Playing 'Clutch or Not Clutch' with MLB's Top 50 Players
Is there such a thing as a clutch player in baseball? If there is, how do we define clutch?
More than a few baseball analysts, including Bill James, believe there is no such thing.
Others, including FanGraphs' David Appleman, believe that it does in fact exist. Appleman takes it a step further by not only defining what a clutch player is, but developing a formula to back up his theory, which he calls...wait for it...clutch.
Here's how Appleman defines the statistic:
A measurement of how much better or worse a player does in high leverage situations than he would have done in a context neutral environment.
Unlike tradition clutch statistics (close and late), Clutch is a much more comprehensive statistic taking into account all situations that may or may not have been high leverage. Additionally, instead of comparing a player to the rest of the field, it compares a player to himself. A player who hits .300 in high leverage situations when he’s an overall .300 hitter is not considered clutch.
That makes sense.
However, while I admit that there is value to be found in some advanced figures, many times I believe these convoluted formulas were created simply because the guy who came up with them couldn't win an argument with his buddies using traditional statistics.
Derek Jeter is widely considered to be one of the great clutch players in the history of the game by those who believe in the existence of such players.
Back in 2004, when asked by Sports Illustrated what he thought of the belief that clutch players didn't exist, Jeter replied: "You can take those stat guys and throw them out the window."
To an extent, I agree with the Yankees captain.
So going under the belief that, yes, clutch players do in fact exist, and taking Appleman's statistic into account, let's figure out who of the 50 best players in the game today truly deserves to be called clutch.
EDIT: Based on some of the comments, there seems to be some confusion among readers as to the order of the list. This are the 50 best players in baseball today, ranked from 50-to-1. These players are NOT ranked in order of least clutch to most clutch. Hope this clears things up.
How FanGraphs' Clutch Rating Works
You can read a full synopsis of how FanGraphs' clutch rating works here, but here's the quick version of it.
Clutch is calculated using the following formula: Clutch = (WPA / pLI) - WPA/LI.
Most players fall within the 1.00 to minus-1.00 range, but here's how to read the ratings:
50. Chase Headley, 3B, San Diego Padres
FanGraphs Clutch Score: -1.37 (2012), -3.19 (Career)
I went back and forth on who to include as the 50th-best player in baseball, finally deciding on the guy battling Ryan Braun for the most RBI in the National League.
Headley is enjoying his breakout season and is on pace to set career highs in pretty much every offensive category. While that has lent itself to improved numbers in clutch situations, the fact of the matter is that Headley shrinks against the best teams in baseball.
For his career, Headley has a .257/.326/.386 batting line against teams playing above-.500 baseball.
His batting line against teams under .500 is significantly better, at .288/.372/.442.
Verdict: Not Clutch
49. Billy Butler, DH, Kansas City Royals
FanGraphs Clutch Score: -0.54 (2012), -0.05 (Career)
Maybe it's because he plays in Kansas City and the Royals have been irrelevant in the playoff picture for so long, but Billy Butler is one of baseball's best-kept secrets.
Finally recognized as one of the best hitters in the league with a spot on the American League All-Star team this season, an average season for the 26-year-old since he broke into the league six years ago has been a .299 average with 19 home runs, 90 RBI and 41 doubles.
He hits .311 with runners in scoring position, but after that his numbers dip a bit. A .268 hitter with runners in scoring position with two outs and a .288 hitter when the Royals are playing from behind, Butler hasn't exactly raised his level of play.
That being said, he is consistent regardless of the level of competition. Against winning teams, Butler has a .302 batting average and .825 OPS. Against teams with a losing record? A .294 batting average and .828 OPS.
Butler holds his own, regardless of the level of competition or the situation. Considering the losing atmosphere that has permeated the Royals clubhouse over his career, that's an impressive feat.
48. Brandon Phillips, 2B, Cincinnati Reds
FanGraphs Clutch Score: 1.41 (2012), -0.20 (Career)
Since arriving in Cincinnati back in 2006, Brandon Phillips has emerged as one of the better second basemen in baseball. He has remained a consistent contributor on offense, regardless of where he's hit in the lineup.
With runners in scoring position, he's a career .278 hitter with a .782 OPS.
With the game tied, he's a career .273 hitter with a .754 OPS.
With the game late and close, he's a career .266 hitter with a .722 OPS.
He's consistent, but he doesn't raise the bar in any situation.
Brandon Phillips is a solid baseball player, but his name doesn't fall under the column heading of clutch.
Verdict: Not Clutch
47. Mark Trumbo, DH/LF, Los Angeles Angels of Anaheim
FanGraphs Clutch Score: 0.45 (2012), 0.35 (Career)
After a scorching start to the season that saw him hit .306 with 22 home runs, 57 RBI and post a .965 OPS before the All-Star break, Mark Trumbo has disappeared in the second half of the season.
