MLB Metrics 101: The Most Clutch Players of Baseball
With barely more than a month left in the 2017 Major League Baseball season, now's the time for players to come through in the clutch.
Some players are more practiced at that than others. Bleacher Report's MLB Metrics 101 is here to point them out.
Hello and welcome back. This week's topic covers the 10 most clutch stars of the 2017 MLB season. The ground rules are:
- Because the term "clutch" is more applicable and more commonly used for hitters than for pitchers, this list is for hitters only.
- A minimum of 400 plate appearances is required for entry.
- Stats are current through play on Wednesday, August 23.
Read on for more on how "clutch" will be defined and for how hitters will be sorted accordingly.
Here's the question to answer: Which hitters are the best at raising their game as the pressure increases?
This requires quantifying pressure, which is what the leverage index is for. In Baseball Reference's words, it "looks at the possible changes in win probability in a given situation" and assigns a corresponding number. This used to be niche stuff, but now even ESPN is working it into its broadcasts.
There are three tiers of leverage: low, medium and high. The higher the leverage, the higher the pressure.
However, be wary of guys such as Joey Votto.
The Cincinnati Reds first baseman has a 1.054 OPS in high-leverage situations. That's outstanding! But he also has a 1.042 OPS in medium-leverage situations and a 1.048 OPS in low-leverage situations. He's not so much a great clutch hitter as he is a great hitter, period.
To avoid hitters like that, the appropriately named "Clutch" is useful.
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: Clutch shows the gap between a hitter's clutch value and what his value would be in a neutral environment. The bigger the gap, the more clutch he is*.
(*Or has been, anyway, as past clutchness is no guarantee of future clutchness. But that's a whole 'nother can of worms.)
For the complete leaderboard, go here. It's now time to focus on the top 10 hitters on that list, complete with full explanations for what sets them apart.
10. Elvis Andrus, Texas Rangers
As a light-hitting shortstop who's rarely found himself in the middle of the Texas Rangers' batting order, Elvis Andrus isn't a stereotypical clutch hitter. But don't tell him that.
"I love it. I love those situations," he said in a video captured by Jeff Wilson of the Star Telegram last year.
Andrus walks the walk, as his career .767 OPS in high-leverage situations is his best in any situation. And the 28-year-old's leverage splits reveal how he's taking his clutch hitting to a new level in 2017:
- Low Leverage: .775 OPS
- Medium Leverage: .784 OPS
- High Leverage: .964 OPS
Andrus' 33 high-leverage hits lead all hitters. He's also hit two of his career-high 16 home runs in high-leverage spots, which is half as many high-leverage homers as he had before 2017. The biggest of the bunch was a seventh-inning three-run shot that tied a game against the Tampa Bay Rays on May 30.
Between this and the fact he also leads the team in wins above replacement, there's a solid argument for Andrus as the Rangers' most important player of 2017.
9. Cody Bellinger, Los Angeles Dodgers
Even as he resides on the disabled list, Cody Bellinger is running away the National League Rookie of the Year race. He has a .968 OPS and 34 home runs, putting him just four shy of the NL rookie record.
And like Andrus, Bellinger only gets better as the leverage gets higher. His 1.346 OPS in high-leverage situations is easily the highest among all hitters who've nabbed over 70 plate appearances in such situations. His nine high-leverage homers rank second.
If it feels like he's hit more high-pressure homers than that, that's probably because he's tended to hit his homers late in games. He's gone deep 16 times between innings seven and nine, which leads all hitters.
The catch is that Bellinger, 22, hits too well in lower-leverage situations to grade out as an even better clutch hitter. All the same, his clutch hitting does help contextualize his importance to the Los Angeles Dodgers.
Want more Dodgers? Get the new B/R app to track Bellinger and the rest of the team.
8. Anthony Rizzo, Chicago Cubs
Anthony Rizzo is the Chicago Cubs' antithesis to Kris Bryant.
Bryant, the reigning NL MVP, is an excellent player who does many things well. But hitting in the clutch isn't one of them. He's dangerous in low- and medium-leverage situations, but his OPS crumbles to just .471 in high-leverage situations. Thus, he's actually the least clutch hitter in MLB.
- Low Leverage: .860 OPS
- Medium Leverage: .956 OPS
- High Leverage: .926 OPS
Just like Bellinger, Rizzo's clutchness has been highly visible. He's hit 11 of his 28 homers between innings seven and nine. To boot, half of his homers have come with runners on base.
This doesn't necessarily make Rizzo a better player than Bryant, but it makes it possible to see them as two sides of a coin.
7. Alcides Escobar, Kansas City Royals
Consider this an excuse to say something nice about one of the worst players in baseball.
Alcides Escobar has minus-1.1 WAR, ranking him seventh from the bottom among batting title qualifiers. The primary culprit is a .585 OPS that ranks behind only Kansas City Royals teammate Alex Gordon for the worst of the worst.
Escobar's saving grace is that his bat has been most useless in situations where it hasn't needed to be especially useful. The 30-year-old's .471 OPS in low-leverage situations is the worst in baseball by 58 points over the next guy (Tim Anderson).
Add a little pressure to the situation, however, and Escobar wakes up with a .649 OPS in medium-leverage and a .702 OPS in high-leverage. And it's a good thing he does, as Salvador Perez is the only Royals hitter who faces higher pressure on average than Escobar does.
