MLB Metrics 101: The Least Clutch Players of Baseball
Last week, Bleacher Report's MLB Metrics 101 honored players who make diamonds under pressure. Now it's time to scorn players whose pipes burst under pressure.
Hello and welcome back. This week's topic covers the 10 least clutch players of the 2017 Major League Baseball season. Here are the ground rules:
- Same as last week, this list is reserved for hitters. The term "clutch" is more applicable and certainly more commonly used for them than it is for pitchers.
- A minimum of 400 plate appearances are required for entry.
- Stats are current through play Tuesday.
Read on for more on how "clutch" will be defined and for how hitters will be sorted accordingly.
This week's question is the opposite of last week's query: Which players are the worst at raising their games as the pressure increases?
The leverage index is the linchpin of this exercise. It quantifies, in Baseball Reference's words, "the possible changes in win probability in a given situation." It's the key ingredient in the win probability percentages that are now appearing in ESPN broadcasts.
Leverage falls into three categories: low, medium and high. The higher the leverage, the higher the pressure.
The trick is to avoid hitters like Mark Trumbo. The Baltimore Orioles slugger has a lousy .633 OPS in high-leverage situations but also modest OPSes in medium leverage (.735) and low leverage (.706). He's not so much unclutch as he is just...well, not good.
This is where the appropriately named "clutch" comes in handy.
Found at both Baseball Reference (which is the preference here) and FanGraphs, clutch is calculated by averaging a hitter's win probability contributions (WPA) with the average leverage he's faced (aLI) and subtracting his hypothetical context-neutral contributions (WPA/LI) from the equation.
In plain English: It shows the gap between a hitter's clutch value and what his value would be in a neutral environment. The further below zero the number goes, the less clutch the hitter is.
For the complete leaderboard, go here. It's now time to wag a finger at the bottom 10 hitters on that list.
10. Ian Kinsler, Detroit Tigers
- Low Leverage: .838 OPS
- Medium Leverage: .671 OPS
- High Leverage: .606 OPS
To be fair to the 35-year-old, he's had only 64 high-leverage plate appearances. That's roughly half of Brandon Crawford's MLB-high 125 high-leverage plate appearances. Such is the life of a leadoff man for a Detroit Tigers team whose American League-worst pitching often puts games out of reach.
Still, it's on Kinsler to tackle what pressure situations he does encounter. And he just hasn't. All told, he's subtracted from Detroit's win probability in 43 of the 64 high-leverage situations he's faced.
Hitting in the clutch isn't everything, but not doing it can raise questions about how valuable a player is. Such is the case with Kinsler, who's rated as one of Detroit's worst players by win probability added despite being rated as one of their best by wins above replacement.
9. David Peralta, Arizona Diamondbacks
David Peralta is back to being a steady producer after a rough 2016, with the majority of his damage coming in low-pressure situations. The 30-year-old has a .990 OPS in low leverage that ranks among the best in MLB.
This isn't a bad thing, mind you. Since he bats at the top of the Arizona Diamondbacks' lineup, his job is set the table more so than it is to hit in the clutch. His low-leverage mastery is him doing his job.
It must also be said that his .752 OPS in high-leverage situations is neither embarrassing nor an entirely hollow number. He's produced some clutch hits, most notably a game-tying ninth-inning home run off St. Louis Cardinals closer Seung Hwan Oh back in June.
However, hits like that have been few and far between for Peralta. It's the only run-scoring hit he's produced in his 23 highest-leverage plate appearances. Altogether, he's hurt Arizona's win probability in 49 of 74 high-leverage opportunities.
8. Ender Inciarte, Atlanta Braves
Hitting in the clutch is even less of a job requirement for Ender Inciarte than it is for Peralta. Still, the Atlanta Braves would surely love it if he at least dabbled in it from time to time.
Instead, Inciarte goes from being steady in low and medium leverage to invisible in high-leverage situations:
- Low Leverage: .765 OPS
- Medium Leverage: .793 OPS
- High Leverage: .482 OPS
Inciarte has done his high-leverage disappearing act over 80 plate appearances. Only one other player who's reached that mark has produced a worse OPS—take a bow, Todd Frazier.
Granted, Inciarte is more of a batting-average merchant than an OPS merchant. But at .191, his average in high-leverage situations isn't great either. Nor has he saved his hits for especially pressing times. The 24 highest-leverage plate appearances he's had this season have produced only three hits.
7. Adam Jones, Baltimore Orioles
Adam Jones is having a typical season. He's giving the Baltimore Orioles solid power on offense and, albeit less than great, passable everyday defense in center field.
- Low Leverage: .752 OPS
- Medium Leverage: .883 OPS
- High Leverage: .675 OPS
That's not the worst high-leverage OPS in the world, and some legitimately big hits have boosted it. The biggest, for example, was a go-ahead two-run homer off Tampa Bay Rays ace Chris Archer in April.
The catch is that Jones has loaded the bulk of his high-leverage hits on the low end of the spectrum. That's why FanGraphs puts his high-leverage OPS at just .576, as its bar for "high" leverage isn't as forgiving as the one at Baseball Reference.
Even for Baseball Reference, Jones has done more harm than good in high leverage, lowering Baltimore's win probability in 50 of 72 opportunities. That's how he can be one of the worst on the team in WPA despite being one of the best on the team in WAR.
6. Lucas Duda, Tampa Bay Rays
Lucas Duda has been as advertised for the Tampa Bay Rays after coming over from the New York Mets in July. In 29 games, he owns an .817 OPS and eight homers.
- Low Leverage: .933 OPS
- Medium Leverage: .900 OPS
- High Leverage: .603 OPS
Similar to Jones, what high-leverage damage Duda has falls toward the low end of the spectrum. And overall, he's hurt his team's win probability in 54 of 80 high-leverage plate appearances.