Since early July, Trumbo might as well have not been in the Angels lineup, as he's batting .215 with eight home runs, 26 RBI and only a .613 OPS.
While the drop in production wasn't quite as steep, we saw a second-half slowdown by Trumbo last year as well.
That's a disturbing trend, and not being able to perform for your team down the stretch is an unforgivable offense when it comes to being a clutch player.
Verdict: Not Clutch
46. Paul Konerko, 1B, Chicago White Sox
FanGraphs Clutch Score: -0.91 (2012), -7.60 (Career)
With the exception of having runners in scoring position with two outs, Paul Konerko's clutch numbers are virtually identical to his career numbers: a .283 batting average and an OPS of .859.
When he's had a chance to play in the postseason, Konerko's average is off the mark at .243, but his .854 OPS is exactly where it should be.
Konerko is consistent, but he doesn't elevate his level of play in clutch situations.
Verdict: Not Clutch
45. Jay Bruce, RF, Cincinnati Reds
FanGraphs Clutch Score: -1.05 (2012), -3.07 (Career)
Since breaking in with the Reds in 2005, Jay Bruce has been a consistent producer in the middle of their lineup, putting up an average season where he hits .258 with 33 home runs, 93 RBI and an OPS of .824.
Bruce's numbers with runners in scoring position are along those lines, but he falls short of equaling them in literally every other clutch situation.
Not only that, but the difference in his production against teams under .500 and teams over .500 is striking.
In more than 1,400 plate appearances against losing teams, Bruce has a .271/.350/.549 batting line with 93 home runs and 239 RBI.
In more than 1,000 plate appearances against winning clubs, his numbers drop to a batting line of .242/.313/.416 with 40 home runs and 133 RBI.
Verdict: Not Clutch
44. Roy Halladay, RHP, Philadelphia Phillies
Injuries and ineffectiveness have plagued his 2012 season, but on his resume alone, Roy Halladay remains a top-50 talent in baseball.
Once you get past the two Cy Young Awards, you can look at Hallday's 2.37 ERA and 0.75 WHIP in five postseason starts for evidence that he's a big-game pitcher.
If that's not enough for you, batters have a .247 batting average and .647 OPS against him with runners in scoring position and an even more futile .211/.602 split against him with runners in scoring position and two outs.
43. Craig Kimbrel, RHP, Atlanta Braves
With Mariano Rivera on the shelf, the battle for moniker of "most dominant closer in baseball" is between the Braves' Craig Kimbrel and the Reds' Aroldis Chapman.
No matter the competition or the situation, Kimbrel has been automatic in the ninth inning for the Braves since his breakout 2011 campaign.
He's held opposing batters to a .150/.241/.202 batting line over his short career, numbers that he improves upon with runners in scoring position. With the threat of a run crossing the plate on his mind, Kimbrel holds the opposition to a .112/.233/.143 batting line.
Did I mention he's only 24 years old?
42. Jose Bautista, RF, Toronto Blue Jays
FanGraphs Clutch Score: -0.86 (2012), -2.07 (Career)
It took Jose Bautista six seasons to figure it out, but the 31-year-old has broken out and become one of the great sluggers in the game, clubbing 124 home runs since the start of the 2010 season.
For all of his success going deep, however, Bautista disappears in the clutch.
He's a career .228 hitter with runners in scoring position, a .188 hitter with the bases loaded and a .227 batter when the game is late and close.
Verdict: Not Clutch
41. Adrian Gonzalez, 1B, Los Angeles Dodgers
FanGraphs Clutch Score: 1.43 (2012), 1.98 (Career)
He might have a lower batting average with the Dodgers than people would like, but Adrian Gonzalez has driven in 10 runs over his first 15 games in Dodgers blue and remains a big-time run producer.
A career .293 hitter, Gonzalez raises his average to .327 with runners in scoring position and hits around .300 in nearly every other clutch situation.
It might take him the rest of the season to acclimate to Los Angeles, but there's no mistake about it: Dodgers fans will be screaming "Yo Adrian!" on a nightly basis before long.
40. Evan Longoria, 3B, Tampa Bay Rays
FanGraphs Clutch Score: -0.73 (2012), -1.48 (Career)
The Rays have gone on a tear since Evan Longoria returned to the lineup in early August, vaulting themselves back into contention for the AL East title.
While Longoria has been a run producer over that period of time, picking up 21 RBI over the past 28 games, he has a rather pedestrian .250./.303/.472 batting line—though he has been outstanding with runners in scoring position, hitting .400 with 28 RBI over 60 plate appearances.
Stats aside, any questions about Longoria's ability to come through in the clutch were answered on the final day of the 2011 regular season. With the Rays needing a win against the Yankees (and a Red Sox loss) to make the playoffs, Longoria put the Rays on his back.
