.1
9 Lance Johnson 1447 34 6.1 % 6.6 % 6.89 26.4
10 Jose Lind 1044 9 5.4 % 9.2 % 6.71 3.3
11 Mark Grace 2245 173 11.6 % 6.9 % 6,.58 45.5

 

This list is made up of a very different kind of hitter. Tony Gwynn, Pete Rose and Ichiro are perhaps the three most well-known contact hitters of all time. Only three players on this list have double-digit strikeout rates, and only one has 300 career home runs. Chet Lemon, dead last in home runs on the other list, would rank second on this one.

Aaron Judge fits right into the pattern of these lists, as one of four qualified players with a 30% strikeout rate or higher. If you sum the clutch score of the top 10 players in strikeout rate this year, you get -9.05, or nearly one win per player lost due to clutch performance. If you remove Aaron Judge, the sum is a still gaudy total of -5.41.

I charted Strikeout rate against clutch score for all players qualified in 2017, and there is a small but definite trend. Below the chart, you can see the regression equation along with the P value for the coefficient and the R^2.

Ultimately I don’t have the tools or the time to fully explore this idea, but it would appear that there is an actual relationship here. The effect may be minuscule as the R^2 indicates, but the general trend seems to indicate that clutch players are more contact-oriented. This makes sense, because the most clutch situations in a game happen with men in scoring position, where the difference between a strikeout and a fly out or ground out can be an entire run. Further work needs to be done, but I would not be surprised to find that batted-ball type or walk rate also has an impact. For example, hitters with higher fly-ball rates may be more clutch because, with runners on base, a fly ball avoids a double play with a man on first, and may drive in a run with a man on third. With nobody on base and nobody out, the way a batter gets out does not make a difference. But in clutch situations, all outs are not created equal.