Escobar still accounts for a team-low minus-1.4 WPA despite all this, so the value of his clutchness must be taken with a grain of salt. But, hey, at least it's something.
6. George Springer, Houston Astros
As the leadoff hitter for a Houston Astros team that scores a ton of runs, George Springer doesn't get to tackle many high-leverage situations. He mostly gets medium-leverage situations.
But as the saying goes: When life gives you medium-leverage lemons, make medium-leverage lemonade.
The 27-year-old has faced 247 plate appearances in medium-leverage situations and has tackled them with an MLB-high 1.094 OPS and 22 of his 28 homers. Only Giancarlo Stanton, he of the MLB-high 46 dingers, has slugged more medium-leverage homers.
In case all this is sounding like faint praise, not to be ignored is that one of Springer's high-leverage hits is one of the biggest hits of the season.
The walk-off three-run homer he hit on April 5 came in the 13th inning with two outs and the Astros down a run. They had just a 17 percent chance of winning. Springer's homer boosted that 83 points to 100.
5. Melky Cabrera, Kansas City Royals
There are professional hitters, and there are Professional Hitters™. Melky Cabrera is turning into the latter.
"He's a professional hitter who in certain situations just kind of seems to rise to the occasion," said Chicago White Sox manager Rick Renteria in July, according to Chris Kue of the Chicago Tribune.
Perhaps Renteria didn't have Cabrera's leverage splits in front of him when he said this, but they would have confirmed his talking point. The 33-year-old is having a solid year in general, but he's saved his best work for high-leverage situations, posting a 1.005 OPS and hitting six of his 16 homers.
Cabrera's clutch act has carried over to Kansas City. Although he's been with the team for less than a month, he's already produced three of his season's nine most impactful hits in a Royals uniform. The biggest of the bunch was a two-run eighth-inning homer that burned his former team.
Cabrera is already climbing the Royals' Clutch and WPA ranks despite his short tenure with the team. If he keeps that up, he could be one of the key reasons they find themselves back in the postseason.
4. Joe Mauer, Minnesota Twins
Perhaps Joe Mauer got tired of hearing he wasn't clutch.
For reference, here's something Michael Rand wrote in the Star Tribune in 2015: "Maybe Mauer just isn't very 'clutch'? That theory was espoused on Twitter last night (and in Minnesota living rooms for a decade). Anecdotally, it feels like it has merit."
Throughout his career, Mauer's been basically the same hitter regardless of leverage. Maybe that doesn't spell "unclutch," but it's proof that he usually hasn't gotten better in the clutch.
This season has been a different story. As the leverage has gone up, so has Mauer's OPS:
- Low Leverage: .616 OPS
- Medium Leverage: .850 OPS
- High Leverage: 1.024 OPS
Nothing symbolizes the 34-year-old's change like the walk-off homer he hit against the Boston Red Sox in May. He'd played 13 major league seasons and hit 131 major league homers before that, yet it was somehow just his first walk-off job.
3. Mookie Betts, Boston Red Sox
The Red Sox don't hit many homers but are always putting runners on base and threatening to score. Thus, they attract pressure situations as well as any team.
Mookie Betts tends to find himself in the middle of it. And fortunately for the Red Sox, he can handle it.
He's yet another hitter who gets better as the leverage gets higher and is one of only 11 players who've come to the plate in high-leverage situations more than 110 times. And of those players, his .900 OPS in such situations ranks third behind only Steven Souza Jr. and Paul Goldschmidt.
Betts' biggest hit came just last week. When he doubled to drive home two runs and deliver a walk-off win against the St. Louis Cardinals, he took the Red Sox's win probability from 18 percent to 100 percent. That's an 82-point swing that nearly matches Springer's 13th-inning homer.
2. Nolan Arenado, Colorado Rockies
"What can Nolan Arenado not do?" remains a good question.
The Colorado Rockies third baseman is on his way to his fifth straight Gold Glove and is still hitting homers (29) and driving in runs (108) after leading the National League in homers and RBI in 2015 and 2016. He's also continuing his habit of being an outstanding clutch hitter:
- Low Leverage: .898 OPS
- Medium Leverage: .974 OPS
- High Leverage: 1.181 OPS
"I want the moment, the at-bat," Arenado said recently of clutch situations, per Tracy Ringolsby of MLB.com. "I don't like failing in them, but I don't mind them. I feel as comfortable as you can be in that situation."
1. Albert Pujols, Los Angeles Angels
The 37-year-old has always been a terrific clutch hitter, however, and that skill remains intact in 2017. He's come to the plate in high-leverage situations 100 times and produced a .900 OPS and 47 RBI, the most of any player.
None of this is lost on the Los Angeles Angels.
"Our analysis, our viewpoint is that in Albert's case, we're seeing a guy that still has a lot of presence in the middle of the order," Angels general manager Billy Eppler said in June, according to Bill Shaikin of the Los Angeles Times. "He impacts the baseball, and he has big at-bats."
The .598 OPS Pujols has in lower-leverage situations hasn't been a painless experience for the Angels. He also does nothing on defense or the basepaths. So, his MLB-low minus-1.8 WAR can't be discounted.
Data courtesy of Baseball Reference.