Trailing 7-3 with two outs in the bottom of the eighth inning, Longoria crushed a three-run shot to left, cutting the deficit to one.
With the game tied at seven with one out in the bottom of the 12th inning, Longoria went yard again, smoking a line drive down the left field line and into the stands for what would prove to be a game-winning and playoff-clinching home run.
39. Cliff Lee, LHP, Philadelphia Phillies
He hasn't had a Cliff Lee-like season in 2012, but the 34-year-old remains one of the 50 best players in the game today.
Despite garnering Cy Young Award support in 2005, it wasn't until he took home the award in 2008 that he hit his stride.
Over the course of his career, Lee has raised his level of play when the competition called for it.
Against teams below .500, Lee has a 3.93 ERA and 1.24 WHIP, compared with a 3.36 ERA and 1.20 WHIP against clubs over .500.
Even with his recent postseason struggles, Lee has a 7-3 record, 2.52 ERA and 0.93 WHIP over 11 career postseason starts.
38. Jose Reyes, SS, Miami Marlins
FanGraphs Clutch Score: 1.09 (2012), -0.68 (WHIP)
Things haven't gone quite according to plan in Miami this season, and part of the blame falls squarely on the shoulders of Jose Reyes.
Reyes is having a fine 2012, but he's hitting only .262 with runners in scoring position this year as opposed to a .287 mark for his career. A .267 batting average with two outs and runners in scoring position has dropped to .222 in 2012.
FanGraphs gives him high marks this season for his work when things are late and close—a .366 batting average and an OPS of .974—as well as when the game is tied, which finds Reyes batting .321 with a .933 OPS.
But over the course of his career, Reyes has failed to step up his game in the biggest moments.
Verdict: Not Clutch
37. Troy Tulowitzki, SS, Colorado Rockies
FanGraphs Clutch Score: 0.10 (2012), -2.41 (Career)
A perennial MVP candidate when he's healthy and one of the best shortstops in the game, Troy Tulowitzki fails to take his game to the next level when it comes to performing in the clutch.
Sitting with a career batting line of .292/.364/.504, you'd expect Tulo's numbers in the clutch to be .300 or better across the board.
That's not the case. His average drops 10 points with runners in scoring position—close enough to be overlooked.
However, his .234/.327/372 batting line when the game is late and close, coupled with a .211/.270/.351 postseason batting line with one home run and six RBI over 15 games, is proof that he struggles to come through when the Rockies need him the most.
Verdict: Not Clutch
36. Aroldis Chapman, LHP, Cincinnati Reds
While a number of people, including Aroldis Chapman himself, believe that the southpaw is best served by being a starting pitcher, there's no arguing with the success that he's had as the Reds closer.
Leading the National League in saves, Chapman doesn't just shut down opposing offenses, he dominates them. This season, batters are hitting .038 when there are runners in scoring position and two outs.
With runners in scoring position and either one out or nobody out, that number jumps up to .167—still an awful performance by any batting standards.
35. Dustin Pedroia, 2B, Boston Red Sox
FanGraphs Clutch Score: 0.17 (2012), 0.24 (Career)
Routinely mentioned among the best second basemen in the game today, Dustin Pedroia is the unquestioned leader of the Boston Red Sox and someone who leaves it all on the field every night.
A career .303 hitter, Pedroia's numbers in the clutch are all in that general area. While proving that he's a consistent performer, Pedroia isn't really elevating his game.
At the same time, he isn't folding under the pressure either, and there's something to be said for that. Consistency in all situations is something that cannot be overlooked.
34. Derek Jeter, SS, New York Yankees
FanGraphs Clutch Score: -0.08 (2012), 1.31 (Career)
People are quick to point to the fact that Jeter's regular-season performance and postseason performance are nearly identical.
When your numbers are as solid as Jeter's, that's not a bad thing. A career .313 hitter, Jeter has a .307 postseason average over 152 postseason games—meaning he has played almost a full season of baseball in October, making his accomplishments even all the more remarkable.
Besides, you don't get the nickname "Captain Clutch" if you fail to come through in big spots.
33. Carlos Beltran, RF, St. Louis Cardinals
FanGraphs Clutch Score: 0.64 (2012), 3.41 (Career)
Some Mets fans might not agree with me, but Carlos Beltran has made a career out of coming through in clutch situations.
All we have to do is look back to the 2004 NLCS when he put the Houston Astros on his back and almost carried the team to the World Series. Over 12 games, Beltran hit .455 with eight home runs, 14 RBI, 21 runs scored and an OPS of 1.560.
While he didn't move the bat off of his shoulder when the 2006 NLCS came to an end and has struggled mightily in the second half of the 2012 season, Beltran comes through in the clutch far more often than he fails.