The 31-year-old is starting to find the redemption he seeks, however. He's saved two of his three high-leverage homers for the Rays, including a game-tying homer off New York Yankees setup man David Robertson on July 29 in just his second game with the Rays.
Duda was the least clutch player on the Mets. So far with the Rays, he's broken even with a 0.0 clutch. Just as a player can be clutch until he's not, Duda is proving a player can be unclutch until he's not.
5. Alex Bregman, Houston Astros
Alex Bregman is one of the most overlooked stars in MLB.
After authoring an impressive breakout late last season, the 23-year-old is now rocking an .842 OPS with 16 homers and 14 stolen bases. He started slowly but has gotten more dangerous at the plate over time.
Even Bregman's leverage splits don't look that terrible at first glance. His .982 low-leverage OPS is the best he has, but he has a .756 OPS in high-leverage situations that he doesn't need to be embarrassed about.
There are nits to pick, however. Bregman has six more double plays (seven) in high-leverage than he has home runs (one). His 30 biggest plate appearances have produced only three run-scoring hits. In total, he's hurt Houston's win probability in 54 of 84 high-leverage opportunities.
And yet, hitting in the clutch is another thing he's figuring out. His two biggest hits of the season both came in August, including a huge ninth-inning, game-tying triple off Toronto Blue Jays closer Roberto Osuna.
"The most confident part of Bregman's game is his confidence," Astros manager A.J. Hinch said, per David Barron of the Houston Chronicle. "He comes across with such ease that he believes he is going to be the guy."
4. Paul Goldschmidt, Arizona Diamondbacks
It's about time there was a reason to criticize Paul Goldschmidt.
The Arizona Diamondbacks first baseman is putting up yet another MVP-caliber season, but a flaw can be found in his high-leverage performance:
- Low Leverage: 1.014 OPS
- Medium Leverage: 1.092 OPS
- High Leverage: .942 OPS
That's not a bad high-leverage OPS, but it's not on the level of his medium- and low-leverage OPSes. As the pressure mounts, Goldschmidt struggles to achieve Goldschmidt-ian excellence.
But the real problem is that the high-leverage damage Goldschmidt has done barely qualifies as that. His 30 high-leverage hits fall on the low end of the spectrum. That includes each of his six home runs.
Hence, why the 29-year-old registers zero high-leverage homers and just a .668 high-leverage OPS amid FanGraphs' pickier standards. And if you go searching for the highest-leverage situation in which he's done damage this season, you have to go all the way back to his eighth-inning RBI single on Opening Day.
3. Aaron Judge, New York Yankees
The Yankees are mainly worried about snapping Aaron Judge out of his second-half slump. But even if he can do that, he'll still have to find his way out of clutch purgatory.
The rookie's leverage splits break down like so:
- Low Leverage: 1.045 OPS
- Medium Leverage: .963 OPS
- High Leverage: .924 OPS
Like Goldschmidt, part of the reason Judge's clutch is in the red is that he sets such a high bar to clear with his hitting in lower-pressure situations. His OPS in low leverage, for instance, ranks third in the league.
To read more on Aaron Judge and the Yankees' battle for a 2017 playoff spot, download the free B/R app.
But also like Goldschmidt, Judge's relatively strong performance in high leverage doesn't tell the whole story.
He gets a reality check under FanGraphs' higher standards for high leverage, as he goes from a .924 OPS and seven homers to a .912 OPS and four homers. And even for Baseball Reference, he's hurt the Yankees' win probability in 65 of 107 high-leverage plate appearances.
Thus, he only ranks fifth on the Yankees in WPA despite ranking first in WAR. Whereas Goldschmidt's clutch struggles are a mere inconvenience for the Diamondbacks, Judge's are a burden for the Yankees.
2. Jose Ramirez, Cleveland Indians
Jose Ramirez broke out in 2016 and has spent 2017 putting to rest any notions that his breakout was a one-hit wonder. He has an .886 OPS and leads the Cleveland Indians in WAR.
But the 24-year-old isn't clutch, as his leverage splits make clear:
- Low Leverage: .993 OPS
- Medium Leverage: .898 OPS
- High Leverage: .562 OPS
Only one of Ramirez's 20 homers has come in a high-leverage spot. And while it looks better that 20 of his 62 RBI have come in high leverage, that's not a face-saving factoid as far as win probability is concerned. He's hurt Cleveland's chances of winning in a whopping 72 of 96 high-leverage opportunities.
This doesn't mean Ramirez can't be clutch, period. Indeed, high leverage was when he did his best work last season. If he could do that once, he can do it again in the future.
But in the present, Ramirez's failures in the clutch are a big "Yeah, but..." on his 2017 resume. They explain how he could lead the Indians in WAR yet be one of their worst players in WPA.
1. Kris Bryant, Chicago Cubs
Behold, the one and only knock against MLB's most decorated young star.
But in high leverage, he's downright bad with a .492 OPS in 96 plate appearances. A stat called "tOPS+" shows that, relative to his overall performance, this makes Bryant MLB's worst high-leverage performer:
The 2015 National League Rookie of the Year and 2016 NL MVP isn't completely without high-leverage success stories. To wit, Bryant has a couple of late-inning, game-tying hits to his name this season.
But on the whole, the 25-year-old's drop-off in high-leverage situations has hurt the Chicago Cubs about as much as expected. He's hurt their win probability in 64 of 96 opportunities and only ranks fourth on the team in WPA despite being its leader in WAR.
What should really scare the Cubs is that this is nothing new. Bryant is the least clutch player in MLB over the last two seasons, and it's not especially close.
Most clutch track records can and should be easily ignored. Bryant's is a mystery worth solving.