32. Giancarlo Stanton, RF, Miami Marlins
FanGraphs Clutch Score: -0.33 (2012), -3.04 (Career)
One of the best-looking young sluggers the game has seen in recent memory, Giancarlo Stanton has a chance to set multiple career bests in a number of offensive categories this season.
While he's been consistent with runners in scoring position, regardless of how many outs there are when he steps to the plate, Stanton has struggled mightily over his career in other clutch situations.
When the game is late and close, Stanton boasts a .196/.310/.407 batting line with 83 strikeouts in just over 200 at-bats.
He's come to the plate more than 400 times when the Marlins were trailing, hitting .245 with an OPS of .830—not a terrible number, but not fantastic either.
Like many of the youngsters who are already top-50 players, they have plenty of time to show that they are indeed clutch players.
But as far as Giancarlo Stanton goes, he's just not there yet.
Verdict: Not Clutch
31. Matt Holliday, LF, St. Louis Cardinals
FanGraphs Clutch Score: -0.16 (2012), -2.83 (Career)
With the exception of 93 games spent with the Oakland A's in 2009, Matt Holliday has been about as consistent a player as you can find in baseball.
An average season for Holliday has been a .314 average with 25 home runs, 96 RBI and a .926 OPS over the course of his career. Those are solid numbers from a player who often seems to fly under the radar, never quite getting his due.
There's virtually no difference between his numbers in clutch situations and his regular-season numbers, and when it comes to playing against tougher competition, his difference in his OPS from when he plays winning teams to when he plays losing teams is .007.
FanGraphs doesn't reward that consistency, but I do.
30. Carlos Gonzalez, LF, Colorado Rockies
FanGraphs Clutch Score: -0.73 (2012), -2.71 (Career)
Carlos Gonzalez can do it all, serving as a great example of a five-tool player.
But Gonzalez's downfall is that he plays in Coors Field, as his home and away splits are incredibly severe.
At Coors Field this season, CarGo has a batting line of .377/.444/.627 with 13 home runs and 57 RBI.
On the road? A forgettable batting line of .235/.307/.417 with nine home runs and 27 RBI.
Gonzalez has to prove that he can consistently hit outside of the confines of his home field before we can call him a clutch player.
Verdict: Not Clutch
29. Madison Bumgarner, RHP, San Francisco Giants
Only 23 years old, Madison Bumgarner has quickly entered the realm of the top 50 players in baseball with another outstanding season toeing the rubber for the Giants in 2012.
As with Matt Cain, we can point to his postseason performance as a good indicator of his ability to pitch in the clutch.
In Game 4 of the 2010 World Series, the Texas Rangers were looking to tie the series at two games apiece against the Giants' 20-year-old rookie southpaw.
Bumgarner stepped up big-time, shutting down a potent Rangers attack by throwing eight innings of shutout baseball, allowing only five baserunners (three hits, two walks) while striking out six.
Did I mention he was 20 years old when he did this?
28. Buster Posey, C, San Francisco Giants
FanGraphs Clutch Score: -0.17 (2012), -1.16 (Career)
Buster Posey has bounced back from the nasty injury that ended his 2011 season prematurely, putting together a season for the Giants that is sure to garner some MVP votes.
A career .308 hitter, Posey steps up when runners are in scoring position, posting a .325 batting average and an OPS of .960. But he struggles in other clutch situations, including runners in scoring position with two outs (.256 BA/.806 OPS), when the game is late and close (.263/.700) and when the Giants are playing from behind (.264/.723).
Posey is still only 25 and just about to enter his prime, so there's plenty of time for him to raise his game across the board.
But right now, it's hard to say that he raises his level of play when the Giants need him most.
Verdict: Not Clutch
27. Joe Mauer, C, Minnesota Twins
FanGraphs Clutch Score: 1.23 (2012), 2.51 (Career)
One of the best catchers in baseball, Joe Mauer is not only the face of the Minnesota Twins, but a case can be made that he is the most clutch batter in baseball.
A career .322 hitter, Mauer lives for clutch moments.
With runners in scoring position, Mauer has a career average of .341. In 2012, he's upped that to .364. That same situation with two outs? A career mark of .353 and a ridiculous .392 in 2012.
There's no doubt about it: You want Joe Mauer taking his turn at bat in any situation.
26. Chris Sale, LHP, Chicago White Sox
Primarily a relief pitcher before this season, Chris Sale has certainly made a smooth transition into the role of starting pitcher.
The 23-year-old southpaw has held opposing batters to a minuscule .225 batting average in 2012, but he's been even tougher once a baserunner reaches second base. With runners in scoring position, Sale buckles down and limits the opposition to a .179 batting average—one of the best in all of baseball.
If there's one knock on Sale, it's that he's allowed the Tigers to hit him hard this season. In three starts against Chicago's stiffest competition for the American League Central crown, Sale has lost all three starts with a 6.00 ERA and 1.56 WHIP.
As a matter of fact, the difference in his splits against sub-.500 teams and those over the .500 mark is significant.
In 14 starts against lesser competition, Sale is 11-2 with a 1.94 ERA. In 12 starts against winning squads, he's 6-4 with a 4.01 ERA.
With a long career ahead of him, Sale has plenty of time to emerge as a big-game pitcher. He's just not there yet.
Verdict: Not Clutch
25. Adam Jones, CF, Baltimore Orioles
FanGraphs Clutch Score: 1.19 (2012), 0.61 (Career)
One of the major reasons for the Orioles' resurgence in 2012 has been the play of Adam Jones, who leads the team in virtually every offensive category.
Whether there are two outs or nobody out, Jones is a career .269 hitter with runners in scoring position. Those numbers don't show Jones raising his game to another level.
That's not to say that he doesn't have his moments, though.
All we have to do is rewind to Game 1 of the recent Yankees-Orioles series, when Jones hit a game-tying home run to lead off the bottom of the eighth inning, atoning for the five runs the Orioles allowed in the top half and setting the tone for two more Orioles home runs in a 10-6 win that put the Orioles atop the AL East.
Not only that, but 11 of Jones' 29 home runs on the season have either tied the game or given the O's the lead in 2012.
Jones is a perfect example of how traditional statistics don't tell the full story.
24. Adrian Beltre, 3B, Texas Rangers
FanGraphs Clutch Score: -0.65 (2012), -7.66 (Career)
For all of his exploits with the glove and the tear he's been on since August, hitting .338 with 12 home runs, 28 RBI and a 1.064 OPS, Adrian Beltre has not been a prime-time player when his teams have needed him the most.
A .270 hitter with runners in scoring position and a .251 hitter with the bases loaded, Beltre falters against the better teams in baseball. His .299 batting average and .864 OPS against teams with a losing record drops to .261 and .750, respectively, against teams over .500.
Verdict: Not Clutch
23. Yadier Molina, C, St. Louis Cardinals
FanGraphs Clutch Score: 1.40 (2012), 5.15 (Career)
I've been saying all season long that Yadier Molina is the best catcher in baseball, and he continues to put up numbers that drive the point home.
A career .279 hitter, Molina raises his average by at least 20 points with runners in scoring position regardless of how many outs there are, as well as when the game is late and close.
This season, Molina has really stepped up his game, batting over .320 and well on his way to setting new career highs in virtually every offensive category.
22. Cole Hamels, LHP, Philadelphia Phillies
Arguably the best left-handed starter in baseball, Cole Hamels has finally emerged from the shadows cast by his teammates Roy Halladay and Cliff Lee to emerge as the unquestioned ace of the Phillies' starting rotation.
In 13 postseason starts, Hamels has a 7-4 record, 3.09 ERA and 1.05 WHIP—a slight improvement over his career ERA of 3.35 and career WHIP of 1.14.
His performance in the 2008 postseason, at the age of 24, was all the evidence that we really needed to see how clutch Hamels truly is.
In his five postseason starts that year, Hamels went 4-0 with a 1.80 ERA, striking out 30 batters over 35 innings of work. Hamels took home NLCS MVP honors after winning both of his starts and holding the Dodgers to three earned runs over 14 innings of work.
21. Matt Cain, RHP, San Francisco Giants
Matt Cain has been pitching in the major leagues since he was 20 years old, but it wasn't until the past few seasons that most of the casual baseball fans took notice of the soon-to-be 29-year-old.
His perfect game earlier this season was indeed an amazing performance, but if you're looking for real proof of Matt Cain being a big-time pitcher, you only need to look at the 2010 postseason.
Cain made three starts for the Giants in those playoffs, one in each round.
Not only did he win all three of his starts, but in the 21.1 innings that he pitched, Matt Cain never allowed a single run while allowing only 13 hits.
20. Gio Gonzalez, RHP, Washington Nationals
Everyone knew Gio Gonzalez was a good pitcher when he was in Oakland, but nobody expected him to erupt as he has in Washington.
Tied for the league lead in wins and among the pitching leaders in virtually every other category, Gonzalez has emerged as one of three legitimate aces on the Nationals staff. He's going to be in the NL Cy Young Award conversation for sure.
Whether he's playing teams under .500 or not, he maintains the same level of performance: a 2.97 ERA and 1.09 WHIP against losing squads; a 2.99 ERA and 1.15 WHIP against winning teams.
We'll get to see my verdict put to the test next month as he leads the Nationals into the playoffs.
19. CC Sabathia, LHP, New York Yankees
One of the best southpaws in the game, CC Sabathia is the unquestioned ace of the Yankees and routinely finishes in the top five of Cy Young Award voting.
Sabathia was certainly clutch in 2008 when he put the Milwaukee Brewers on his back, routinely starting on short rest to get the Brewers into the playoffs. In 17 starts with Milwaukee, Sabathia went 14-3 with a 1.65 ERA and 1.00 WHIP.
He was clutch for the Yankees in the 2009 postseason, pitching to a 1.98 ERA over five starts as the Yankees won the 27th World Series championship in franchise history.
This year, Sabathia hasn't had the same touch.
In three starts against the Baltimore Orioles, Sabathia has gone 0-2 with a 6.38 ERA, including this past Saturday with the AL East lead on the line when he allowed five earned runs and eight hits over 6.1 innings of work.
Sabathia is still a money pitcher, but he's in danger of losing his touch in big spots.
18. David Wright, 3B, New York Mets
FanGraphs Clutch Score: -0.17 (2012), -1.16 (Career)
The past few seasons haven't been good in Flushing, and there's plenty of blame to go around. But one person who stands relatively blameless is David Wright.
Not only is Wright the face of the franchise, but he's been the best player on the Mets since he was called up in 2004 and one of the greatest players in the history of the franchise. Any team-batting records that he doesn't already hold are sure to fall before all is said and done.
A career .294 hitter with runners in scoring position, Wright has been a consistent performer across all clutch situations over the course of his career, with one exception: runners in scoring position with two outs.
In that scenario, Wright is hitting only .254, though he has upped his production this season, batting .346 with 19 RBI.
The postseason is a mixed bag for Wright, as he hit .333 with four RBI in the 2006 NLDS but disappeared in the NLCS, leaving him with a .216/.310/.378 postseason batting line with a home run and six RBI in 10 games.
Overall, Wright is a consistent performer in the clutch—solid, but not exceptional.
16. (Tie) David Price, LHP, Tampa Bay Rays
A contender for the 2012 American League Cy Young Award and one of the best pitchers in baseball, David Price has been outstanding for the Rays in 2012.
He's made 13 starts against AL East foes this year, going 8-2 with a 2.45 ERA and striking out 75 in 84.1 innings of work—no question a key reason why the Rays were able to climb back into contention as the season wore on.
In the most important game of the Rays' 2011 season, Price fell flat, surrendering five earned runs and six hits to the Yankees over only four innings of work in a game that it would take a herculean effort from Evan Longoria to win on September 28.
Price hasn't come through in the postseason, however. He's made three postseason starts for the Rays, losing all three and pitching to a 4.66 ERA.
He'll need to up his game in the clutch if he wants to be included in the conversation of best big-game pitchers in baseball.
Verdict: Not Clutch
16. (Tie) Jered Weaver, RHP, Los Angeles Angels of Anaheim
There's no question that over the first half of the 2012 season, Jered Weaver was clutch.
Prior to the All-Star break, Weaver went 10-1 with a 1.96 ERA and 0.90 WHIP, keeping an up-and-down Angels squad in striking distance of a playoff spot while waiting for players like Albert Pujols to get going.
Since his teammates started hitting, however, Weaver has regressed mightily. Since the All-Star break, Weaver has gone 6-3 with a 4.24 ERA, and over his last six starts, he's 2-3 with a 4.70 ERA.
Regardless of his second-half struggles, there isn't a team in baseball that wouldn't feel comfortable with Weaver taking the ball in the biggest game of the season.
15. Prince Fielder, 1B, Detroit Tigers
FanGraphs Clutch Score: -0.29 (2012), 1.89 (Career)
One of the game's premier sluggers, Prince Fielder might not be putting up the gaudy numbers that some expected he would when he signed with the Tigers this past winter, but he's still having a solid if unspectacular season in Detroit.
Fielder has significantly stepped up this year when coming to the plate with runners in scoring position, hitting .341 overall and .323 with runners in scoring position with two outs—improvements over career marks of .281 and .274, respectively.
His performance in 15 postseason games with the Brewers leaves something to be desired (.192/.317/.500 with four home runs and eight RBI), but Fielder is a big-time run producer and someone with whom you're comfortable taking your chances when you need a big hit.
14. Stephen Strasburg, RHP, Washington Nationals
We will have to wait another year before we get to see Stephen Strasburg pitch in the postseason, but make no mistake about it, the phenom has "clutch" written all over him.
Over the course of his short career, Strasburg has shown the ability to rise to the occasion as the level of competition goes up.
Going 12-7 with a 3.13 ERA and 1.13 WHIP in 27 starts against teams under .500, Strasburg is 9-3 with a 2.66 ERA and 1.03 WHIP in 18 starts against teams over .500.
13. Robinson Cano, 2B, New York Yankees
FanGraphs Clutch Score: -1.22 (2012), -4.89 (Career)
He's the best second baseman in the game and the most dangerous hitter on the most famous professional sports team in the world.
In each of the last four seasons, Cano has batted at least .300 with 25 home runs and 40 doubles.
But he's not a clutch performer.
While he does have nine grand slams to his credit, Cano is a career .270 hitter with runners in scoring position, and Yankees fans have become accustomed to seeing Cano hit a weak ground ball with runners on base ahead instead of driving the ball into an outfield gap.
Verdict: Not Clutch
12. Johnny Cueto, RHP, Cincinnati Reds
The biggest snub at this year's All-Star Game and a candidate for the National League Cy Young Award all season long, Johnny Cueto is a major reason for the Cincinnati Reds' success in 2012.
There's no question that Cueto has been a different pitcher over the past two seasons than he was at the beginning of his career, but even this season his splits show a very un-clutch trend.
Cueto is significantly less effective against teams over .500 than he is against those under .500.
In 2012, Cueto is 3-4 with a 3.32 ERA and 1.27 ERA over nine starts against teams over .500—not terrible numbers by any means. Against losing teams, however, Cueto is 14-3 with a 2.23 ERA and 1.05 WHIP.
His career numbers show the same trend: Cueto has a losing record and an ERA of 4.06 against winning teams, while sitting 20 games over .500 with a 3.13 ERA against teams under the .500 mark.
To his credit, Cueto has upped his game against the two teams still trying to catch the Reds for the National League Central: the Pittsburgh Pirates and St. Louis Cardinals.
In five combined starts against the two, Cueto is 2-1 with a 2.52 ERA and 23 strikeouts in 35.2 innings of work. But that's not enough to overlook the significant drop in performance against the better teams in the league.
Verdict: Not Clutch
11. Joey Votto, 1B, Cincinnati Reds
FanGraphs Clutch Score: 1.49 (2012), 4.74 (Career)
The best first baseman in the National League and one of the 10 best batters in baseball, Joey Votto is a remarkable example of consistency and clutch hitting.
With a career .317/.414/.557 batting line, asking Votto to increase his production in clutch situations is a tall order, but it's one he's filled consistently.
With runners in scoring position, Votto has a .350/.474/.620 batting line with 35 home runs and 306 RBI in just over 600 at-bats.
With the game late and close, it's .323/.432/.558 with 21 home runs and 75 RBI in more than 400 at-bats.
When the Reds are behind, it's .321/.409/.577 with 53 home runs and 161 RBI over more than 1,000 plate appearances.
See the trend?
10. Clayton Kershaw, LHP, Los Angeles Dodgers
We all know that Clayton Kershaw is one of the great pitchers in baseball, but it's pretty extraordinary what he does to opposing lineups.
For his career, opposing batters have a .216/.289/.322 overall batting line against Kershaw.
With runners in scoring position, it drops to .197/.295/.331.
Late and close, it's .196/.294/.298.
Regardless of the situation, the numbers are nearly the same.
When it comes to pitching against the best teams in baseball, Kershaw raises his game.
He sits with a career 30-19 record with a 3.09 ERA and 1.20 WHIP against teams with a record under .500.
Against winning teams, he's 29-17 with a 2.67 ERA and 1.09 WHIP.
9. Albert Pujols, 1B, Los Angeles Angels of Anaheim
FanGraphs Clutch Score: 0.42 (2012), -0.68 (Career)
One of the most potent offensive forces the game has ever seen, Albert Pujols is penalized by FanGraphs for not raising his level of play in clutch situations—but considering how high his usual level of play is, it's ridiculous to expect him to do better.
Pujols' career numbers with runners in scoring position? A .338 batting average and 1.123 OPS.
With the bases loaded? A .382 batting average and 1.124 OPS.
Runners in scoring position and two outs? A .320 batting average and 1.127 OPS.
You get the drift.
8. Matt Kemp, CF, Los Angeles Dodgers
FanGraphs Clutch Score: 0.40 (2012), -4.39 (Career)
Matt Kemp struggles to hit with runners in scoring position and two outs, with a .291 career batting average.
He checks in below his career batting average of .296 in games that are late and close (.278) and when the Dodgers are playing from behind (.286).
His average doesn't get too far away from his regular-season norm in the positive direction either, getting up to .302 when the game is tied.
Since Don Mattingly started working with Kemp, he's become a different baseball player than he was earlier in his career—and that's why I'm going with what I've seen and ignoring the statistics on Kemp in calling him a clutch player.
7. Justin Verlander, RHP, Detroit Tigers
Arguably the best pitcher in the game, Justin Verlander has stepped it up against the team Detroit has battled for AL Central supremacy all season long: the Chicago White Sox.
In two games against their division rivals, Verlander has gone 2-0 with a 1.69 ERA and 0.75 WHIP, limiting them to 13 baserunners over 16 innings of work while fanning 17.
He struggles when he loads the bases, with opponents hitting .351 against him over his career, but he holds the opposition to a .245 batting average with runners in scoring position and has stymied the opposition to no better than a .238 batting average in any other clutch situation.
The one real knock against Verlander would be his postseason performance, which has been nowhere near what you'd expect from a perennial Cy Young Award contender. With a 3-3 record, 5.57 ERA and 1.55 ERA over eight postseason starts, Verlander in October leaves plenty to be desired.
Even with those postseason struggles, you'd be hard-pressed to find a manager in baseball who wouldn't feel confident sending Verlander out to the mound with the season on the line.
6. Josh Hamilton, CF, Texas Rangers
FanGraphs Clutch Score: -0.79 (2012), 2.29 (Career)
Leading all of baseball in home runs and RBI this season, Josh Hamilton continues to state his case as to why he belongs in the conversation for American League MVP and why the Rangers simply cannot afford to let him walk as a free agent this winter.
Some will point to his postseason numbers (.234 BA/.741 OPS) as a sign that Hamilton isn't a clutch player, but let's not forget that the Rangers don't make those postseason appearances without Hamilton's production during the regular season.
Let's not forget that it was Hamilton who jacked a two-run home run in the top of the 10th inning in Game 6 of last year's World Series, putting the Rangers in position to walk out of Busch Stadium with the World Series trophy before Darren Oliver and Scott Feldman gave the lead back in the bottom half of the inning.
With a career .305 batting average and .915 OPS, Hamilton's numbers in clutch situations are as good as, if not better than, his regular-season batting line, including a .311 average and .937 OPS with runners in scoring position.
5. Felix Hernandez, RHP, Seattle Mariners
No matter the opponent or the situation, Felix Hernandez is a big-time, big-game, ready-for-prime-time player.
He dominates the opposition, has thrown a perfect game already this season and allowed four hits or fewer in six of his 29 starts on the season.
Do I really need a slew of stats to back this one up?
4. Andrew McCutchen, CF, Pittsburgh Pirates
FanGraphs Clutch Score: 0.10 (2012), 0.75 (Career)
Most people knew that Andrew McCutchen was a very good baseball player entering 2012, but not even the most ardent Pirates fan could have predicted the season that McCutchen has put together.
The favorite to take home National League MVP honors at the end of the season, he leads the NL in runs scored and hits. If all goes well, he'll overtake the suspended Melky Cabrera for the National League batting crown as well.
McCutchen has had big hit after big hit for the Pirates in 2012, posting a batting line of .339/.439/.551 with runners in scoring position. He sits with an OPS over 1.000 in games that are late and close, tied up or separated by only a run.
The evolution of Andrew McCutchen has moved into the next phase of his development and pushed him near the top of the list when it comes to the best players in baseball.
3. Ryan Braun, LF, Milwaukee Brewers
FanGraphs Clutch Score: -1.02 (2012), -1.46 (Career)
You might look at Ryan Braun and see nothing but asterisks due to his failed drug test at the end of last season, and that's fine—but Braun is one of the dozen-or-so most talented ballplayers on the planet.
To that end, thoughts of Braun not being a clutch player are misleading.
In 15 postseason games, he has a .379 batting average, 1.070 OPS, 11 extra-base hits (two home runs) and 12 RBI.
With a batting average of at least .300 and an OPS of at least .900 in every clutch situation, Braun's clutch score suffers because he doesn't raise his level of play.
Braun maintains a high level of production in all areas of the game, including the clutch.
2. Miguel Cabrera, 3B, Detroit Tigers
FanGraphs Clutch Score: -1.32 (2012), -1.34 (Career)
It seems as if he's been around forever, but Miguel Cabrera is only 28 years old, and there's no reason to think that his days as a perennial MVP candidate and someone who legitimately has a shot at winning a Triple Crown are going to come to an end anytime soon.
With a career .326 average with runners in scoring position (a number he's increased to .368 this season) while also being a career .414 hitter with the bases loaded and having a batting average of at least .300 with a .900 OPS in virtually every clutch situation imaginable, Cabrera is consistently one of the best run producers in the game.
FanGraphs disagrees, but there are few players in the game who you'd want stepping into the batter's box with the season on the line over Cabrera.
1. Mike Trout, CF, Los Angeles Angels of Anaheim
FanGraphs Clutch Score: 0.06 (2012), 0.36 (Career)
We have never seen a 20-year-old put together a season like Mike Trout has in 2012.
The prohibitive favorite to win the American League MVP award, Trout leads the AL in batting average, stolen bases and runs scored.
He struggles in late-and-close situations, batting only .268 with a .720 OPS, but Trout rises to the occasion when the level of competition goes up.
Against teams under .500, he's a .329/.388/.522 hitter. Against teams over .500, he's better, posting a batting line of .330/.398/.603.
For a 20-year-old to show that level of consistency is unheard of—and a reason why Trout is not only the best player in baseball, but someone any team would love to have take a turn at-bat regardless of the situation.